Sunday, 7 December 2014

"Not everything that can be counted counts,

and not everything that counts can be counted." [Einstein]

Statistics are bread-and-butter to politicians, and public servants spend a lot of time accumulating them. Many pages in Annual Reports of governments and businesses are devoted to the numbers illustrating that they are still worthy of investment. While they are not that straight-forward to find, they are always dutifully made available as part of accountability and transparency requirements, and frequently updated tallies are always a pleasure to report to keen constituencies.
The Libraries Australia service hosted by the National Library has reported its growth, in a very similar format, for more than 30 years.

However, with the advent of Trove, a new approach was developed to put statistics directly into the hands of people contributing to the service.

Statistics are often the last functional component of a new service to be developed, so this outcome was a breakthrough for public accountability. They are generated regularly, they are easy to locate and use, and they keep tabs on the exchange between Trove and an individual or an agency, especially useful for those maximising Trove for their own productivity.

However, this ease also seemed to mean that the statistics could be ignored by those who might derive some value from them. Parliament still prefers a one-size-fits-all model: number of visits to the website,, p.43

not how a service might make a difference to the lives of Australians.

It was bemusing therefore to read the recent article by Jeff Kennett describing the importance of art: "People will always argue over any money spent on the arts, and insist it would have been better spent on education, health or some other service that already receives billions of dollars in annual recurrent expenditure. But I have always argued that you cannot have a cosmopolitan city without it having a strong cultural heart. That heart includes all forms of art, music, dance, theatre, architecture, sculpture and, importantly, colleges and places of learning." About the new art for Sydney, he went on to say "Sydney will be a better place for these three installations, and if they can encourage just one citizen to pursue an artistic career the sculptures will have done their job." Weekend Australian, August 2-3, 2014, p.8.

$million of dollars = three outstanding works of art = one citizen?

Is that a good return on investment? Do those statistics illustrate a difference has been made? Fortunately it isn't 'an economic measure'. While this expenditure on art is not begrudged at all, what about library services, created in Australia, which reach out to millions every day? Services which provide culture, heritage and learning to 'ropolitan, rural, regional, remote Australians equally, currently having their government funding reduced so that they need to seek dollars in other ways.

This year, the government funded an Innovation Study of Australian Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. It made only one mention of the increase in productivity encouraged by the heritage sector. [p.22] A lost opportunity?

Here's a self-measured statistic about Trove: "What five years ago was a month-long project at the State Library (if you could get a microfilm reader before everyone else) is now literally a five-minute exercise from home and an extra hour enables you to find and link information on a scale that could never previously have been imagined." Trove Evaluation Survey. [p.4]

Does it also measure:
  • proactive use of the NBN
  • reduced stress on transport infrastructure
  • saving of funds expended on depreciating government equipment
  • redirection of librarianship skills and resources to more meaningful work?
Trove has not yet reached its boundaries for growth. Make sure to keep using it, so its value continues to be counted as part of the rich heritage and productivity of the nation,
even if that value is only measured in the ever growing visits to the National Library's website. 


This entry marks the day 34 years ago when I became a full-time public servant, but I am no longer counting.

Monday, 17 November 2014

It's not all GLAMorous

In September, the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation, CSIRO and the Smart Services Co-operative Research Centre investigated innovation in Australia's GLAM sector - Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. The resulting paper is welcome and useful for providing avenues of strategic thinking to all of Australia's heritage collecting institutions.

But some entities are ignored. Despite acknowledging the importance of volunteers, historical societies, which are a source of volunteers for local museums and have a significant stake in the outcomes proposed by the discussion paper, are overlooked.

Historical societies operate in the interstices between the large cultural heritage institutions, and they often supply the workforce necessary to keep small museums and other cultural agencies operating. They engage with our history, and encourage their local communities to do so, on a weekly basis.

I would argue that they are a critical part of the GLAM sector, for two key reasons. Firstly, historical societies collate local knowledge out of the distributed resources held by libraries, archives and museums, while waiting for those larger services to aggregate content into generous services like Trove. Volunteers contribute personal resources, mainly time but also skills previously attained in the workforce, to form local collections of knowledge useful to current and previous residents, shire councils, students and historians. On this scale, the Societies are achieving what the CSIRO paper recommends - they are already "central to community wellbeing."

