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 http://dictionary.mcmaster.ca/ and Paul Arthur talked about spatial history with particular reference to the Northbridge History Project http://www.northbridgehistory.wa.gov.au/ . Ien Ang talked about using the web-site DiverCities http://acl.arts.usyd.edu.au/threecities/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25&Itemid=37 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 http://www.andrewmurphie.org/ for more. And Leonie Hellmers talked about her new role at http://www.intersect.org.au/ .

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.