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

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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

Women were Among the World’s First Computer Programmers

The first published computer program was written by a woman. The programmers of the world’s earliest digital computers were women. The inventor of the significant technology behind the most widely used programming language in the twentieth century was a woman. The software which was responsible for the first landing of men on the moon was written by a programming team led by a woman.

Clearly women are capable of being excellent programmers, but in a classic example of our culture preventing natural abilities from shining, the information technology industry is dominated by men. Worse, girls in the West are still growing up in societies that expect them not to be as good at using information technology as boys, or interested in becoming information technology professionals.

A little bit of history demonstrates how wrong those attitudes are.

This week Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated around the world to recognise women’s achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It is named in honour of the women who is widely recognised as the world’s first programmer – Ada Lovelace.

Painting of Lovelace wearing a purple Victorian-era dress and Victorian-era fancy hairstyle.

Ada Lovelace is the stated author of what is now recognised as the world’s first published computer program in 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Her parents had separated when she was a baby and her mother ensured that she had a mathematical education to counter what her mother saw as the ‘madness’ of Byron’s poetical mind. She was mentored by another important nineteenth century female scientist, Mary Somerville. Through Somerville Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the forerunner to modern computers. Ada Lovelace claimed to write instructions for Babbage’s Analytical Engine even though the machine had not been built. She had to work off Babbage’s plans for this complex machine and discussions with him.

The instructions for the Analytical Engine that Lovelace claimed to write are now regarded as the first published computer program.

However, there is an ongoing debate about how much of this was her work and how much was that of Babbage himself. Clearly Babbage would have had to, at the very least, devise some simple instructions while creating this machine and to check his design. Hence I have observed that Lovelace was the stated author of the world’s first published program. (See Addendum at the end of this post for more discussion about this debate)

What was probably even more insightful about her work was her observation that the machine could be used to run many sorts of different programs. In Ada Lovelace’s ground breaking paper published in 1842, she observed:

The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, is not merely adapted for tabulating the results of one particular function and of no other, but for developing and tabulating any function whatever. In fact the engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity

Ada Lovelace also considered the question of artificial intelligence:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.

(Wow, I became so absorbed by Ada Lovelace’s work that I am reading some of her paper from 1842.)

Nearly one hundred years later, computing pioneer, Alan Turing picked up on Ada Lovelace’s arguments about artificial intelligence to develop his own thinking in this area. (Turing’s article from 1950 is another interesting one that has side-tracked me somewhat.)

Ada Lovelace was an important pioneer in information technology, but she was not the only one. Continue reading