Secondly, historical societies care for the record of the built environment. They are 'on the ground', able to witness, advocate against and document our disappearing heritage as it is dismantled - brick, iron, stone, soil, timber, glass and even concrete. 

Recently dismantled historic crane at Dry Dock, South Tweed Heads, TH10-20
Recently dismantled historic crane at Dry Dock, South Tweed Heads, TH10-20

Homes, businesses, government offices, and industries are often unique, especially for places not in the metropoli, and therefore have a critical need to be curated and disclosed. A local museum is a useful vehicle for this purpose, but they are under threat themselves. This evidentiary knowledge of heritage is really the core strength and offering of historical societies, as well-managed local studies collections do not seem to be the norm.

The paper excludes university libraries although they do curate research which has public appeal. Trove steps into the breach here - its liberal inclusion guidelines mean that Trove is an excellent starting point for finding elusive special collections, no matter which campus they are tucked away on. Libraries such that at the University of Melbourne are helping to relieve the major digitisation effort still to be completed: there is a ".. need to prioritise digitisation initiatives according to end-user needs and preservation urgency as the task is massive... some organisations have digitised many things but there are many that will not be in the near future, things that should be digitised and are not being addressed..." [p.16]

Similarly Trove made a strategic choice to include links to the out-of-copyright Australian monographs digitised by Open Library and the HathiTrust - global partnerships which make content more accessible, no matter its country of origin. The wealth of material is extraordinarily beneficial for use as part of Australia's "intellectual infrastructure" [Schwirtlich, p.22]

Trove only goes so far. It does not provide digital access to many town newspapers which are bread-and-butter content for local history. Historical societies help to fill the gap, they too are part of the intellectual infrastructure of Australia - it's not just the GLAMs. But most lack digital infrastructure. To proceed to digital innovation, there is an ineluctable need for recognition.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The life of a Palermitan

This is a guest post.

Pietro was born in 1917 (I will leave much of his childhood out of this version of the story) but by the late 1930s Italy was conscripting young Italians to serve with their campaign in North Africa. Italians, and particularly Sicilians (who, for centuries, have been invaded by many peoples) understand that integrating invaders into their system is better than fighting them. So Sicilians are not the best people to conscript into an effective fighting force! Pietro had two brothers and two sisters, the eldest. Lina, will die during the second world war from a blood infection. While the children are growing into adults, there will be murder within their mother's family and their father will spend time in prison. There are many unanswered questions even to this day!

As Pietro is from a family of farmers, the offer of a military position, as a conscript, where he can learn a trade seemed particularly interesting to him. Additionally, his mother has just destroyed his bicycle. Pietro loved cycling the Sicilian countryside - and even won races (recorded in Giornale di Sicilia). It was a family affair and his youngest brother Giovanni even had a bicycle shop at one stage. The three brothers would cycle to Mondello just for the fun of it and for the beach. For Pietro, losing that bicycle was the last straw, and he entered the army to demonstrate his independence. 

In military service, Pietro learnt quickly, and rapidly advanced from a Fiat trained mechanic to a vehicle driver for senior members of the military force in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). We know little of his actual war service other than he was captured at Amba Alagi in 1941, along with thousands of other Italians, mostly conscripts. The British had a problem with so many prisoners and shunted them off to India while Australia organised to accept many of these POWs. Pietro was in India for more than a year and we have only a few "palm tree" photos as proof of this period. He was eventually sent to Australia where he ended up at the Cowra POW camp along with, by near the war's end, 14,719 other Italian prisoners.

