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.

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A Jewel in the Australian City of Literature

read description below.

The stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. In the centre is a raised platform where librarians in bygone days used to sit and police the silence.

I have had the pleasure of doing some research at the State Library of Victoria while in Melbourne for the birth of our granddaughter.  Melbourne was the second city in the world to be designated a ‘City of Literature‘ by UNESCO. Melbourne has had a long love of books. The State Library of Victoria was one of the first public libraries in Australia (officially opened in 1856), but it continues to be loved and heavily used by the public. Increasingly tourists are visiting this Library to view the magnificent building.

Old book, computer plugged into one of the desks and an old chair to sit on.

My little place in the La Trobe Reading Room. It is a lovely mix of new and old. There are many power points in the old desks and wi-fi is available throughout the Library.

The stunning La Trobe Reading Room is a joy to work in. The room is flooded with daylight from the glass dome which soars thirty-five metres above. Even on one of Melbourne’s many dismal grey cloudy days, the dome and the white walls lift my spirits while I am working.

The La Trobe Reading Room was designed on panopticon principles, with a central raised platform in the middle of the room where in days gone by, a librarian would be perched to police the silence. Today no-one sits there. Apparently noise can be a problem in the room, but it has never bothered me. I find it difficult to concentrate in silence.

I have always wanted to do more photography at the Library so in breaks from reading World War I diaries I have been roaming around taking photos. Continue reading

International Researchers Value Work of Australian Libraries and Archives

Trove logoParticipants at the recent Global Digital Humanities conference will remember the prominent contributions of Australian historians, Tim Sherratt, Julia Torpey and Peter Read. But I also want to highlight the more low profile but no less important contribution of Australian cultural institutions in bringing Australian historical records to world attention.

Australian governments and other funding bodies have shown international leadership by funding significant digitisation programs that have are freely accessible to the people of the world. This contribution to the world’s bank of knowledge is inestimable. As I listened to the papers presented at the Global Digital Humanities Conference I was struck by just how significant digitised Australian historical sources are for researchers around the world.

The Trove website is the flagship of Australia’s digitisation programs. Led by the National Library of Australia, with significant contributions from Australia’s state libraries, it is truly a treasure trove of all sorts of digitised items, including its famed digitised newspapers as well as the catalogue records of hundreds of cultural institutions around Australia. It is a massive online resource.

We would expect Australian researchers to embrace this resource, as they do, but researchers from other countries are also using Trove’s resources in cutting edge work.  Every day we researchers presented papers which referred to Trove. Every day one of these papers was presented by researchers who worked for universities or cultural institutions outside Australia.

These papers, like all papers at the conference, demonstrate world class research in the field of digital humanities. As the conference proceeded it became clear that Trove has made an important contribution to leading international research. Continue reading

Australian Historian Captivates International Audience

The work of Australian historians, librarians and archivists is highly valued internationally. In my last post I highlighted the work of Australian historians Julia Torpey and Peter Read which featured in a plenary panel at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference. But they were not the only Australian historians who featured.

Sherratt behind a podium

Tim Sherratt

On the last day of the conference we were treated to an insightful keynote address by Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital Heritage, Manager of Trove Australia and inventor of many innovative digital tools. Tim Sherratt is an historian who is blazing a trail for thoughtful and innovative use of technology in the research and presentation of history.

Sherratt captivated his audience from around the world with his talk, ‘Unremembering the forgotten’. Delving back into twentieth century Australian history, Sherratt questioned the nature of our access to government archives. He argued that  “access is a process of control rather than liberation”.

Sherratt is working to reveal the lives of people who are not remembered in our histories. In his keynote address he argued that the lives of these ‘forgotten’ people are often recorded in archival documents but these people have been ‘unremembered’. They are hidden from our view because of the way the catalogue search has been structured. Tim Sherratt demonstrated that when we take charge of our search for information by building our own digital tools we can retrieve the stories of the forgotten, but likewise the digital tools we use every day when searching websites can shut out the memories of the forgotten. Continue reading

Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War. Continue reading