Give this man a job

Today I attended the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Arts eResearch forum 2012. This was in two parts: firstly, a talk by Tim Sherratt, down from Canberra for the day, entitled 'Digital Disruptions', where he exhorted us to find new ways to break things; followed by short spiels by local academics on some of their digital humanities work. There was a lot of really interesting stuff on display, and whether by chance or design each one was digital in a very different way:

  • Susan Lowish spoke about creating a databases of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara artwork, Ara Irititja, which is deployed in remote Indigenous communities in central Australia to preserve their (and our) cultural heritage and, crucially, make it accessible to them and allow them to add their own knowledge. It's a huge logistical task but judging from the use the databases get, a very worthwhile one.
  • Alison Young works on street art and the people and communities involved in creating it. She described how the Internet has enabled her to observe and intereact with these communities, which could be difficult due to the borderline-illegal nature of street art. For example she can use her blog to establish her academic credentials (and her politics) to artists she wants to interview to prove that she isn't an undercover cop!
  • David McInnis's contribution was to talk about the Lost Plays Database. This had perhaps the most traditional academic orientation of any of the projects on display today, but the way it works is anything but. It's a wiki which collates information about plays which we known were written in the late Tudor/early Stuart periods, but about which we have only fragmentary knowledge.1 This information is out there in the published literature and has been for decades, but has never been collected together, as it is now. And combining the power of crowdsourcing (even with a crowd of only a few dozen enthusiastic scholars) with newly digitised sources means when a question arises it can often be answered very quickly.
  • Cate O'Neill described the usability issues faced by the Find & Connect project she edits. This may sound boring, but in fact it was fascinating, and quite moving. Find & Connect is a government resource which provides information for people who were in state or foster care as children (including child migrants and the Stolen Generation). While the site has been designed according to best practice and with the best intentions, investigation has shown that users actually didn't understand how it works. What's interesting about these usability problems is how these usability issues are bound up with the reason for the site's existence. For example, with low computer literacy and self-confidence, it can't be assumed that users will know what things like "glossary" or even "help" are for. Even something as taken for granted as a "home" button was confusing in this context, as it is naturally enough interpreted as something to do with orphanages or foster homes. Similarly, the commonplace experience of clicking on a dead link and getting a 404 page can be read by some users to mean that the government is trying to hide something from them (i.e. again, as it has been doing for most of their lives). This was a real eye-opener: usability matters.
  • Véronique Duché is working on adapting her teaching methods to best serve the current generation of students, who live in their smartphones and tablets. So she is looking at developing an ebook, with embedded video, audio, slideshows, 3D models... It's easy to see how this would be useful for language teaching (well, except for the 3D part).
  • Finally, Nikki Hemmingham spoke about the Australian Women's Register and (forthcoming) online encyclopedia of Australian women leaders. What was interesting here was the way the project has evolved with experience: the encyclopedia was originally intended to be a comprehensive hyperlinked resource, but the problem is that links die. What was available on the web when it was written cannot be guaranteed to be there in the future. So now the encyclopedia is intended to be a snapshot in time, but it will be complemented by the Register, a Trove-like harvester of various online resources and databases. As such the need to curate links disappears; instead you curate the sources which contain them.

All good stuff, and I know there are many more digital things being done in the Arts Faculty which could have been included.

As for Tim Sherratt, I've mentioned him here before and used his tools as well. He's a one man digital history machine: QueryPic, the front page, Archives viewer, the future of the past, Headline roulette, the real face of White Australia (with Kate Bagnall) and more. The amazing thing is, despite all this work he has done to improve the way Australians (historians and not-historians) access their history, Tim's not employed or supported by any of our great universities or cultural institutions: he's just one person with a laptop and a broadband connection. While it's inspiring for others in that situation (as I am) to see what can be done with so little resources, I'd really rather see him be gainfully employed and fully supported. And while it's fantastic that Australian universities like Melbourne are getting serious about the digital humanities, it's not to their credit that they apparently can't find a place for someone as creative and productive as Tim. Somebody fix this please.

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  1. Humble brag: completely coincidentally, in one of my day (technically night) jobs I'm the sysadmin who looks after the server hosting (among other things) LPD. This is humble because I have nothing to do with the content and in fact LPD was set up before I started; but more particularly so because the server was noticeably sluggish during the demonstration! Oops. []

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