Like most of the Italian POWs, Pietro saw that life was mostly good in Australia, and that there were opportunities that didn't exist back home. Of course, in the meantime his home had been bombed and perhaps he didn't realise how bad it was there until he was forcibly repatriated more than a year after the war had finished in Europe. But while he was in Australia he was happy to be sent out to work on farms around the Cowra area. It was on one of these farms that he met his wife-to-be. Joy was in the Land Army, which was an organised volunteer group of women sent to help with agriculture while their brothers and fathers were fighting in Europe and South Asia. Joy's father, Bert, owned some land and grew some food for the war effort - a veteran of WW1, he was also employed in the Australian Army in WW2! Joy and her mother Emily were very fond of Pietro and perhaps Emily was a little shocked when Pietro escaped from the POW camp with Joy and took the train to Sydney where they married - only an uncle was present as witness. Of course an escaped prisoner, even an Italian POW who was used to returning without guards to the camp before sunset, was a problem. So, Pietro, after a short while, surrendered to Victoria Barracks and was sent back to Cowra with armed guards.

Both Joy and Pietro's new mother-in-law, worked hard to try and have Pietro remain in Australia. It was the government's policy that all POWs would be repatriated, so despite many letters, including some to the federal Minister for Immigration, Pietro was eventually sent back to Italy. Back home, he renewed friendships but we're not sure how his family viewed his return - was he the long lost son, or as the eldest child, the one attempting another escape from his family obligations? Either way, in just twelve months he had found the money for the fare back to Australia. He would never return to Sicily.

In a short time, he found employment with General Motors Holden in Melbourne, assembling Australia's first home grown car. Pietro and Joy's first child arrives right at the end of 1949. He builds a house and another child is born in mid 1953. Pietro finds it difficult in a post-war Australia but he works hard and decides that the city is not the place for his family. He buys a small property but cannot make anything from it so he works for a successful dairy farmer near Yarram while learning all he can. In a short time he has the deposit for a dairy farm of his own near Woodside in South Gippsland. His children go to the Balloong primary school and then secondary school at nearby Yarram. His wife loses two girl-children shortly after birth before a boy Philip and then a girl Donna are born. Joy is only a slight woman and her health has been affected by childbirth and the stress and isolation of country life (remember she is a city girl from Sydney and her parents are getting old and frail and cannot visit regularly). Joy's mother passes away during this time. Pietro's mother also passes away, and although he never returns to Italy, he hears of his Italian relatives' progress through his remaining sister Antonietta who regularly provides updates and occasional photos.

While farming at Woodside, Pietro's brother Giovanni arrives with wife Grazia and three children. Strangely, the brothers have managed to have two boys, each called Peter and Philip - but this is not unusual as the Garganos believe in recycling their ancestors' names! It is unclear if the two brothers successfully rekindled their childhood friendship and it's quite likely that each found the other profoundly changed by a lifetime of quite different experiences. Giovanni finds a place in Melbourne with Grazia and their children. At this point no-one knew that Giovanni's health would gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, decline, and that his children and wife would be putting him into care around 20 years later.

Pietro's dairy farming business is very successful as he is an intelligent and hard worker. His neighbours are jealous of his success! With his hard earned wealth, that he does not splash around for others to see, he feels the need to move out of the demanding life of a dairy farmer to an irrigated property in southern NSW where the regularity of the morning and evening milking is replaced by the demands of heavy machinery required to sow and reap rice and wheat, and the seasonal work required to manage sheep and some few cattle he keeps mainly for milk and meat.

Pietro and Joy's two older children are successful academically and both receive scholarships to go to university. The two younger children are still at primary school when the two elder children leave home. Perhaps Pietro would like his first son to work on the farm with him? More likely, he would prefer his children have professional careers in an increasingly technological world. Neither Pietro nor Joy make demands of their children - they know that they themselves have made choices that saw them leave their families for a different, and sometimes difficult life, that they perceived would be better.

Eldest daughter and son, Prue and Peter come home from time to time, even allowing their parents to have a holiday with the younger children while the property is looked after. Pietro meanwhile rekindles a wish he had many years ago to move further north to an irrigation area that didn't exist until after WW2. Prue has married and moves to The Netherlands to have two children, while Peter continues studying and trains to be a secondary science teacher because he can't think of anything better to do! Time marches on and the younger children are almost ready to finish school. Peter has now taught for two years and decides he has enough money to travel overseas. He leaves in early February 1978. That year his father finds a property in the Coleambally irrigation Area. There is much work to do at this new property and his family are surprised they will be moving.

