Friday, December 12, 2008

Resourceful Reading: The New Empiricism, eResearch and Australian Literary Culture

The Resourceful Reading Conference was held at the University of Sydney on 4-5 December.

The conference brought together researchers from fields such as literary studies and mathematics , librarians, database managers, programmers and publishers.

The keynote speakers, Professor Hugh Craig from the University of Newcastle's Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing and David Carter, Professor of Australian Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Queensland, set the tone for a highly productive meeting. Professor Craig's discussion of high-level data analysis supported by computational stylistics was complemented by Professor Carter's reflection on the emergence of 'new empiricism' from the institutional dominance of 'theory' in recent decades.

Under the banner of 'new empiricism', the conference provided a forum for archive-based approaches to the study of literary history and the 'distant reading' enabled by computer analysis of large amounts of data. At one extreme Kathie Barnes (paper delivered in her absence by Paul Eggert) and Roger Osborne discussed their explorations in the papers of David Malouf and Kylie Tennant. At the other, the collaboration between Julieanne Lamond and Mark Reid showed the possibilities of data visualisation based on library borrowing records from Tim Dolin's Australian Common Reader. Between these two extremes within 'new empiricism', a number of research projects were discussed at the conference, demonstrating the variety of new empirical approaches currently operating within the field of Australian literary studies.

These included demonstrations of developments within databases such as AustLit, AusStage, APRIL , Ken Gelder's Colonial Popular Fiction Digital Archive and Pat Buckridge's plans for an Australian version of the British Reading Experience Database.

Monday, November 3, 2008


NINES is the acronym for Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, a ground-breaking digital project hosted by the University of Virginia. NINES aggregates a large collection of digital projects devoted to the 'long nineteenth century' by indexing their content and providing a comprehensive searching and authoring facility through the NINES interface. From the beginning of 2009, NINES will also support an 'exhibit builder', enabling users to arrange and publish the items they discover in annotated bibliographies, course syllabi and illustrated essays.

The NINES Collex Interface offers an excellent model for the development of Aus-e-Lit. The initial federation of selected databases in the Aus-e-Lit Project could be presented to users in a way similar to that employed by NINES, but the FRBR bibliographic model employed by AustLit will remain the foundation for the records of individual works. So, too, the new interface will be built on AustLit foundations. For example, to see how AustLit currently represents Patrick White's Voss click here. AustLit users can get to such records through Quick, Guided and Advanced Searches, producing a result that will look something like this. Aus-e-Lit programmers are currently working with the current AustLit interface and the selected databases to provide the best interface for the display of federated data. The first versions will be tested in December and trialled throughout 2009.

The Aus-e-Lit team is looking forward to the appearance of the new version of Collex which will include an 'exhibit builder'. Example exhibits have been mounted on the NINES web-site, providing a preview of what the exhibit builder can do, but it will be informative to see how the collection of exhibits grows after the tool is released. The collaboration or interaction of the NINES community is essential for the growth and enrichment of metadata that links and describes digital items from the many contributing projects. The collection and organisation of digital objects combined with the enrichment of keywords and annotations will build an increasingly rich infrastructure of data for present and future researchers of nineteenth century literature and culture. With its origins in the 'long nineteenth century', Australian literature has a lot to contribute to knowledge of the period. The current stage of development will make it difficult to offer the stability required by NINES to function within its aggregated community, but a future partnership could be considered, providing Australian literature a stronger position in digital communities devoted to the study of nineteenth century literature and culture.

With its ability to collect, describe and publish digital objects from a wide variety of peer-reviewed projects, NINES is one of the most significant examples for the development of tools for the study of literature in a digital environment. The technical and conceptual foundations of the project that are outlined in a collection of 'Related Readings' offer an important grounding in the future of literary studies in a digital world. As a base for the 'promotion of new modes of criticism and scholarship promised by digital tools' such as Collex, Juxta (the project's text collation program) and Ivanhoe (an online play-space for textual interpretation), NINES is an essential book-mark for any browser.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Electronic Knowledge Sites and Hyper Nietzsche

This posting comes to you from a desk somewhere at the University of Queensland, composed on a screen that delivers, at my request, large quantities of information every week from web-sites across the world. The homepage that appears every morning after the browser boots up is, offering a portal to the world of Australian literature with information on authors, their works and references to a plethora of reviews, essays, books, films, performances and many other phenomena. In most cases, the information is contained within the AustLit web-site, but occasionally I am directed out of that container to web-sites hosted elsewhere.

