Sunday, 12 August 2018

down to earth

The building which houses the National Library of Australia commemorates 50 years today, although the Library's operations were established as part of the 1901 Constitution. It's an inverted iceberg, with more storeys above ground than below. 

I worked in the building for more than half of its life, a milestone which will cease in five years' time. It wasn't and isn't uncommon for staff to exhibit this loyalty, not just because the place represented a career pinnacle, but because it underpinned commitment to the belief that the Library, like all other libraries, was an essential service to the public. I remember making the decision 10 years in, when asked by a more senior colleague, "are you a stayer?" after a large project failed. By that time the Library and I had invested significantly in each other, so I stayed.

The original concept drawings showed the possibility of three buildings, but this was reduced to one to save money. That happened in the short term, but with a relentlessly growing collection, the Library is now utilising a third warehouse. Another construction cost-saving measure ensured that staff and researchers focus inwards - each long side was reduced by one column, effectively blocking the view from every window except for a narrow sliver.

My first visit there was as a university student in the late 1970s when the Main Reading Room on the ground floor was a very quiet place for contemplation, unlike the keyboard-punctuated silences now. 

When the building caught fire in 1985, bibliophiles and historians around the country looked towards Canberra in horror. They included a prospective Director-General, the late Warren Horton, who felt compelled to move interstate to assist in the Library's recovery.

The fire started on the fourth floor in the computer room. More damage was caused by water from fire hoses than actual burning, and when I started work at the Library the year following, thousands of books were still laid out on metal shelves along the long third floor lakeside corridor drying. This continued for several years. The mainframe was moved to a specially sealed room in the middle of the second floor, with collections further away. 

IT staff sat outside the computer room, in an area where air-conditioning controls had been set for the preservation of books. We were often plunged into extremes of preservation-friendly temperatures, usually cold. For a while, the smaller programming team sat in the Amazon Room, named after a film poster on the wall showing "Amazonian" women. 

All of the windows in the Library were able to be opened with an allen key, and this proved useful when a large piece of mainframe had to be removed from the second floor through the Amazon Room. It was more efficient than trying to squeeze it around corridors. The scratch on the marble lintel did cause some consternation. 

Some 10 years later, the windows in the fourth floor conference room had to be opened when a water pipe was broken in the ceiling and flooded the carpets at the front of the building. The hosepipes went straight to ground. 

Ironically, contrary to expectation almost all water damage seems to have come from within the building, fortunately infrequently. After three successive droughts in the early 2000s, the floor to ceiling windows next to the front door cracked - the result of a complete lack of moisture in the air. By that time, the glass airlock which surrounded the front doors had been removed - its double-sliding, painstakingly slow opening no longer necessary.

Before earning a job at the Library, in the early days of my genealogical passion I had to visit the first floor Petherick Reading Room, named for one of the Library's significant collection donors. It was sited in the middle of the building and closed off in its beautifully-panelled, glass-fronted and book-lined shelves to serious researchers using rare materials. The Room was moved to the ground floor, and a few years ago moved back to the first floor again. 

Eventually reference volumes made their way to LG (Lower Ground) 1, where they shared a space with newspapers from around the country. Despite being below ground, the light-filled lower Reading Room gave a generous view of the inside of the moat. 
Pippa and Dee fly handmade kites outside the National Library's moat, 18 July 2001
The Library sits on its own island. Now appreciated by amateur rockwall climbers, the moat was built to protect the collections from the one-in-100 year Molonglo River flood. Although that flood has not happened yet, the River has combined with occasional downpours to fill Lake Burley Griffin with dead trees.

A lot of paper rests behind the very effective moat, especially Australian monographs and journals. While most project records were stored electronically, some were kept on paper just in case. In 1997 I stood looking at the cold bare earth, beneath the LG2 floor, while filing the records. 

As projects finished I moved to other spaces, working on the first, second, third, and fourth floors. During downtimes, I enjoyed the rare privilege of browsing the bookshelves and cabinets below ground. The office I retired from was moved from the long side facing Parliament House to the lakeside. The floorspace has been given over to the collection. Much architectural change occurs on the inside, but the responsibility at the heart of this collecting institution is immutable.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