But by the end of the year, a time that sees Joy, Donna and Philip temporarily living near Echuca for Philip's final school year, tragedy has struck. Pietro is knocked from his agricultural motor bike by a teenage bank teller driving near the property on a Wednesday before Christmas 1978. It will be several days before Peter can come from England and Prue from The Netherlands. Pietro is dead at just 61 years old.

His brother Giovanni will arrive for the funeral from Melbourne but he gets lost - this is one of the first sure signs all is not well with Pietro's brother. It's unclear if any of Pietro's Italian based family had enough warning of the funeral, or if they were in a position to come such a long way. Antonietta will arrive some years later with her son Giulio to see her brother's grave which is in a semi-grassless lawn cemetery - she will be shocked that Pietro's only memorial is a small brass plaque, and her Australian born nephews and nieces will find it impossible to explain that this is not unusual in Australia.

Peter, Donna and Philip along with Prue, who stays for a short while before returning to The Netherlands, will reap the rice crop that Pietro has planted. There will be a "clearing sale" where farm equipment is sold and plans are made for Joy and the family to move to Canberra where Peter has begun a second graduate diploma (in Computing Studies). But another tragedy will befall the family - Joy will die in a "head-on" vehicle collision on the same day and almost to the same hour as her husband, but a year apart. Prue will again travel from Europe, this time with her two children. Peter will travel by car from Canberra and will have his own accident about 100km from home - two droving dogs will race out onto the road as Peter drives past and there is no time to stop. Both dogs will die instantly, Peter will be confronted by the dogs' distraught owner pulling a shotgun on him, and will be "saved" by a following motorist slowing and jerking the dog owner out of his apparent trance. Peter will report the incident to police and will repair his car at his own expense. This time he will see his remaining parent's blood and he will visit his brother and sister in hospital. And years later, recalling this, he will shed a tear that he could not find then.

There is another funeral. Peter is amazed that he finds his parents "friends" stealing their  personal possessions even before his very eyes. At 26 Pietro's son experiences some of the harsh realities of life Pietro at the same age would himself have experienced as a newly minted Australian POW of 1943. He ponders if this behaviour is normal at funerals in a country created from convicts and immigrants. This isn't the first time Peter wonders who he really is, where his home is, and who his friends really are, but it will start him asking questions about his family - just as his father probably did 36 years earlier.

There will be a single new plaque for Pietro and Joy, who will be laid side by side in the same lawn cemetery. It is the first few weeks of the 1979/1980 Australian summer and it is hot in Coleambally.

Peter Gargano

Caveat emptor: some of the dates and times are written from memory.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Trove's treasures - scholarly gold

One of the career achievements which gave me great satisfaction was Australian Research Online, ARO, named for the project which spawned it [Australian Research Repositories Online to the World]. Using a modest technical platform, ARO garnered the interest of almost all 40 of Australia's universities in depositing their academic research metadata in one finding place.

While ARO was established with funding from the higher education sector - appropriate given that the service was predominantly created to promulgate unique tertiary research globally - as a product of collaboration it has generated unanticipated benefits for others too.

ARO was the logical successor to the Australasian Digital Theses (ADT) Program, a joint initative established in 1999 by the late Marian Bate, then University Librarian at the University of NSW, to corral original research from around the country for easier discovery. Resolving the issues surrounding curating and disclosing digital theses before taking the usual step of traditional-style publication pushed forward the ground-breaking open access agenda.

Trove logo large colourGovernment funding exigencies can override success. Both ADT and ARO were merged into Trove in 2011. Since then, new open access academic journals have been surfaced through Trove and the quantity of contributions will increase dramatically in 2015. The volume of usage traffic ensures that  
Trove maximises the exposure of original Australian research.

But what does this mean for the public, who funded the research in the first place? High quality resources which they do not have to replicate and an instant understanding of the value higher education offers? The Mackay Family History Society links to an excellent example of a resource which is scholarly gold:

The Society also provides better metadata than the University itself, appreciating the broader appeal of the research.

