Historian and Website Developer

Check out the website I have developed for professional historian, Judith Nissen.

I have been very quiet on this blog over the last year. It may look like this duck is gliding quietly through life, but underneath it all I have been paddling furiously.

Over the last year I have been developing websites. This involves getting under the hood and doing some coding. You see, I am a hybrid creature. I am a writer, but I am also a bit of a geek. I learned programming at school and university while qualifying as an accountant. Early in my working life I scared the men in my audit team by suggesting we use a spreadsheet. This was an avant-garde suggestion in 1986 and one that they could not countenance. Over the years I found myself being the unofficial interface between the IT support team and the struggling users of technology in the various offices where I worked. I enjoy explaining technical concepts in everyday language, but I can also flip and communicate to IT developers so they get the information they need to hear. Continue reading

Australian Professional Historians and Conference Excellence

Hello again! I have been very busy the last couple of months with some projects that will come to light in due course. But one of the causes of my ‘busyness’ was one of the best conferences I have attended. Read on…

Banner of the PHA VIC“Things they never taught me at history school” was the topic of a panel at last month’s national conference of the Professional Historians Association of Australia, but it could have been an alternative title for the event. The ‘Working History’ conference held in Melbourne was unlike any other history conference I have attended because it was about professional practice, not the findings from our research.

History is a profession. Universities are influential employers of historians. There are also people who are professional genealogists and family historians. These people have many years of experience and often have certificates of qualification in this field.

I belong to another group of historians who are represented by the Professional Historians Association of Australia. We run history consultancy businesses, work in galleries, libraries, archives, museums and governments. We do all sorts of work from heritage assessments to curating exhibitions to writing and presenting history on websites. Among other things this year I have been part of a multi-national team working on a biography of a successful business man originally from Queensland who died in the 1960s.

Professional consulting historians come across different issues to those working in academia. We have to run a business and need to meet and guide the expectations of clients. We are often working in the field of public history. The history we produce needs to appeal to audiences who are not trained in history and may only have a passing interest in it.

The Professional Historians of Australia has a branch in most states. I belong to the New South Wales and ACT branch. The national organisation and each branch has a website where anyone who wants to hire an historian can get guidance on how to hire an historian and a list of historians available for hire and their contact details. There are also some guidelines on fees for hiring consulting professional historians which is useful for negotiating contracts.

Working History Conference

Last month I presented at the Working History conference organised by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria together with the national body. The program was excellent. Over two days we discussed the particular issues that we face in our professional practices. This conference was not about the outcomes of our research – there are plenty of conferences that do that. The Working History conference was about how we run our businesses, communicating history, ethics, meeting the needs of clients etc. Around one hundred historians from around Australia and New Zealand attended.

It has been over a month since the conference ended but I found it so valuable that this week I went back over my notes and the conference tweets.   Continue reading

Reflections on a Day at Digital Humanities Australasia 2016

A ship moored at a dock with warehouse and containers on the dock.

While we were ensconced in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies building, Australia’s icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, was being loaded next door.

The field of Digital Humanities has been a significant influence on the way I work. There are many debates about the nature of Digital Humanities is but very broadly it covers the work humanities researchers do when they study the use of digital technology in society, adopt research methods which draw heavily on digital technology and present their findings using digital technology.

I follow experts in digital humanities on Twitter and read their blog posts. Through this I have deepened my understanding in using technology to explore World War I diaries, mine Trove for information and convert old documents into machine-readable form. You can read more about the technical details of what I am doing on Stumbling Through the Futuremy Digital Humanities blog. What I do is relatively simple but I owe it all from listening to experts on the internet and at conferences.

I was planning on visiting Hobart sometime for research and to visit family, but that sometime was hastened when I found out that the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities were holding their annual conference in Hobart. The Association had secured some thought-provoking digital humanists for their keynote sessions and I wanted to be there. Yesterday I sat in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies on the waterfront engrossed in some fascinating sessions. Continue reading

Second-Hand Bookshopping in Brisbane

Hubble and I enjoy rummaging through second-hand bookshops. They are treasure troves. I buy some new books, but I am building up my Australian history collection by finding out of print, sometimes obscure gems in second-hand bookshops. Often these books are hard to find in a library near me – particularly if they solely relate to a state other than the state in which I live. I visited two great second-hand bookshops while I was in Brisbane recently. I left Sydney with a 10kg suitcase and returned with a 20kg suitcase full of second-hand books.

Red brick building with 'Archives Fine Books' sign at the bottom and "John Mills Himself' formed in concrete at the top.

Archives Fine Books in Charlotte Street, Brisbane

Book cover

Soldiers of the Service Vol II, edited by Eddie Clarke and Tom Watson (Church Archivists’ Press, 1999).

For a number of years I have been visiting Archives Fine Books in Charlotte Street. Recently I found a large room at the back of the shop that I had not been aware of. In this room I found Soldiers of the Service Volume II: More Early Queensland Educators and their Schools. Not too many people would get excited by this title, but it should be a good reference book for my work about the history of education in Queensland. I bought it because I thought it would be difficult to borrow from a library in Sydney where I live. Not only is it available in very few libraries, there was not one image of the front cover on the internet until I photographed my own and uploaded it. Now I need to find a copy of Volumes I and III. Given the interest in this book (see comments) I have added a list of the chapter titles of this book at the end of this post.

