New tricks for old material

Angus & Robertston Ltd Booksellers, Sydney, 1916 / photographer unknown
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 ARCHivER and Angus & Robertson at the State Library of New South Wales


For historians, there is a degree of professional pride associated with spending days or weeks trawling through page after page of a paper archive. The more obscure or difficult to access the material is, the better, as this increases the chance of upturning some remarkable hitherto unknown piece of information. There are other ways of shedding new light on the past, however, and some of them can actually enhance access to archival collections, which can only be a good thing.

The State Library of New South Wales’ collection of the papers of iconic Australian publisher Angus & Robertson was given some deserved attention this week at the ‘Waratah and Thistle’ symposium  held at the State Library (Monday 10 April 2017).

Among other things, the symposium highlighted the new work being done by scholars at Western Sydney University to breathe new life into large paper-based collections like that of Angus & Robertson, using ground-breaking digital techniques and concepts. The ARCHivER project (which stands for Angus & Robertson Collection for Humanities and Education Research) is funded by the Australian National Data Service and led by Dr Jason Ensor of the Digital Humanities Research Group at WSU. This project will greatly enhance the accessibility of the material in the State Library while retaining the serendipitous aspect gained from browsing the physical collection.

ARCHivER is a software platform currently housing 18,000 digital copies of documents from Angus & Robertson’s business correspondence, tied together using controlled vocabulary tags based on structured metadata categories and linked data concepts. Each document is tagged to reflect topics and personalities mentioned in the material, allowing them to be drawn together in new ways across the large collection.

The concept of ‘linked data’ is a philosophical approach to the way data is organised on the internet to make it more useable by a wider range of people. There is an abundance of information already out there on the World Wide Web, but is vastly underutilised due to being in a multitude of formats that are not necessarily designed to work together. The idea behind the ‘semantic web’ project could broadly be described as a push to organise data on the web by ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language—or, in practice, putting it in a standard format or range of formats that can work together. Rather than creating a digital project to answer a single research question, approaching the technology in this way will allow many different projects to use the same data and ask different questions of it. It will also allow the ARCHivER project to link in with existing information and capture material across different collections around the world and existing web repositories, bringing ideas together in unprecedented ways.

We intend to include Optical Character Recognition technology to allow full-text searches across the collection, but the linked tags are still necessary to add an extra level of data capture to the process. The tags are based on a controlled vocabulary to ensure consistency, and are specially designed to allow both broad and specific searches to be performed across the repository. As well as markedly enhancing access to the collection, there is great potential for new light to be shed on the material using these tools.

Angus & Robertson is undoubtedly of great importance to Australian literature. What is immediately apparent when browsing their collection, however, is the international character of their operations, reflecting the nature of writing and publishing networks throughout the twentieth century. Buried in the archive are all manner of vital pieces of information pertaining to the workings of cultural infrastructure and the lives of writers that transcend national borders. It is very difficult to find this information anywhere else, as publishing histories have largely been written using a national framework.

For example, I am currently trying to discover why Australians and New Zealanders seem so uninterested in each other’s literature, given that this used to not be the case. A letter I found using ARCHivER confirms my suspicions: in 1948, while discussing the importance of the New Zealand market to their business, Angus & Roberton’s George Ferguson wrote to the head of the Publishers Association Committee that ‘New Zealand booksellers have always been very interested in Australian books, and for many years have bought quite large quantities’.[i] 

This attitude seems to have largely died out, and it will be much easier to discover the reasons why when I am able to effectively ‘listen in’ on conversations from the past, as allowed by ARCHivER. In this case, the conversations are about the creation and dissemination of Australian and international literature. If linked in with other collections as planned, this will expand to enhance our understanding as never before.

The system includes the built-in ability to record interactions between agents and apply network analysis and mapping tools to the data, something that could never be achieved by hand. This has exciting implications for questions such as mine about the rise and fall of trans-Tasman publishing connections. The full implications of this project remain to be seen—we have really only just started—but the State Library of New South Wales’ Angus & Robertson collection is no longer only visible to the stalwart few.

[i] George Ferguson to A. J. Day, 7 July 1948, Publishers Association Committee in Australia, ML MSS 3269/580, State Library of New South Wales manuscript collection.

Dr Helen Bones, is a Research Associate, Digital Humanities Research Group Sessional Academic and Historian, School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. 


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