As Lorcan Dempsey explains, university libraries have become "inside-out libraries", where their constituencies are now both local and external. Trove facilitates this by pooling all of their print publications with the research collected from university researchers and post-graduates into a single point of discovery. In return, through the digitally accessible newspapers of record, it provides historical contexts back to scholars for further lines of social and scientific enquiry.
An extraordinary return on information infrastructure investment.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The agency that will never forget you

If you were born, married or died in Australia, the formal details of these life events will usually be recorded by a state or territory registry. Other formal life events such as change of name or gender will also be recorded. Your identity details are kept in perpetuity, but there is a long delay before people can find out about you.

For example in New South Wales, birth details are not revealed until 100 years after the event; marriages are 50 years later, and deaths are not discoverable for 30 years.  The full details are made available via a purchased certificate after a freely available index search. The searching permutations for each index ensures that the final step in the process, purchase of a certificate, is irresistible, and it is not begrudged because this agency is spending the funds on infrastructure to ensure that the details are available in perpetuity.

The life events are not linked by the registry - a different search is required for each event. That is, if a person you know died 10 years ago, it is still not feasible to track back to the official record of their birth for a long time unless you are a close relative. The privacy limits remain in place. It is to be hoped that they have family who will remember them as the decades slip by.

In Victoria, while the same access timeframes apply, it is necessary to pay a fee up front before even locating a pointer in an index to the event. The Victorian government must not like collecting potential revenue, because having to provide credit card details to access minimalist index information is not a productive research expense. And the lack of certainty immediately discourages the spontaneous outlay for a full certificate. I have hesitated many times and decided against such purchases, both for accessing the indexes and requesting a full certificate. The taxpayer has already paid and continues to pay for the existence and maintenance of the service, so why not encourage its use in full?

Queensland's historical BDM certificates, although less expensive than in other states, apply a 75-year constraint to the release of marriage details. There is also an unexplained gap in the life of Queenslanders between 1825 and 1829:


However the delivery in near to real time of certificate images, via email, does encourage some extra purchasing which must assist with revenue-raising. The promise of solving a mystery with just a few clicks is irresistable. 
Tasmania is even more restrictive, with marriage certificates requiring a 100-year access limit, but less so with death certificates which deploy a 25 year limit. It doesn't seem logical, given the celebrated distribution of convict lives and the significance of this for the success of resulting projects such as Founders & Survivors. The availability of digitised birth registers for the 19th century goes some way towards making up for the disappointment.  

South Australia and Western Australia are far more expansive with their indexes, realising  that a liberal approach can result in increased revenue-raising for them. The Northern Territory Registry doesn't offer any, but the ACT does provide an historical deaths index.
Of course each state and territory must ensure compliance with its own privacy legislation, but perhaps it's time to review and align the timeframes of openness?

The National Library's hosted service, Trove, overcomes the misalignment and serious timing shortfall with the spectacularly easy-to-search newspapers that were systematically digitised collaboratively by memory institutions - libraries. The digital rendition is, of course, merely a replica of print and microfilm versions which were already in the public domain, but the ability to mine them expeditiously across generations was never feasible until Trove provided the right platform.

It is not guaranteed that a specific individual can be found in print, if conspired against by circumstances of poverty or shame or intrigue, but the democratic opportunity to express pride or woe has always been uniformly available.

The Cradle, The Altar, The Grave
This novel way to label the usual births, deaths and marriages columns in newspapers is a rare occurrence, although one local wag suggested using the word 'Halter' instead of 'Altar'. 

Deployed by Victorian newspaper The Prahran Telegraph between March 1891 and early 1895, this was disclosed by Trove during a recent exploration. 

By 9 March 1895, the column had reverted to its usual headings of Births, Marriages and Deaths.
The digitisation of this newspaper was funded by the Malvern Historical Society, the Prahran Historical and Arts Society, and the City of Stonnington, emphasising the same mission of openness as libraries.