A service to the public

CCAE pin

CCAE newsletter, 1979
Even before finishing the Graduate Diploma in Computing Studies, I received a job offer from the Commonwealth Public Service to be a programmer. The Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) had its own Burroughs B6700 mainframe, the same type of computer rented by the Department of Immigration & Ethnic Affairs (DIEA).
The Department’s A.D.P. (Automated Data Processing) Section sent representatives to the College to persuade graduands to become new recruits, an experience quite different from the university graduate examination imposed by the Public Service Board. 
The CCAE had a good relationship with the Public Service, and performed its employment feeder role well. Although my first experience with a mainframe was using the Univac at the Australian National University in 1978 to count results from a psychology survey, the requirement to fill mark-sense cards with precise black felt strokes and leave them for an overnight processing run seemed like magic rather than a deterrent.
So the CCAE's Graduate Diploma beckoned, and with a good balance of male and female IT  experts, we were soon immersed in dot matrix printouts, restricted mainframe time (the most expensive resource) and a wide range of subjects from coding in standard languages like COBOL, Assembler, Pascal and Fortran to systems and business analysis.
The first coding skill I took to my new workplace was in the Job Control Langage – JCL - operating instructions used to start and finish tasks. 
The CCAE’s School of Information Sciences discharged its educational responsibilities assiduously. This was the introduction to Programming Systems 1, Semester 1, 1981:

“While this course teaches computer programming using two different languages, its central theme is that of “structured programming”; this theme is the common thread running through the course irrespective of which language is being taught. Right at the outset we wish to make clear that programming must not be confused with merely writing code.”
The use of computing resources was under strict control, as was access to commercial system documentation.
The extended availability of machine time in the nighttime hours, rather than during the day, soon led to midnight sessions. Coding a trip instruction for an endless processing loop was always a consideration - a few hapless students didn’t and lost their entire processing allocation for 24 hours which jeopardised their assignment submissions.

The School of Information Services’ staff were not without a sense of humour. Programming tasks included code for managing student numbers and rankings, generating a ‘Merry Christmas’ banner, and conducting a full analysis of the Department of Overseas Aid’s (DOA) operations prior to coding a new application for it. 

DIEA had responsibility for Australia's arrival and departure Passenger Card Index, a huge database which was backed up on 26 magnetic tapes. 
My midnight learning sessions turned into weekend sessions as I oversaw the data updates each weekend on a Burroughs B6700 rented from the Department of Administrative Services at Fyshwick (in Canberra). 
Despite its significant responsibility, the A.D.P. section had almost a skeleton staff. There was very little emphasis on teamwork - each programmer had a primary responsibility that absorbed all the time available.
By the mid 1980s, DIEA was given the budget to purchase its own mainframe, which meant the ADP group had to grow. Wanting to stay in a small IT shop, I transferred to the National Library of Australia’s A.D.P. Branch in early 1986. 
The Library was five years into hosting a union catalogue system called the Australian Bibliographic Network. The underlying database was coded in PL/I, a coding language similar to COBOL, and the reliance on it by all of the nation's libraries imbued the service with an indispensability on a scale not matched at that time by the number of immigration offices needing access to passenger cards.
8 May 1981
Two other programmers already maintaining this service were CCAE School of Information Science graduates in the same year as me. The National Library's working environment had another characteristic which had been well taught - the value of teamwork. 
Even as I moved from the roles of programmer to project manager to inaugural business manager for the award-winning Trove, the National Library's innovative 21st century platform for information discovery and engagement, the approach never changed.
Trove's first four years were my last four in the Australian Public Service. (Coincidentally, 1968 celebrates 50 years of the building of the National Library as well as the Canberra College of Advanced Education.)
Although we now operate in a web interface- and mobile device-enabled environment for accessing information, the basic principles of programming practice then were still the same as now: garbage in, garbage out; the importance of rigorous documentation; and the value of teamwork in scoping and designing solutions to improve human-computer interaction. The CCAE deserves recognition for the professional grounding it provided to public servants and in particular for its Information Scientists including Kate O’Driscoll, Igor Hawryszkiewycz and Bill Ginn. 


This story was originally compiled for the University of Canberra's Personal Histories Project

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A disconnected Scottish son

The BBC recently interviewed Scottish author Ian Rankin about the commemorative fate of Scottish-born author Italy inhabitant Muriel Spark. He made some interesting observations about Scotland's literary heritage:
Rankin said aficionados loved Spark and during her life she was lauded by some of the greatest literary figures around. So why is she not better known and celebrated? ...Scotland has been bad in the past at recognising writers and artists who leave [emphasis the blogger's]. Many writers have had to leave to find themselves, to get a sense of themselves and to find their true vocation as a writer.
Gesualda Belmonte with her aunt
Gaetana (Nangano) Mastropaolo
and an unidentified relative
in White Plains, New York
How extraordinary then, to find a personal example of this Scotland trait in the same timeframe as the Rankin interview was recorded. It shrank the world to a state of companionship, and was a reminder of the ability of libraries to link their threads of knowledge to satisfy even the most unlikely queries.

Researching an Italian family in New York led to an unexpected discovery. In the early 1930s, the Gaetano Belmonte / Carolina Nangano household, with eldest daughter Gesualda, took in a boarder named Roderick Robb Black. 

Roderick, like the Belmonte family, was a migrant; a Scot who had arrived in New York on The Astoria in June 1906 as a five year old boy with his mother Margaret and siblings to join their husband and father, John Black.