Working on the Aus-e-Lit Project frequently makes me consider the possibilities of my position in front of the screen supported by a suitable machine. I am certainly not the first to consider these possibilities. In his important book From Gutenberg to Google (2006) Peter Shillingsburg dreams of an electronic resource that provides everything a literary scholar could hope for:
[I]f one had comprehensive scholarly compilations of the documents of a knowledge area, beauty of presentation, imaging, collation on the fly, constant self-check for authenticity, writer's tools for annotational linking, multiple forms of output (to screen, to print, to XML, to WORD, to TEX, to PDF, to others), sound, motion, decent speed, decent holding capacity, user-friendly interface, quick navigation to any point (three clicks or less), and scholarly quality - and if one had these capabilities in authoring mode, augmenter's mode, and reader's mode, in a suite of programs with similar interfaces all workable on multiple platforms so that they were not too difficult to learn or to port from one set of equipment to another, and so that the tools developed for one archive could be easily adapted for use with another archive - then we would have something to crow about. (91)
Something to crow about, according to Shillingsburg, because we only have 'multiple experiments that rarely talk to each other and are not easily transferable. The dream that Shillingsburg describes is what he has called an 'electronic knowledge site', a collaborative enterprise that will outlive its originators by providing a resource that 'can grow and develop through changes in intellectual focuses, insights, and fads and accomodate new knowledge in configurations that may augment or correct rather than replace the work that went before.' (95) Shillingsburg's book is worth a reading not only for this view of possibilities, but also for its acknowledgement of the economic, technological, physical and cultural realities of scholarly work.

Gutenberg to Google is also important for its direction to digital projects in Australia, the USA, Great Britain and Europe. One of the most interesting is the HyperNietzsche Project which will soon be available on-line as NietzscheSource. Delivering digital images of manuscripts, books and articles and supporting the authorship of essays, commentary and critical editions, NietzscheSource promises to be an important example for any project that aims to deal with print-based modes of expression. Of particular interest to Aus-e-Lit in its third stage of development will be the organisational structure of a 'dynamic ontology' that maintains a record of the complex relationships between digital objects while at the same time enabling linear sequencing according to genetic, chronological or thematic criteria.

A core group of strong and enduring digital projects will inform the development of Aus-e-Lit. The NINES project at the University of Virginia is already informing the technical and conceptual thinking of the Aus-e-Lit team. When it comes on-line in the near future, NietzscheSource will offer another significant inspiration as we move towards an idea that's not far removed from Peter Shillingsburg's notion of an 'electronic knowledge site'.

Friday, October 17, 2008


This PynchonWiki has little to do with Australian literature, but it demonstrates the possibilities of collaborative annotation.

The PynchonWiki was established soon after the publication of Against the Day in November 2006. Between that time and June 2007 more than two hundred contributors annotated the book by page and topic, accumulating more than 450,000 words about Pynchon's long and complex book.

This phenomenon attracted the attention of two academics who have published 'Literary Sleuths Online' to describe the events and assess the results. The article presents the PynchonWiki as an exemplary example of e-Research collaboration, but acknowledges some 'weaknesses of this voluntary, amateur and low-tech type of online collaboration'. Compared to Weisenburger's 1988 companion to the earlier novel Gravity's Rainbow, the PynchonWiki offers considerably more information and the ability to link to a large variety of digital resources with a quality of scholarship that can be revised and expanded at will. While the quality of scholarship frequently lags behind Weisenburger, the collaborative venture is an admirable example intense engagement with a single text that 'is bound to encourage learning among contributors'.

Any discussion of open and collaborative annotation will ultimately lead to the question of quality, but the example of the PynchonWiki demonstrates that a carefully managed resource can produce positive and useful results for a community of enthusiastic readers.

The Aus-e-Lit annotations services will be supported by a large amount of full-text in the AustLit Primary Source Texts hosted by SETIS. The ability to annotate by line or word in a searchable dataset across two hundred years of Australian literary history will provide an unprecendented resource that will grow and evolve with time, leaving a record of individual and community reading that will inform general readers and researchers into the future. When the Aus-e-Lit annotation services come online during 2009 calls for volunteers will be broadcast and some specific annotation events will be coordinated.

I'm sure that such events will result in significant discussion about the quality and benefits of collaborative annotation in Australian literary studies.

Scholarly Editing and Digital Editions

Among the ARC Discovery Projects for 2009 announced yesterday was a major scholarly edition of the work of colonial poet Charles Harpur. Chief investigators are Professors Paul Eggert and Elizabeth Webby and Dr Peter Robinson. The Project aims to make all the manuscript versions of Harpur's poems available for study through SETIS, and to support literary criticism, teaching and collaborative editing through a project web-site, providing a model for future projects.