I would much rather give my money to Australian Births, Deaths and Marriage government registries than a commercial enterprise thinking they know who I am. Certificates are the final confirmation of existence. I just hope I live long enough to use the indexes as they open 50 or 75 or 100 years on, so that I can read the certificates and link together lives of family who were once part of my living memory. But these agencies will never forget you.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Founding and surviving

The Founders & Survivors project is a collaborative initiative of four universities in Australia and three overseas, including one in the loosely-stitched together United Kingdom. The project combines a range of longitudinal metadata to track the lives and descendants of the 73,000 convicts sent to Tasmania during the nineteenth century.

The new Tasmanians were chosen for this research "... because Tasmanian records are better than those that have survived..." elsewhere. 

The Founders & Survivors project is an exemplar of The Wisdom of Crowds. Because of funding constraints over its lifetime, the project has used volunteers for various aspects of its data collection and quality assurance processes. This includes utilising the separately hosted services of memory institutions to confirm the convicts' identities - national and state archives, historical societies, libraries, the Old Bailey, and life event registries.

It is therefore not surprising that a new discovery service has been announced as a by-product of the project, to bring together content from disparate and geographically-dispersed sources. As Chainletter states
"The new system incorporates the results of extensive record linkage conducted by the Founders and Survivors team, increasing both the speed with which records can be accessed and the range of available record images. A particularly nice feature is that a search will bring up all census, birth, death and marriage records as well as departures and other information for individuals with the same or similar names..." [17 August 2014, p.3]
Although the type of metadata is different, the goal to bring it together for easier discovery is shared with Trove: a powerful co-location of Australiana in a myriad of forms which provides rich contexts for research and unparalleled corroboration of existence. It is also a source of enjoyment as mysteries are solved and new avenues of enquiry are launched. The Founders & Survivors portal is likely to induce the same, albeit for a small number of Australians. 

However the certainty of identity is the last remaining bastion of collaboration to be achieved, so the outcome of the portal project will be considered with interest. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Enigma of a death

One of the most frequently published story lines in family history magazines is that of a stunted tree branch where a person has inexplicably gone missing, usually just before death, rendering retrospective investigations impossible. The question then arises as to how much time and effort should be invested in pursuing any answer.

Sometimes the government agencies which manage officially collected meta/data inadvertently push the search forward by releasing a ground-breaking new service. In the case of Australia, one such service is called Trove. Hosted by the National Library since 2009 and built with the generous collaboration of local, regional and national memory institutions, Trove has unveiled a wealth of research material. As described by the Orange Family History Group in 2010, Trove is "a super-site". 

Image result for trove logo large colour

Inveigled by the possibility of solving a family mystery, I took the bounding parameters provided by four official certificates to trace the life of a man named John Henry De Chave. He appeared in Grafton in June 1865, marrying Catherine Halligan (1848-1931). [In 1931, the NSW Registrar added parents' names including Henry De Chave, squatter and Margaret Ogilvie.]

Trove includes the relevant digitised newspaper of the time, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser. In March 1866, De Chave appears as a witness in a trial of two men accused of killing cattle:

The two men were eventually convicted, and De Chave was offered a reward by the Cattle Stealing Prevention Association, which was refused:

Just prior to this article appearing in July 1866, De Chave and his wife welcomed the birth of a daughter, their only child, Mary Ada Isabelle. While their ages remained consistent, John Henry's birthplace was given as Melbourne instead of Sydney. The birth notice did not appear in the paper. In April 1868, De Chave and his wife were witnesses at the second marriage of Catherine's mother. One month later, there was an eventful accident:

There are quite a few clues here to a life prior to his Grafton arrival, but these have not been confirmed. 


Four years later, in April 1872, an even more sensational event occurred:
The court reporter uses a different spelling for the surname, several of which then ripple through the public record, if not the official one. By June 1872, De Chave/Chauve has become a stonemason. This spelling echoes the family's pronunciation of their surname:

The discovery of gold in and around Grafton led to many claims, many of which were left deserted by the mid 1870s. 27 August 1872, Claim No. 80
The last mention of (De) Chave is in August 1873, when he appears in this shipping list from Sydney. If the newspaper's digitisation is complete, this was a return trip for an April 16 departure.