[source: The National Archives, TNA_BT27_0486_00_0019_P_0004F]

John Black died in 1910, nine years after arrival in New York from Scotland. He had left his young family of seven children twice - spending five years on his own in a different country - and at the end of a difficult life. He was 57 years old. 
1920 US Census Image from Find My Past
By the time Roderick and Jessie (Gesualda) met, her parents were known as Thomas and Carlotta Belmont, and those of her siblings who were also Italian-born had anglicised their names.
1930 US Census Image from Find My Past
1933 Marriage Certificate of 
Jessie Belmont and
Roderick Robb Black

New York City Municipal Archives
After his brief first-time marriage, Jessie became Roderick's second wife. Jessie's sister Mary and Roderick's brother John junior were witnesses.

Both John Black senior and John Black junior were poets. The younger John  was also the literary editor of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and after several years of effort, he was eventually able to publish his father's Collected Poems

The National Library of Scotland did not know of his work, but almost 100 years after its publication, it was possible to find this poetry using a link provided by the National Library of Australia in Trove. The Library of Congress had made it available to the Open Library initiative for digitisation. 

This member of John Black's extended family gratefully used the virtual interconnections between libraries globally to track it down.
John Black senior did not see his poetry published - other occupations were necessary during his lifetime to keep his family safe. He may be remembered more for his ownership of the Palace Hotel in his home town of Inverness during the 1890s, but the literary legacy of this disconnected Scottish son lives on in  virtual imprint. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

From Marian to Michelle

When Michelle Simmons became Australian of the Year on Australia Day eve, I was reminded of an early ground-breaking Web project instigated by the University Librarian at the time of Michelle's appointment to the University of New South Wales.

Marian Bate, UNSW University Librarian from 1995 until 2001, led the Australasian Digital Theses (ADT) project. She earned global recognition for its development and implementation. Marian was a wonderful mentor to many young library staff and passionate about the work of libraries to empower research. She also strongly believed in the value of collaboration and exemplified this by serving on the National Library's Advisory Committee to national union catalogue services for several years. 
Photograph supplied by family
for use in the Libraries Australia newsletter

These "Australian" qualities were echoed in Michelle's  acceptance speech. Marian would have been absolutely thrilled to see her colleague receive this accolade. 

Marian's successor, Andrew Wells, asked me to commemorate Marian's life in March 2011 with a special issue of the Libraries Australia newsletter. Here is some of that text:
ADT was launched in 2000, the brainchild of Marian Bate. Always a staunch advocate for the raising the international profile of Australian academic research, in 1999 Marian identified the enhanced visibility of theses as an important strategy for improving scholarly communication, and to that end, sought funding from the Australian Research Council to develop a new service for capturing a global audience for Australian research.
Marian’s strategy also emphasised the need for digital versions to be provided. Seven universities including her own grasped the opportunity to work with Marian. Using the open source Electronic Theses & Dissertations software developed at Virginia Tech in the US, many university libraries in Australia launched thesis repositories and using simple technologies, access to the content was brought together under the strong ADT brand. In later years, separate thesis services have been merged with institutional repositories.
In 2005, Marian was recognised for her initiative in establishing the ADT program with an Electronic Theses & Dissertations Leadership award. As stated by Andrew Wells, who succeeded Marian as University Librarian in 2001, “This project brought together Marian’s abiding interests in maximising access to information resources, exploiting the potential of new information technologies, innovation in scholarly communication, and the power of collaboration.” 
Michelle receives a mention in the newsletter too. 

The ARROW Project after two years,
Slide 26
ADT was the precursor to another initiative known as the ARROW Project. 

She may not have known it, but for me Michelle was a global use case scenario in the collaborative ARROW Project. The use case involved trying to co-locate the research outputs of academics who moved across institutions. The outputs could take the form of theses, conference papers, book chapters, and monographs and two decades later, more unconventional forms. How could the Project acknowledge the complete intellectual record of an individual researcher?

The optimum pathway may still not be implemented but a combination of research visibility in Trove and its recognition of ORCIDs, have gone a long way to resolving that use case. Michelle's citizenship also helps, for which she deserves our thanks. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

Peace outlasts Withdrawal

In October 1943, an Italian Prisoner of War travelled from Bhopal to Australia courtesy of the British Army. He spent most of the next three years at the Cowra Prisoner of War camp. 
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Shown here are: 55622 Pietro Gargano (tallest); 56000 Umberto Marangoni; 56376 Goffredi Faielli; 56412 Arturo Tempesti; 56359 Alessandro Rospi; 56504 Mario Ferrugini?; 56256 Luigi Margrini; 55608 Renato Guidotti; 56038 Antonio Panico; 56145 Giovanni De Rosa; 56507 Francesco Telese; 56397 Gabriele Sparago.
In October 1946, Pietro Gargano escaped from the camp and eloped to Sydney with his fiancee. They married on 4 November and several days later he gave himself up, wanting to be seen to observe the laws of his host country.
Italian Escapee Married Here (1947, January 14).
Barrier Daily Truth (Broken Hill, NSW : 1908; 1941 - 1954), p. 1.
It was the opening gambit in a campaign to remain in Australia, and while it did not initially succeed, eventually the outcome was secured.