This project will add to the large body of work that has been produced at the Australian Scholarly Editions Centre (ASEC) under the direction of Professor Eggert. Ten volumes in the Academy Editions of Australian Literature were completed by 2007 and eight volumes in the Colonial Texts Series had appeared by 2004, a significant achievement in textual criticism and scholarly editing. Work on these editions have informed a number of articles on editorial theory, many of which have appeared in major journals in the field such as Textual Cultures and Studies in Bibliography.

In addition to the print volumes, ASEC has supported investigations into the development of electronic editions, hosting editions of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life and Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter as experimental models. Eggert summed up the technical and theoretical issues of these projects in 'Text-encoding, Theories of the Text, and the "Work-Site"'.

The scholarship and theoretical foundations of these scholarly editions will strongly inform the development of annotation and authoring services at Aus-e-Lit. Similar to Eggert's notion of the 'work-site', the tools developed by the Aus-e-Lit Project will support active engagement with database records and available full-text records, helping to foster collaborative research in the fields of Australian literary studies, book history and print culture.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

SETIS: Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service

One of the major problems for students, researchers and general readers of classic Australian literature is the unavailability of texts in print form. Of course, an enthusiastic reader could probably find copies of many of these books in second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, or borrow them from their local council or university library, but such opportunities are limited and the condition of ancient or well-worn books do not make suitable reading copies. In an attempt to make important works of Australian literature more accessible and to help preserve the material copies that are still available, the Sydney Electronic Text and Images Service (SETIS) has supported a large-scale digitization project that is a magnificent resource for present and future readers and researchers.

Among the many texts that have been digitized at SETIS, more than one hundred are sponsored by AustLit, selected on the basis of academic surveys and advice. Ranging from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s, the AustLit Primary Source Texts form a core group of texts that have significantly contributed to Australia's literary history. The first books of many well-known writers are included, but neglected writers such as Chester Cobb are also represented in the list. Important nineteenth century women writers such as Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, 'Tasma' and Catherine Martin are included and the series of Bulletin anthologies edited by A. G. Stephens provide a glimpse of the literary content of that famous weekly newspaper. Primarily using first editions as a source for transcription and delivering text to readers in PDF format, SETIS draws readers as close as possible to the original publication without providing a digitized image of each page.

SETIS enables searching within and across the texts it hosts, but Aus-e-Lit plans to provide a richer searching infrastructure for the AustLit Primary Source Texts, linking their data to that held within AustLit and other target databases. In the next three months testing will begin on the first phase of federated searching and a demonstration version will be available for feedback by July 2009, just in time for the annual ASAL conference.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Northbridge History Project

Today, Northbridge is home to the hospitality and entertainment sectors of inner-city Perth. Originally a series of interconnected swamps, the area has grown in tandem with the progress of the city and state. People from many parts of the world were attracted to the area, creating a diverse population that continued to grow until the 1970s when a proposed freeway led to a residential decline. The area has since developed into the entertainment precinct for which it is now known, once boasting 'more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere'. But continued development in the 1990s led to a concern that the area was losing its unique character. This influenced the state government's decision to sponsor an initiative to investigate and preserve the history of the area.

The Northbridge History Project (NHP) is one of the outcomes of this initiative. Consulting with government, communities and individuals, the NHP aims to collect images, documents and oral testimony related to the locality, making them available to the public through an Electronic Archive. To date, the archive contains three displays, 123 documents, 663 images and 47 oral histories, providing a collection of material that provides a rich introduction to the growth of the area.

It is planned that the archive will be used for education and tourism purposes and so a substantial amount of secondary resources are available as well as curriculum materials for use in schools and universities. Contributions from government, community groups and individuals are actively sought, making this a significant collaborative project on many levels. As an example of what can be done for a specific locality the NHP is first rate. Such projects might support investigations into the literary culture of particular areas and provide a wonderful context for the interpretation of setting. A web-site devoted to David Malouf's Brisbane is high on my wish list.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Australian Common Reader

Interest in readers and reading continues to grow, supporting a number of superlative book-length studies, such as Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) and databases such as Britain's Reading Experience Database. Contributions to the field have also come from Australia with a number of studies in the various volumes of the History of the Book in Australia, Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa's survey, Australian Readers Remember, and the very impressive database Australian Common Reader.