In March 1878, Catherine de Chave married again. She was described as a stonemason's widow.

Perhaps the occupations of stockman and stonemason are solitary, and reflect a quiet personality in a man who nevertheless contributed a lot to the local community. The latter makes his subsequent "disappearance" inexplicable, although it may just be the consequence of a spelling or typesetting decision. The permutations are endless - Chave, Chauve, Shave, Shauve, sometimes with a D', sometimes not. The worst, found in an official index, was D'Chair.

The forethought of Trove's search engine architect in providing default fuzzy finding techniques overcomes any approach used by the fuzzy searcher. Trove then reveals new pathways with facets. It also helps to ameloriate the indistinct characters of this rendition of the newsprint. In this case, there is no need to worry about fine spelling distinctions such as d' or de. 

Of course De Chave could appear in a paper not yet digitised. Despite this, Trove has allowed me to eke out more years of life for an enigmatic man who breezed in, out and around a slight branch on my family tree. The context provided beyond the official record is priceless.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Will the real dustjacket please stand up?

After reading about Michael Robotham in the Weekend Australian magazine of 02-03 August 2014 and his childhood in Casino, Gundagai and Coffs Harbour, a few days later I was pleased to find a copy of one of his books I hadn’t read – The Wreckage.

The front cover caught my eye – not for its striking image, but for the rider "Among the very best of British thriller writers". Did I misread the weekend article? Certainly Robotham worked as a ghostwriter in London, Empty Cradles being one of his successes. Luckily a quick check in PANDORA revealed the truth.

PANDORA is the Australian web archive, hosted by the National Library since 1996. The Library was one of the very first agencies worldwide to recognise the import of heritage lost merely because it was born digital, and it created this exemplary collaboration between Australia’s memory institutions. Thousands of websites have been selected for archiving, which are now all findable in Trove. 

Robotham’s own website, captured in PANDORA, states that he was born in Australia, ergo, he is not British.

But another interesting conundrum came to light. The cover for the book showed exactly the same image, but with a different quote: "A writer of the highest class who can create terror from the commonplace and crush the breath out of you".

It is not unusual for different editions of monographs to show tweaked messages and culturally attuned images on their dustjackets when published in different countries.

Trove, courtesy of catalogue records supplied by Libraries Australia, demonstrates this for Michael Robotham very clearly. 

Another benefit of Trove is the unsung value of “party” identifiers. 

Part of the transparent national information infrastructure, these unique national identifiers for people and organisations are assigned when records are loaded into Trove’s identity manager.

Again built on the early work of librarians Australia-wide to construct the national authority file for authors, the effort of decades has been put to good use in the People and organisations zone of Trove. 

This file was the foundation for the People Australia project, which confirmed at least 50 sources of information about Australians. While much of it is authoritative, a key goal of the project was to ensure that noone is required to search each source individually. It is still a work in progress.

The National Library also works closely with other national sources of author information, particularly university repositories which archive academic research - theses, conference papers, monograph chapters, and journal articles. Some websites, linked to via Trove, are manuscripts in their own right. Trove supports academics by linking up behind the scenes with global identifiers such as ORCIDs. This ensures that a person and their work, whether it is made available in print or digital form, are automatically co-located by Trove.

For Michael Robotham, it means that everyone can know with certainty that he is an Australian. Which can still leave him amongst the best of the thriller authors in Britain.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

An unparalleled view of Australia

For a time my work was synonymous with a service called PictureAustralia. Hosted by the National Library, it became an overnight success in 2001 after almost two years of development. I was asked to write about the service for an international journal called First Monday, and when submitted, a further request for more details on why it was so successful was received. I found that difficult to do, because to me it seemed that the premise behind the service was simple. If asked to write the article again, here, in short form, is what I would add:

1. the name. Such a perfect double entendre describing in two words what the service allowed the general public to do. Coalescing the words together, a naming convention for new services which became more common as the web expanded and imaginative URLs forced previously unseen combinations, always generated a talking point.

