Staff Papers

Electronic Alchemy: The Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project 1840-1845

Article written by John Thompson about the "Ferguson" or, Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project 1840-1845 for NLA News.

Take the curious and arcane titles of the newspapers and periodicals published so prolifically in colonial Australia of the 1840's, combine them with the electronic technology of the late twentieth century and you will have a kind of modern alchemy at work. In an exciting new cooperative project initiated by the University of Sydney Library, the full content -text and images- of journals, newspapers, novels and short stories published in Australia during the years 1840-1845 is in the process of being digitised for delivery to users through the Internet. This project, though focussing on a particular body of material published in a few short years in the 1840's, is a significant step forward in the efforts currently being taken by librarians and academics to use the opportunities provided by the new technology to achieve enhanced access to the accumulated riches of the social, cultural and political heritage of Australia buried in the musty pages of rare and fragile publications held in only a handful of institutional libraries.

In the libraries and archives of the world, much is being made of the capability, both actual and potential, for information to be delivered electronically to a personal work station in the home or office. Budget-strapped libraries, hard-pressed to keep up with the explosion in world publishing, have been keen to realise what may be called a technology dividend, the substantial savings which might be accrued in the efficiency of the delivery of information and in the overheads traditionally associated with acquiring, controlling, housing and preserving materials such as books, documents, journals and periodicals and a range of other print and paper-based products.

Libraries, which as cultural institutions, represent tradition and continuity and perhaps, in the minds of some, a certain kind of otherworldliness, now see themselves positioned to achieve a miraculous transformation. Instead of bricks and mortar and the stretching kilometres of densely packed shelves, the library can now recreate itself to exist and flourish in the vast realms of cyberspace. The library, once real and actual, is capable of changing its identity to achieve instead a state of virtual reality. For many, this is a compelling idea, promising as it does a concept of access and accessibility never previously realised despite the tradition of democratic access which was (and remains) one of the fundamental planks of modern librarianship.

But if the promise of technology is great, the present reality is that libraries remain to a substantial degree the captives of their conservative past, the custodians of vast acreages of books, the repositories of what is sometimes called the collective memory of the world. Or put into a national perspective, books and associated forms of record embody and represent the history and culture of a country and of the growth and development of its people. If, prospectively, information may be efficiently managed and delivered for use by means of new technology, what of the legacy of the past which is precisely what it is claimed to be, the record of human development and experience, the memory of the world, of each country and of each and every region and local community?

In Australia, it is exciting to report that four major libraries of record, the National Library of Australia, the State Library of New South Wales, Fisher Library in the University of Sydney and Monash University Library in Melbourne, working in association with an Academic Advisory Group, have secured a substantial funding allocation from the Australian Research Council to implement the Australian Cooperative Digitisation Project, 1840-45. Although on an individual basis a number of libraries have developed digitisation strategies of their own, this project is a major first step in Australia by librarians and academics working in partnership and using computer technology to tackle the problem of the management, care and use of the huge retrospective holdings of printed materials which make up Australia's publishing history. This current project provides for the digital conversion of a selected body of nineteenth century Australian material, principally the proliferation of journal and newspaper titles published in the various Australian colonies in the years 1840 to 1845. Although in the early stages of implementation, the project already offers an indication of what might be possible on a larger scale, depending of course on the availability of resources.

It is of interest that the origins of this project lie in the efforts over several years of Dr Neil Radford, Librarian of the University of Sydney, to raise the awareness of his professional colleagues to the importance of preserving for future use the fragile paper-based materials which remain the basic stock in trade of most libraries. Although Radford's concerns were shared by a few, principally leading preservation experts such as Dr Jan Lyall of the National Preservation Office in the National Library in Canberra and Alan Howell, Manager of the Preservation Branch in Sydney's State Library of New South Wales, he recognised that for most of his colleagues in the various university libraries, preservation of 'old books' seemed somewhat quaint, old-fashioned and unexciting. The issue certainly ranked low in the priorities of many of his colleagues.

Against the more obvious appeal of the trialling of centrally mounted data bases, investigations of electronic publishing and the seductive lure of '...gadgets, flashing lights and whizz-bang technology', Radford felt pessimistic about the chances of mounting a strong case for the infrastructure funding which would enable a major preservation issue to be addressed. Quite quickly, however, the preservation cause was able to take advantage of exciting changes occurring in the same field internationally. At a conference on preservation microfilming presented in Adelaide in 1994 by Australia's National Preservation Office, Ross Coleman, Sydney University Library Collection Development Librarian, and others had been alerted to the work of the Cornell Digital Library at Cornell University Library in the United States and recognised immediately its application in Australia to deal with the issues of both preservation and access which Radford and his colleagues had been pushing for several years. More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that the Cornell project and another at Yale (the Open Book Project) had secured the support of prestigious national funding bodies in the U.S.- the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Commission for Preservation and Access- and that this offered an encouraging precedent for Australia. The focus of the two American projects was clear: to test the relationship between microfilm and digital imagery in order to, in the one operational process, create microfilm for preservation and digital images for access purposes. As Radford has observed, here was the opportunity to turn old books into a shiny new electronic product and to attract the necessary dollars from funding bodies.