I also picked up some old school readers. School readers are generally not digitised. I am purchasing readers when I can so that I can digitise them at home using my camera, a cardboard box, a lamp and some optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert print to machine readable text using these instructions. Once I have done this I can easily analyse the text in these readers.

Continue reading

Refugees: Custodians of a Nation’s History

Book cover with face of Manijeh Saatchi

Manijeh: Not only a change of name by Manijeh Saatchi with the assistance of Fereshteh Hooshmand (George Ronald: 2014).

The people we share a train carriage with on the way to work, the hundreds we pass in a busy shopping centre, all these people carry a story within them. Each story is changing, developing and interlinked with others. Each story is a multi-faceted tile that helps to build the complex, mosaic of human life on this planet.

Fortunately for us Brisbane resident, Manijeh Saatchi, with the help of her daughter, Fereshteh Hooshmand, has shared her memories in the book, Manijeh: Not only a change of name. It is a classic tale of an ostensibly ordinary person who has faced extraordinary hurdles in her life. In telling it, she takes us to a culture, time and place very different to our own.

Manijeh Saatchi was born in 1929 in Iran to a poor family. It was a hard life, and was not made easier when Manijeh and her husband, Javad, decided to change their religion and become members of the Baha’i Faith.

Manijeh and Javad lived in the southern city of Shiraz. Less than one hundred years before they became members of the Baha’i community, a young Shirazi merchant had caused a tumult throughout the Persia, as Iran was then called. He became known as The Báb (pronounced Bahb) and urged all to prepare themselves for the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messenger of God. His message captivated the nation but many were opposed and the followers of The Báb suffered terribly from the prejudice and violence which ensued. Nineteen years later Baha’u’llah, the son of a Persian nobleman, declared He was the Messenger of God about Whom The Báb was referring. Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith on the principle of bringing harmony among the diverse peoples of the world, yet the followers of this new religion suffered terribly from prejudice and repression fanned by those in power. Waves of violence against Baha’is in Persia were always around the corner.

Despite his peace-loving nature, the neighbourhood children could often be heard calling him ‘kafar’, which meant infidel. The children would not include him in any game which included physical contact, as they would say that he was ‘najess’ or unclean.

Manijeh had witnessed the harassment of Baha’is during her childhood. She and Javad knew her lives would not be easy when they became Baha’is. Facing poverty and rejected by their families they moved to the southern port city of Bushehr where they became custodians for the building from which The Báb had worked a century before. Continue reading

A Digitisation Scandal That Isn’t

book lying on a box cut in half with a lamp and camera (and tripod) overlooking the book

The equipment that the State Library of New South Wales uses for their digitisation program is a lot more sophisticated than that used in my budget digitisation studio.

A few days ago I woke to some startling news, “NSW state library to turn $3bn collection over to private sector: In exchange for free digitisation” the headline from ITNews screamed. I started huffing with indignation about this scandal but I read the article which followed very carefully, then downloaded and read the tender documents as well as the Library’s most recent Annual Report. Often things are not what they seem.

And so it was with this article. The Library is not selling any of its collections or giving them away in exchange for digitisation. It turns out that the Library is merely offering private operators “access” to historical items so they can digitise the items then return the items promptly. The headline is clearly misleading. From what I can see, the article is about a fairly typical digitisation project that many of Australia’s cultural institutions have been undertaking for a number of years now.

There were problems in the article itself. The Library’s ‘Digital Excellence Program’is a major multi-million dollar digitisation program funded by the state government which commenced in July 2012. Thus the Library is not even half way through this program, yet the ITNews article claimed that the Library was near the end of this project with the implied criticism that the Library had failed to digitise many items during this project. The article linked to an ITNews article published earlier this year about the State Library’s program which said that the Library “nearing completion” of the first phase of this significant project. This has been an essential overhaul of the Library’s “infrastructure and systems”. That would seem to be a wise move. It makes sense to upgrade systems before a massive increase in data generated by digitisation.

Continue reading

War, Emotions and Beliefs

Melbourne Museum sign

It is hard to get a good photo of the aircraft hangar like building that contains the Melbourne Museum. While the outside of the building may look uninspiring, the exhibitions inside of the building are well worth a visit.

Over the last few months I have been dealing with life, the universe and the mundane. I had so much on my plate that I regretfully decided to reduce the pressure by taking a pause on my blog. But I am back! Over the next few weeks I will share some of what I have been doing. Today I thought I would give you an update on my book project.

When I was in Melbourne for the birth of our first grandchild I took the opportunity to attend the War and Emotions Symposium at Melbourne Museum. Over the last year there have been many war conferences, books, exhibitions, television series and other events hoping to catch the interest of people during the centenary of World War I. I couldn’t possibly give attention to all, and frankly, too many are superficial or cross the line by glorifying war but I’m so pleased I had the chance to attend the War and Emotions Symposium. Continue reading