A sign of the success of the concept was the rippling out of its name to local services such as Picture Coffs Harbour, Picture South Perth, Picture Queensland, and PictureNT.

2. the colours. Quintessential orange, dusty ochre, and burnt black ensured the service's interface stand out from many other websites. The iconic logo, approved by Lady Mary Nolan, also echoed the colours of the nation. 

3. the design. The original lightbox format of the interface meant that a very large number of images could be expediently traversed by the human eye.

4. the metadata. The Library retrieved metadata records from all contributors regularly. Only two pieces of metadata were mandatory - a caption and a web link to the original digital image. While providing more information would generate a greater chance of a particular image being discovered, as is the case with any metadata, resource-strapped memory institutions could choose to reuse existing minimalist descriptive information or augment it. 

The Canberra Times, 5 September 2000

5. the participants. By the time of service closure, two million metadata records describing 100 image collections were pooled by 70 agencies in a significant collaboration. Many of those were memory institutions, but some academic agencies followed the lead of original participant the University of Queensland Library to share their gems in an increasingly well-known destination website. There was a simple payback - increasing referrals to the participants' websites.

6. the architecture. This was key for two reasons. Firstly the image files, created by digitising artworks, photographs and artifacts, were often subject to the same quite stringent copyright restrictions as their original form. As explained on several occasions, it was unnecessary for PictureAustralia to take or keep copies of these - the image files were fetched in real time using the web link provided. And secondly, the early web problem of internet bandwidth capacity not keeping up with anticipated usage was avoided by choosing to display thumbnail-sized images. A very simple architecture.

7. the postcards. Used for marketing the service, free postcards distributed inter/nationally were another serendipitously timed development which ensured people in Australia and New Zealand who may have not used a library service online could make a tentative foray into the riches of the collections of memory institutions. The choice of images for the postcards was a serious, considered activity for each participant. The selection had to convey a strong representation of Australiana, here are the originals:

State Library of NSW postcard

State Library of Tasmania postcard

University of Queensland Library postcard

National Archives of Australia postcard
State Library of Victoria

National Library of Australia postcard
Australian War Memorial postcard

In 2006, a second marketing channel took off. A partnership with the upcoming image-sharing service, Flickr, was brokered. In the early days of PictureAustralia, there was a lot of comment about the comparative lack of contemporary images. The Flickr partnership allowed individual amateur and professional photographers to contribute both contemporary and historical images to the service. This partnership continues with Trove.

8. the utility. When services run smoothly, memory institution managers and their funders can sometimes be unaware of their continued exemplary utility. PictureAustralia was fortunate in that Catherine Martin, world-renowned costume designer for films such as "Australia", found it to be a perfect tool for her design research. Catherine spoke about the impact of the service for her.

9. the governance model. A small Board, consisting of four members who were all passionate about the original vision for PictureAustralia, shared advice and invited expertise in when needed. Each participant had a say in development directions at an annual meeting hosted by the Library, and proposals such as streamlining orders for copies of photographs generally accorded with the Library's capacity to deliver.  

10. the staff. As the first Library service displaying digital content in real time, PictureAustralia had no trouble attracting staff to manage it. Minimalist in operation, it  required one person to ensure the smooth operation of the service while responding to enquiries from the general public and participants, and less than 50% of the time of a programmer to ensure that the metadata records continued to be routinely harvested. For the original manager of the service, it inspired a much greater passion for art and led to more visual content being incorporated into routine compliance reports.

A happy confluence of decisions implemented in PictureAustralia cemented the Library's reputation for online service delivery with sister institutions and the general public not resident in its hometown, Canberra.  

PictureAustralia was absorbed into the Pictures, photos, objects zone of Trove in 2012. It was a wrench - after all, who would shut down a successful ground-breaking service?  However the straitened financial circumstances of most memory institutions had exacted a toll once again. Nevertheless the National Library made sure that the collaboration invested in by the participants and contributors over more than 12 years was not lost. Trove emulates and extends the PictureAustralia service model.

I am extremely grateful to The Wayback Machine for allowing me to wallow in the beautiful design of the PictureAustralia website once again.