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

Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age

Conference sign stating name of conferenceIn many respects the format of academic conferences has not changed much over the years. There will be some plenary sessions with keynote lectures but the hive of the conference is the parallel sessions where many presenters stand up, read their paper and answer a few questions afterwards. Once upon a time presenters may have used overhead transparencies. These have been replaced by powerpoint presentations which in the hands of most presenters are little different to the old technology.

But social media has introduced a profound change to the dynamics of conferences. The soundscape of plenary sessions at the Global Digital Humanities conference did not simply comprise the tones of the person speaking on stage. There was also the soft sounds of hundreds of fingers tapping on keyboards, reporting the conference to the world via Twitter.

Over several conferences I have been observing presenters and thinking about how best to present a paper in the Social Media Age. At the Australian Historical Association conference a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some ideas into practice.

Firstly I made sure I put my name and my Twitter handle on the bottom of every powerpoint slide. The best way of giving attribution on Twitter is to use the presenter’s Twitter handle but too often the people tweeting a paper are not aware that the presenter is on Twitter. The presenter misses out on a higher profile online and the possibility of connecting to more colleagues online. Likewise the audience misses out on an opportunity to expand their professional networks. Continue reading

“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

Continue reading

Civil Rights, History, Now

The right to vote has been a struggle the world over. Agitation for the right to participate in the election of the government is a common them in the history of many nations. Associated with the right to vote are a host of related rights: the right to equal access to public venues, the right to equal access to education, to equal treatment by the law…

In recent weeks there have been many fiftieth anniversaries of momentous events of the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights movement had its heart in the United States but pulsed throughout the world. Recently in Australia the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ freedom ride was marked by the original freedom riders revisiting the places in country New South Wales where in 1965 they had shone the spotlight on how Aboriginal people were barred from accessing public venues. Aboriginal people had already gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1962, but it was not until the end of 1965 that Queensland became the last state to granted Australia’s indigenous people the right to vote in state elections.

Nearly two weeks ago thousands of people marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. It had been fifty years since an orderly group of people had marched across the same bridge in their quest for African-Americans in that locality to be allowed to vote. At this bridge they were repelled by police who charged with batons, tear gas and horses. Broadcast live nation-wide, this unprovoked attack by police galvanised the nation and contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.

At the foot of the same bridge two weeks ago, President Obama’s oratorical powers were unleashed. It was a speech replete with a rhetoric that spoke truth and was delivered with the rhythm, the pauses, the softness, crescendos and diminuendos that are rarely heard from public speakers in Australia.

President Obama’s speech had depth of content. It was a lesson on how to use history to meet the needs of society today. Throughout the speech President Obama reiterated the exceptional nature of the United States, yet as pointed out on the ABC, ‘The Drum’ website, most of his comments are applicable elsewhere in the world. Obama had pertinent things to say about drawing on history to inspire change today. Before I highlight these passages take the time to view his entire speech via the video above. Continue reading

Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

war diaries sitting amongst red poppies

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

We gasped as we entered the exhibition. The enormous room was dominated by a wall of hundreds of World War I diaries. Born at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, the Middle East or on an Australian naval boat, these diaries now sit in the calm and comfortable conditions of a new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

There are big diaries, little diaries, stout ones and thin ones. Some contain pragmatic accounts of the experiences of the diarists; others contain discussions of the literature they read and their thoughts as they battled internally about the horrors they were participating in.

The State Library of New South Wales has launched a major new exhibition that draws on the wealth of material in the diaries. Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is comprehensive. It includes the familiar aspects of Australian participation that you would expect – Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. But it also includes the often overlooked military action by the Australian Navy and World War I in New Guinea. The exhibition has a section on Australian prisoners of War and scattered throughout are the words of a World War I nurse and army chaplains. Continue reading

Historians Walk the Talk

A man and a woman holding a wide photo.

Dr Ian Hoskins holding a copy of a panorama of Sydney Harbour photographed from Holtermann’s tower in 1875.

If you want to get to know an area better, enjoy history and some gentle outdoor exercise you should consider joining history walks.

Historians have been conducting history walks for many years.  You can join a walk guided by a historian or you can download the notes for a history walk and do the walk in your own time.

This week I joined a history walk conducted by North Sydney Council historian, Dr Ian Hoskins.  The walk was one of myriad events held throughout New South Wales last week for the annual festival of history – History Week.

Following Photography’s Footsteps’ introduced walkers to sites associated with nineteenth century patron of photography, Bernhardt Holtermann, as well as those linked with photographer of the construction of the Harbour Bridge, Frank Cash.  But it also included a lot more. Continue reading

Sausages and Australian Elections

After casting their ballots voters around Australia were greeted by cheery volunteers raising funds for their local school.

After casting their ballots voters around Australia were greeted by cheery volunteers raising funds for their local school.

Sausages and elections go hand in hand in Australia.  The schools and community centres which are used throughout the country as polling booths take advantage of elections to do some much-needed fundraising.  The most popular fundraising event is the sausage sizzle.

DSCN9935 White BreadAll that is needed is a barbeque, sliced white bread and tomato sauce to make a sausage sandwich.  Often fried onions are included.  I have no idea why manning the barbeque is traditionally a male thing.  In my family it isn’t.

But I digress.

Stumbling Through the Past was born a little over three years ago on the day of the last Federal election in 2010.  I was writing up my thesis which included discussion of the Federal election of 1910.  Writing about the Federal election of one hundred years ago was an obvious topic to launch my new blog. You can read that post here.

So I had to write an election day post today to celebrate the third anniversary of Stumbling Through the Past and pay homage to the event that helped me start my blog.  But what to write about?  I had planned to write a serious post about technology and elections, but it has been an intense week this week.  I was in no mood to write a serious post.

It came to me when I saw that “#sausage” was trending world-wide today on Twitter:

Continue reading