To make sure that the Italian Prisoners of War were repatriated, the Australian Army assigned the 22nd Garrison Battalion to escort them out of the country. On the Otranto, which sailed from Sydney on 8 January 1947, Corporal Pietro Gargano returned to Italy under the guard of Sargeant John Schuberth.
Sgt John F G Schuberth, 22nd Garrison Battalion, Cowra
Seventy years later, while investigating his grandfather's war service, James Wall researched the ship and discovered some of the "passengers" were repatriated to Europe. Further sleuthing revealed a possible connection. 

Not long after, Pietro's son Peter met John's grandson James for the first time:
Protagonists overcome Warfare
descendants James and Peter
3 November 2017
Dickson, ACT

More on the life of -

Monday, 9 October 2017

the garden of life

One of the most valuable sections of any digitised newspaper are the Births, Deaths and Marriages columns, which also contain Memoriams and Anniversaries. Obituaries tend to be separate, and warrant their own search using that term. However, when exploring Trove, it will help to know how the prosaic was once expressed in more poetic terms. 

The Cradle, the Altar and the Grave or The Sepulchre were used in the early 1890s by one Victorian newspaper, not only using the common thread of human life but also expressing status in flowers chosen to surround the event in question. 

Churchyard Gardens. (1930, December 25). Freeman's Journal
(Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932)
, p. 10.

Of course the Cradle, the Dungeon and the Tomb is likely to be tongue-in-cheek. 

Buds, Orange Blossoms, and Cypress. (1895, April 3).
The Daily Northern Argus (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1875 - 1896), p. 2

 Continuing with a floral theme, 
 Buds, Orange Blossoms and 
 Cypresses caught some 
 statisticians waxing lyrical.

In a similar timeframe, international journals recognised Buds, Brides, and Bodies: 

The Ballarat Star (Vic. : 1865 - 1924), p. 3.
By the 20th century, many of these terms were standarised as we still read them today. Trove summarises them as Family Notices in one of its facets to expedite finding - but this variety is worth noting if you use these 20th century keywords for your 19th century family life and uncover nothing. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Americanization or Anglicisation

Recently I made the trek to New York to research Italian antecedents. Despite huge swathes of content now traversable via genealogical conglomerates in minutes, some information is still only accessible on the ground. 

Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, 1903

The American convention of giving names to neighbourhoods within suburbs is something not easily discerned from afar. 

For example Red Hook in Brooklyn, which, amongst other influences, became a small Italian enclave when settled in the late 1890s - early 1900s. The name is still used in various locations.

Included in its special collection, the Brooklyn Public Library has a series of atlases and maps which will eventually be digitised. 

To capitalise on the time available, I attended a lecture at the New York Public Library on how to search the 1940 Federal Census. This is a rich online resource, but interchangeable names make discovery a challenge. It is not uncommon to find an Italian name for the first Census in which the family appeared after migration from Palermo, only to appear as 'someone else' by 1940. For example, Gaetana became Anna or Anita, Gesualda became Jessie, Gaetano became Tomaso then Thomas. 

Vicenzo/Vincenzo became, inexplicably, James not Vincent.* Surnames are also afflicted by this - Bellomonte becoming Belmont, Nangano was heard and written as Mangano. Eventually vowels were dropped too. This process was explained as americanisation**, although the presentation did label it otherwise. 
Courtesy Carmen Nigro,
Milstein Division, NYPL, April 2017

The origin of these names is surely not American, and despite the efforts of the Census enumerators to hide migrants in as many ways as possible, a shared appreciation of the English language allows us all to tap into the breadth of information from 1890 Ellis Island arrivals to the decennial censuses.

The key to searching the census successfully is to be aware that while names may be carried down the generations, little variations were and are also common. 

Thinking laterally, including for extended family, does help. 
Image, courtesy of Find My Past, of the family of Thomas Belmont, all given with surname as Thomas (found only by a search on the name of future son-in-law Roderick Black) 
The genealogical discovery process however, is a candidate for dramatisation and there is no better inspiration than American cinema. This is ably demonstrated by the NYPL's Irma & Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy which entices us all to delve into family secrets and mysterious name changes...

*  Finding Italian Roots - The complete guide for Americans, John Philip Colletta, PhD
** ironically spelt with an 's', or sometimes interchangeably with a 'z', in both anglicisation and americanization.