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.