A Jewel in the Australian City of Literature

read description below.

The stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. In the centre is a raised platform where librarians in bygone days used to sit and police the silence.

I have had the pleasure of doing some research at the State Library of Victoria while in Melbourne for the birth of our granddaughter.  Melbourne was the second city in the world to be designated a ‘City of Literature‘ by UNESCO. Melbourne has had a long love of books. The State Library of Victoria was one of the first public libraries in Australia (officially opened in 1856), but it continues to be loved and heavily used by the public. Increasingly tourists are visiting this Library to view the magnificent building.

Old book, computer plugged into one of the desks and an old chair to sit on.

My little place in the La Trobe Reading Room. It is a lovely mix of new and old. There are many power points in the old desks and wi-fi is available throughout the Library.

The stunning La Trobe Reading Room is a joy to work in. The room is flooded with daylight from the glass dome which soars thirty-five metres above. Even on one of Melbourne’s many dismal grey cloudy days, the dome and the white walls lift my spirits while I am working.

The La Trobe Reading Room was designed on panopticon principles, with a central raised platform in the middle of the room where in days gone by, a librarian would be perched to police the silence. Today no-one sits there. Apparently noise can be a problem in the room, but it has never bothered me. I find it difficult to concentrate in silence.

I have always wanted to do more photography at the Library so in breaks from reading World War I diaries I have been roaming around taking photos. Continue reading

A Gleam of Hope

2015-09-09 10.24.36 Hand and FingerI am in Melbourne for a few weeks for someone very special.

Our first grandchild was born a couple of weeks ago.

It was not only the first grandchild on both sides of the family, but the first great-grandchild for all great-grandparents.

She is so calm and quiet when we are around although the parents have had some sleepless nights. She squawks a bit on the change table but then sees something on the wall and stops crying even though she has no clothes on. She has not inherited her grandmother’s loud voice!

Last weekend Hubble and I were on grandparent duty looking after her in the hospital waiting room while her mother was sleeping. I have nothing much to report as the baby just slept and woke every four hours for a feed, then slept. What an ideal first baby!

Many things have not changed since our children were born in the 1990s. The hoo-ha around birth is the same as ever. Parents and grandparents still think their baby is the most gorgeous baby they have seen. The plastic cribs new-born babies are kept in are the same, as are the flannel gowns with ties on the back that hospitals provide for newborns. The nappy fold for newborn babies still seems to be the ideal fold. While my brain could not quite remember it, my hands automatically did it when I relied on muscle memory.

Mothers still have ultrasounds – albeit better resolution and at different stages of pregnancy. There has been progress on finding the causes of sudden infant death syndrome. They seem to have settled on placing babies on their backs when in the cot.

Some things are deteriorating. Sadly, hospitals are now contributing to our ever-expanding landfill because they no longer provide a cloth nappy and laundry service for new-born babies so parents end up using disposable nappies. Food for breast-feeding mothers in public hospitals is ridiculously meagre. My daughter counted five pieces of penne pasta in her ‘dinner’. Rice and cous cous are regarded by the hospital as vegetables – and only one ‘vegetable’ is allowed in a meal. So much for the dietary guidance of the National Health and Medical Research Council. Even hospitals don’t follow it.

Menu C

At any rate we stepped in and ensured she had enough to eat.

Other aspects of life have changed profoundly. Now, parents need to develop a social media policy ready for the birth. How much do you want disclosed on Facebook? What should you do to protect the baby’s privacy?

When our children were born I kept the newspaper of the day as a memento, but hard copy newspapers are such a minor thing nowadays I didn’t bother. Now grandparents like us get their news off social media and websites. We blog, tweet and use Facebook (although I use Facebook reluctantly).

A blog can be many things including a personally curated news summary. So this post was intended as a twenty-first century version of recording the news in brief for the first week of our grand-daughter’s life. However, as I started writing it became a litany of the world’s woes. Those newspapers we kept when our children were born would have been similar.

I have found it quite confronting writing this with the image of our grand-daughter as a baby in my mind. One day she will be grown up and mature enough to read about the history of the times she was born in, but I can’t bring myself to write about it for someone who I see as a baby now.