Another powerful factor working in favour of the substantial funding of an Australian digitisation project was the growing commitment by the community of Australian libraries to cooperative action to enhance the overall effectiveness of the Australian library system to deliver services to the nation. Led in part by the National Library (particularly by its Deputy Director-General Eric Wainwright who has provided a high level of intellectual leadership), but with the strong support of both state and academic libraries, a broad consensus had been reached which recognised the cumulative value as a national resource of individual library collections around Australia. The concept of the Distributed National Collection led in turn to broad agreement on an ambitious series of cooperative initiatives developed at the Towards Federation 2001 Libraries Summit hosted by the National Library of Australia in 1992. In was in this larger environment that Neil Radford and other like-minded colleagues could at last see a window of opportunity through which Australian libraries could utilise the new technology to broach the large task of repackaging older print collections both to meet preservation objectives and to serve the needs of academic and other researchers. Other factors encouraging optimism were the range of government initiatives of national importance including Open Learning and the Commonwealth Government's Creative Nation statement which embraced the new technology as a means to enhance access by Australians to a broad range of cultural and educational programs and to the materials held in institutional collections all over the country.

But where to begin and how to focus a project which might deliver a real benefit to the Australian community? With the benefit of advice provided by a panel of academic experts led by Elizabeth Webby, Professor of Australian Literature in the University of Sydney, the project narrowed its options from potentially the entire range of eighteenth and nineteenth century titles listed in Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia to a select body of newspaper and periodical publications issued in the several Australian colonies in the years 1840-1845. As Webby puts it, this was a period of 'emergent nationalism', following the end of convict transportation to New South Wales and preceding the influx of the gold-rush migrations of the 1850's. The 1840's was a period when a real explosion began in local publishing A wider geographic dispersal of publishing began to produce a greater variety of locally written material in publications designed to meet the needs of different audiences. Although a considerable range and variety of material emerged both in colonial capitals and regional centres such as Geelong and Maitland, Webby makes the point that for a project of this kind, the output is manageable while the material itself has a distinctive voice and character which helps to give historic definition to the 1840's as an important period of transition. Webby emphasises two key elements of the early years of the decade: the beginnings of diversifcation in publishing with the appearance of journals devoted to topics as varied as science, sport, temperance as well as the first papers specifically directed to a working class audience.

Culturally, it is also important to recognise that the 1840's saw the first significant appearance in print of a distinctively Australian fiction, stimulated in part by the demand for local writing encouraged by the serial press. With this link, it makes sense therefore to include the texts of the handful of novels which achieved publication in the years between 1841 and 1845 and which offered a distinctively Australian setting for the stories they told. Webby stresses that one of the major benefits of this project will be to make accessible to a much wider audience a range of materials which because of its rarity and fragility has been available only to the few. She suggests that the project has the potential to create a whole new audience: cultural historians; social historians, economic historians; family historians as well as to schools: 'There is still so much work to be done on this period and the wealth and variety of the published record has barely been tapped'.

If access is about to be transformed, the project is also important in other ways. Colin Webb, Manager, Information Preservation at the National Library places emphasis on the conservation and preservation advantages. As a conservator constantly challenged by the fragility of paper-based materials and what he describes as '... the ever-present need to reconcile the conflict between preservation and use ...', Webb welcomes the opportunities which this project presents to reformat materials, initially through microfilming, but then, through digitisation, to deliver access to an image which is significantly superior both to microfilm and in some cases even to the original itself. Colin Webb is excited about the opportunities which this project presents for conservators to move beyond microfilming as a reformatting medium. He notes that digitisation does things which microfilming does not do very effectively: mistakes can be corrected; images can be enhanced and replicated endlessly without any loss of quality; and although the initial costs of digitisation are high, Webb points out that the subsequent costs of duplication and electronic delivery to users are very low indeed. While the long-term archival stability of the digitised image cannot be guaranteed, Webb argues that this project is also worthwhile as the means to experiment with a very exciting and powerful technology. The benefits of accessibility are obvious and immediate and he is optimistic that a solution will be found to meet the long-term needs of archival retention using data migration methods.

The responsibility for the coordination of the project rests with Ross Coleman from his base at Sydney University. Coleman brings a high level of enthusiasm to his task and, like other members of the team, is excited to be involved in the breaking of new ground. He is conscious too of the responsibility which he carries to deliver a good return on the investment of close to half a million dollars which is the total cost of the project. Coleman is especially pleased to be part of a project which represents the best elements of cooperation between libraries and of partnership between librarians, academics and conservators. He sees the project as a special kind of opportunity: 'It's both a test and an opportunity' he says, 'a chance to work with the technology, to deliver a greatly improved level of access to rare materials and to provide the quality benchmarking which will assist with the development of future projects'. He is proud also that with this project, Australia is engaging very creatively with the new technology: 'Australia is up there with the best and most innovative overseas projects of a similar kind. Our experience will be valuable not only here in this country but will be of benefit internationally.'

From the confines of library basements to the cutting edge, the persistence of Neil Radford and his colleagues in promoting a stronger sense of professional obligation to the 'old books' of the past is about to be vindicated. This cooperative project brings an exciting new dimension to Australian librarianship, scholarship and to those who work behind the scenes to ensure the survival of those fragile materials which are the stuff and voice of history.

John Thompson, Collections and Reader Services Division
Last updated 25 February 1997

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