This last is of most interest to digital humanities because of the access it gives to the reading habits of ordinary Australians in the nineteenth century. Using data extracted from the library records of various schools of arts and mechanics' institutes, users are able to search for particular titles and observe the lending patterns at each library, including the identification and description of borrowers. For example, if you were to search on Joseph Conrad's Typhoon you would find that the novella was borrowed by five men and two women at the Rosedale Mechanics' Institute and that their occupations were tailor, teacher, home duties, doctor, accountant and surveyor. For each of the identified borrowers one click will bring up their entire borrowing record, providing a comprehensive listing of the reading habits of Australians according to occupation. General conclusions from this limited dataset must be cautious, but it shows a potential map of Australian reading habits that will become richer and richer as more library records are added.

Australian Common Reader also provides a search facility for two extensive nineteenth century diaries, Annie Baxter Dawbin (1834-1868) and William Bunn (1830-1901). These features will be enhanced in the future with a new section that proposes to address the impact of newspapers and magazines using Toni Johnson Woods' list of fiction serials in Australian periodicals.

Australian Common Reader welcomes contributions to the database from researchers across Australia. They are actively seeking records from the following sources:
  • Australian Mechanics Institutes, Literary Institutes, and Schools of Arts
  • public libraries
  • commercial subscription or circulating libraries
  • private libraries and collections
  • book clubs
  • booksellers records
  • newspapers and magazines
  • diaries or letters
Anyone holding such records or those with research projects on these institutions would benefit from a close look at the Australian Common Reader.

Tim Dolin's essays (usefully hosted by the web-site) demonstrate that Australian readers were more interested in British fiction than in the emerging writers of Australian fiction. But such evidence helps us to better understand how Australian writers, readers and publishers positioned themselves in a nation filled with imported books and magazines.

Australian Newspapers Beta

The National Libraries of Australia recently launched Australian Newspapers in a beta version. The project aims to digitise more than a dozen major newspapers from Australian capital cities, ranging in date from 1803 to 1954. Although the project is in a very early stage with limited coverage so far it will prove a significant resource for the study of Australian literature.

I conducted several searches on authors I am familiar with from my own research to see what sort of new information emerged. I'm particularly interested in Vance Palmer because of his dual role as a 'man of letters' and as a writer of popular fiction. Not only do you find reports of his radio addresses from the 1940s in the Canberra Times, but a number of serial versions of his early novels are also found in the Argus. The latter is particularly important because until now they had escaped the notice of AustLit indexers. For research on working writers, literary criticism, book news, readers and reading, Australian Newspapers is and will be an important resource.

The digitised images are quite clear and searches take you directly to the article in which key words appear. The text has been passed through an OCR process, but the results are generally quite poor. To address this shortcoming Australian Newspapers invites (and enables) users to make corrections to the full text. While this will never bring the full text to perfection, I imagine that well researched authors and topics will result in cleaner texts.

The coverage of Australian Newspapers is very patchy at the moment, but as more and more newspaper issues are added to the database, search results will become richer and researchers will get a better idea of the complex networks of Australia's literary culture and the extent to which working authors spread their work across the nation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Digital Humanities: Past present and Future

On 2 September the Digital Humanities Symposium was hosted by the University of Western Sydney. A relatively small number attended the event, but the presentations and discussion were interesting and relevant to Aus-e-Lit

Willard McCarty talked about the Dictionary of Words in the Wild and Paul Arthur talked about spatial history with particular reference to the Northbridge History Project . Ien Ang talked about using the web-site DiverCities to facilitate intercultural dialogue. Andrew Murphie talked about open access and the rise of alternative forms of publication, noting the division between tradition and ‘non-hierarchical forms of authority’ See for more. And Leonie Hellmers talked about her new role at .

In the spirit of these projects, the Aus-e-Lit project aims to contribute to the development of digital humanities in Australia with its collaborative integration and annotation services. AustLit has already built a strong foundation of collaborative research by supporting more than a dozen Research Communities. The expansion of digital services provided through the Austlit interface will further support collaborative research in these projects and, hopefully, lead to the organisation of new research communities that will benefit from the Aus-e-Lit initiatives. In turn, new collaborations will contribute new ideas, assisting the Aus-e-Lit team to develop a service that will assist researchers in the fields of Australian literature and print culture for many years to come.

In the coming weeks and months, this blog will review many old and new digital projects to discover the depth and quality of digital humanities in Australia and to compile a list of web-sites that might inspire other researchers to embark on their own digital projects. Some of these will focus on literature, but many will cross disciplines, providing a view of the past and present that is relevant to all.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Welcome to Aus-e-Lit

The Aus-e-Lit Project is an initiative of AustLit: the Australian Literature Resource and the UQ eResearch Lab. The Aus-e-Lit project is a NeAT-funded project that aims to address the eResearch needs of researchers involved in the study of Australian literature and Australian print culture. We welcome any comments or suggestions from the community and will use this space to contribute to ongoing conversations about the development of humanities computing.