I have drawn up this compendium in part by referring back to my tweets of the last couple of weeks. I find that Twitter is great for helping me hear about things that might not be publicised in Australia, as well as an opportunity to contribute news that my network may not be aware of. My tweeting policy is to focus on those news items which will alert people to injustices and that by sharing will raise awareness and therefore help all of us to treat people more fairly. I also tweet news that contributes knowledge that will help improve the world. I avoid the daily grind of political barbs. Life is too short to be weighed down by that.

So while the following news briefs discuss some of the dreadful things that are occurring in the world, each item also includes a gleam of hope. Continue reading

Review: Visiting the Neighbours – Australians in Asia

Cover of Visiting the Neighbours

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska (New South: 2014).

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia gives an overview of more than a century of Australian travel in South-east Asia. It demonstrates that the Australian relationship with Asian countries is long and complex. Focussing primarily on private travel, the author, Agnieszka Sobocinska provides a book which will cause many readers to reflect on their own relationship with Asia.

The breadth of Sobocinska’s work is ambitious. Using diaries, letters, travel books and other sources, Sobocinska looks at the experiences of Australian tourists, business people, travel writers, soldiers, humanitarians, drug traffickers and more. Sobocinska shares glimpses of their experiences to demonstrate that contrary to the proclamations of various Australian politicians, Australia’s engagement with Asia is not new and it has a complex history.

While Visiting the Neighbours focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century experiences of Australians travelling in Asia, Sobocinska acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal Australians have had a trading relationship with the Macassans (who lived in what we now know as Indonesia) for centuries. In the twenty-first century Sobocinska notes that nearly twice as many Australians visited Indonesia than visited the United Kingdom.

The book unfolds in a broadly chronological sequence starting at the time when the British Empire reached around the globe. The issue of race is a theme that runs through much of the book. Sobocinska shows that travel in Asia forced Australians to think and in some cases, re-assess their views on the White Australia policy. She continues to examine race issues by reflecting on the post-colonial relationships that some of the Australian travellers developed with locals when they visited to give humanitarian service as well as the experience of travellers on the ‘Hippie Trail’ of the sixties and seventies. Sobocinska points out that the travellers on the Hippie Trail had little to do with the local populations, preferring to hang out with fellow western travellers: Continue reading

Pause, Reflect and Share… and a note to publishers

Peter Stanley standing on the, left, holding his book. I am standing on the right.

Peter Stanley and I at his book launch earlier this month.

Tomorrow I am driving to Canberra and will be in Melbourne at the end of the week. I am looking forward to researching at the State Library of Victoria and the Public Records Office of Victoria as well as catching up with family and friends. I have identified some key soldiers for my book and will be doing further research into the lives of a couple of the Victorian soldiers.

While World War I will be the focus of my book, I want to write about some of the experiences of the soldiers in their families and schools before the war as well as looking at their lives after the War. Soldiers brought the culture and learning they had received as children to war with them. The War stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

As you can imagine I am reading a lot of books about World War I. Most are well written but the one I am reading at the moment is infuriating because of the lack of referencing. I have done a bit of my own research to try to substantiate some of the author’s claims but cannot find proof of major claim about a statistic of the War. Humph! If a history is not properly referenced unfounded claims can be passed as truths. For all we know these books can be a mix of fiction and history, a member of the ‘faction’ genre.  Poorly referenced histories are not good sources. I have found another book on the topic which I am hoping is properly referenced.

Publishers – if you want your history books to be taken seriously then allow your authors to publish their fully referenced work! Why should we believe unsubstantiated claims?

As my then seventeen-year old daughter observed several years ago, footnotes (or endnotes) are ‘sneakily important’. Read that post for more about the problems of lack of referencing and the rise of ‘faction’.

I will step off my soap box now. Continue reading

The Loud Sounds of Many Fingers Typing

Lush garden in front, deciduous tree in centre in front of 2 storey old building

My favourite, quiet courtyard at University of Sydney

This series of posts has largely celebrated the tweeting of this year’s Australian Historical Association Conference. Overall we did well at sharing the news of the conference online. But while we should celebrate our achievements, we should at the same time keep a sense of proportion on all this. Twitter is not everything and neither is social media. The vast majority of conference attendees did not send a tweet and are probably not on Twitter at all. However, as I wrote in my last post, historians who are not on Twitter also benefit from tweeting.

But for at least one attendee, the use of computers during conference sessions detracted from their conference experience. After the conference they shared their less than ideal experience with me. They noted that I had referred to “soft tapping of numerous keyboards” from people tweeting at the Global Digital Humanities Conference in an earlier post. This historian said that in their view the sounds of people typing was not ‘soft’ but so loud that they found it quite distracting. They said that they didn’t feel comfortable raising this during the comfortable as they didn’t want to upset people or cause the issue to mushroom into a controversy. Continue reading

Top Retweets from 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference

Sandstone Quadrangle Building at University of Sydney

A glimpse of one of Sydney’s modern skyscrapers through an ivy-covered arch of University of Sydney’s nineteenth-century Quadrangle Building.

Retweeting amplifies tweets. One tweet is ephemeral. It can easily be lost in the deluge of tweets that are emitted at the same time. Retweeting is one way that tweeps catch tweets that appeal to them and increase the volume on those tweets. The tweet is sent again but to a slightly different audience and at a different time. A tweet that is retweeted many times has something in the 140 characters that has captured the imagination of the Twittersphere and has a much larger audience than the first time it was sent.

In my last post I wrote about the dominant themes that emerged in the Australian Historical Association Conference’s Twitter stream. This was done by analysing the most popular words in the Twitter stream. Another way to understand what interested the conference tweeps is to have a look at the most retweeted conference tweets:

Tweet No. RTs
1 RT @perkinsy: #OzHA2015 For all those who want to learn how to use @TroveAustralia API, here are simple step by step instructions: http://t.co/1vsBpXOZzm 17
2 RT @AustHistAssoc: Mark McKenna #OzHA2015. Historians need to be part of public debate as collaborators with journalists, documentary makers, museum curators. 15
3 RT @perkinsy: I’m presenting at #OzHA2015 now: Needle in the haystack: a searching look at digital tools’. See slides: http://t.co/NXuAT5Rsjp #dhist 11
4 RT @baibi: My paper is on Sydney boy Charlie Allen, who lived in China from 1909 to 1915, + the letters he wrote home. #OzHA2015 http://t.co/0donu76vCF 10
5 RT @history_punk: #OzHA2015 Matthews: fascinating insights into history/social change and a lifelong commitment to research/activism. http://t.co/kl8ZzVksvF 10
5 RT @AustHistAssoc: Catherine Freyne #OzHA2015. How to write history for radio? Balance of narrative and analysis, anecdote and reflection. 9
6 RT @ap_ap_ap_: Those at #OzHA2015 – check out this fab #DH2015 keynote on memory and access to archival sources by @wragge: http://t.co/xGgwy1707t 8
7 RT @AustHistAssoc: Anna Clark #OzHA2015. Historians caught between rigorous demands of scholarship and appetites of audiences for intimate stories. 8
7 RT @history_punk: #OzHA2015 Mootz: You can teach a 5 yr old about historiography. How? Ask mum/dad to tell you about the day you were born. Two perspectives! 8

Trove was the subject of the most retweeted tweet in the conference. It seems a lot of people are interested in learning how to use the facility provided by Trove for the speedy, mass download of search results. This technology is called an API. You don’t need any qualifications or programming expertise to use it. As I said in the tweet, you can learn how to use it with some simple step by step instructions I have written. By using an API you are liberated from the tedium of clicking each search result and saving it one by one. Give it a go – it will open up a world of possibilities for you.

In a similar vein, Tim Sherratt’s well-received and provocative keynote speech at the previous week’s Global Digital Humanities Conference gained deserved attention by people following the #OzHA2015 hashtag. His paper examined our access to government archives and questioned the perception that “open access” really means that. If you have not already done so, make sure you read his paper which he has made available on his discontents blog.

Three tweets from the Big Questions plenary panel were in the top retweets which reflects my comments in the last post about the interest of conference tweeps in this session on public history. panelists, Mark McKenna, Catherine Freyne and Anna Clark provided these morsels of interest. Likewise, women’s history is reflected in this list of popular retweets. It is worth clicking on the link to the screenshot from Jill Julius Matthews’ Australian Women’s History Network keynote presentation.

The last in the list of retweets is a wonderfully quirky but perceptive insight into the learning of history in real life. This pearl was contributed by Denis Mootz of the History Teachers’ Association of NSW in his paper on ‘Historical Literacy’.

There are two interesting tweets in this list. Both the third and the fourth tweets on the list were pre-scheduled tweets that Kate Bagnall and I sent while we were speaking. This indicates that people following the Twitter stream found it helpful when speakers contributed some tweets about their papers while they presented their papers. These pre-scheduled tweets provided some context to those following from afar and helped tweeps in the audience by locating information about the paper for them. For more about this see my post, ‘Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age’.

This post has focussed on the people who was the subject of the tweets, not the person who wrote and sent the tweets. There is a very good reason for this. In the academic and professional sphere the content of tweets is important. To take an extreme case, a professional who only tweets about their morning coffee is unlikely to get many followers, even if they are an esteemed leader in their field. A person who only tweets about themselves and their own work is of limited interest unless they are a leader in their field. There are few people like this.

Effective professional use of social media is an act of service to a professional community. Professional tweeps help share knowledge and assist members of the community to connect with each other.

Librarians and teachers understand this well. They regard their social media connections as a ‘Professional Learning Network’ (PLN). The historian tweeps at the conference and those following online were using social media to learn and to connect. People who use social media professionally learn from others and pass it on. They ask questions of their Professional Learning Network when they need help. While they certainly contribute their own work, this may be only about 25% of their tweets/posts. For the vast majority of us it is the content of the tweets that we send that is valued above all else.

It was the presenters at the conference and other conferences who provided the interesting ideas and comments which tweeps passed on to the Twittersphere. This list of popular retweets shows that Twitter can help raise the profile of people who are not on Twitter. Tweeting a conference is a service to an online community which wants to learn more about the subject. It is also a service to presenters at a conference as their ideas are disseminated to a wider audience.

This analysis uses the data from the Conference’s Twitter Archive maintained by digital historian, Sharon Howard. If you would like to look behind the analysis I have done of the conference tweets go to the Voyant Tools text analysis page I have created. Let me know if you find something interesting.

Twitter Themes During 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference

word cloud

Most commonly used words in #OzHA2015 tweets during the 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference. Click on the word cloud to enlarge it. Click on it again to be taken to the data behind this word cloud. I love this facility from Voyant Tools!

During the four days of open sessions at the conference, participants tweeted over forty thousand words excluding hashtags and Twitter handles. This year’s conference had the biggest Twitter stream of any Australian Historical Association conference since 2012 and as my last post showed, more people tweeted the conference than ever before.

A conference Twitter stream is a news service for those who cannot attend the event.  It is a crowd note-taking service which participants can refer to in order to jog their memory, find out what happened in sessions they did not attend and to provide added commentary which enriches the conference discourse.

Yet we need to be careful about what a Twitter conference stream can and cannot provide. The fact that there are lots of tweets does not necessarily mean that the event is properly represented in the hashtag. Any digital history papers are more likely to be well tweeted because attendees interested in technology are more likely to be on Twitter. Likewise some papers might miss out on coverage on Twitter even though the room is full, because those attendees are not on Twitter.

How well did this year’s Twitter stream reflect the conference program?

The word cloud above represents the most frequently tweeted words during the four days of sessions at the conference (after excluding stop words such as ‘the’ ‘are’, ‘a’ etc). Predictably words such as history, historians, Australian, Australia and historical were among the most commonly used words in the Conference Twitter stream. If we delve deeper there are some other themes which emerge.

I have taken a closer look at the fifty most tweeted words to identify topics of significant interest to the tweeps during the conference. This is a subjective analysis. I did not use topic modelling software and I ignored over four thousand words which occurred with less frequency in the conference Twitter stream. However, I feel that this limited analysis provides an interesting indicator of at least some of the dominant themes in the Twitter stream. Continue reading