Conference, Hack, Conference

An Aussie Rules football match earlier this year in western Sydney. This is where I segue into a comment relating to the conferences but really, I don't think any of the international attendees at the conference at University of Sydney this week will be attending a footy match.

An Aussie Rules football match earlier this year in Western Sydney between Greater Western Sydney and Hawthorn. This is where I should segue into a comment relating to the conferences but really, I don’t think any of the international attendees at the conference at University of Sydney this week will be attending a footy match. I could also make a comment about attendees kicking goals and being ‘on the ball’ but that has been done before. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t find a photo that related to the subject matter.

Today I am embarking on a crazy eleven days. This week I am attending the International Digital Humanities Conference at the University of Western Sydney. When that ends on Friday, I then head to the State Library of NSW for the weekend of the GovHack competition. I’ll be there throughout the weekend extracting a variety datasets about World War I as part of a team which will produce something online which will help people gain greater insights into an aspect of the history of the War. Then on Monday 6th July the annual Australian Historical Association conference commences. I am delivering a paper at this conference.

Digital Humanities is an emerging discipline about the use of technology in humanities research. GovHack is an annual competition where Australian governments, and this year New Zealand, encourage people to use government datasets, merge them, filter them, visualise them and generally be creative with them in order to find new insights and help people to connect with this information. The WWIHack is part of the GovHack competition this year. Cultural institutions from around Australia and New Zealand are making available datasets about World War One available for the competition. All datasets are freely available for anyone to use, so even if you are not entering these competitions you can also have a look at them and see what you can make of them.

I am exhausted thinking about it, but in these two weeks I will learn so much that will be useful for my work. As well as an important learning opportunity these events will recharge my enthusiasm for my book and make me look at it in a new light.

I will be sharing my experience of these activities through blog posts and tweets. These are the hashtags I will be using on Twitter (@perkinsy) over the next couple of weeks:

I realised I had not explained what digital humanities and GovHack were when I wrote this late last night so I quickly added an explanatory paragraph this morning.

“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

Continue reading

Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War. Continue reading

Wisps of Change in Global Business?

Cover of the Six Capitals book

Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White, (Allen & Unwin, 2014).

I was delighted earlier this week when my first book review of the year was published on the Newtown Review of Books. This website does a great service to Australia’s book industry and it is a pleasure to be edited by the founders of the website, Jean Bedford and Linda Funnell

I reviewed Jane Gleeson-White’s latest book, Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism had to have – or can accountants save the planet?  This is the follow up book to Double Entry which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

I enjoy reading Gleeson-White’s books about accounting. They are much more interesting than the deadly dull books I had to read when I was doing my accounting degree. Thank goodness for economics I say! Without economics to provide interesting content I would have struggled to finish my degree.

I started my working career working as an accountant in the mid-1980s working in audit at one of what was then known as the big eight international accounting firms. After a couple of years I moved to small business work at a middle tier firm in Melbourne.

This was an eventful period in the economy. I started work during the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era and never forget the ‘recession we had to have’ which was so devastating in Melbourne. Who can forget that morning when we woke to the announcement that the State Bank of Victoria had become insolvent and been taken over by the Commonwealth Bank over night? It was devastating news for Victorians.

(On a side note, it was lovely to find the State Bank of Victoria Social Networking Site while writing this post. It shows the staff of the bank still have regular reunions and other social activities. They are also scanning all the Bank’s staff magazines from 1958 onwards and have uploaded various ephemera. Maybe an historian reading this might find them a good resource?)

Working in a chartered accounting firm during that era was certainly not dull. I worked with some good people and we had an enjoyable social life, particularly at the second firm. I was the first woman on the factory floor at a car parts manufacturer and unwittingly managed to avert a threatened union black ban on a stock take. I was a novelty and my happy accident of saying ‘scusi’ to one of the many Italian workers went down well, as did treating them with respect. Continue reading

The Creative Mind

One gumtree profiled against a backdrop of a grassy park with mist rising off it. The sun is shining on the mist.

One morning I woke up, rubbed my eyes and ran for my camera. This is what I saw from my bedroom window.

Ever since I was a teenager I have believed in trying to learn something before going to sleep. The evening study period has always been a productive time for me, even if I have not succeeded in the learning I have set myself. I close my notes, read an enjoyable book and then go to sleep. On waking in the morning I consult my notes again and often found that I have remembered more than I thought I had or I have worked out the problem that was out of reach the night before.

Rest is very important for the mind. The subconscious does some magical things when the mind is given some rest. We are at our most unproductive when we try to work excessive hours. Our productivity diminishes as we try to push through our tiredness and ignore the need to socialise with family, go for a walk or have a leisurely meal. Worrying about a problem and obsessing over it can drive the solution away. People may boast of long working hours, but all they are declaring is how unproductive they are.

This time last year we were in the midst of purchasing a house, selling excess household stuff and moving to Singapore. I had one last significant commitment in Australia – to deliver a paper on my research to the annual Religious History Association conference. This was to be the finale of my work of the last couple of years. I had already done a lot of reading and found my primary sources. All I had to do was write it up.

Yet I found writing impossible. There was too much clutter in my mind. Continue reading

Write it Down!

Western side of the library building with two large banners advertising the Treasures Gallery. Small deciduous trees with no leaves are in the foreground.

National Library of Australia at sunset. I took this as I dragged myself away from interesting research to have dinner one night this week.

At times research is like pulling teeth but then there are the wonderful times when you race through the work, doors open one after another revealing hints that suggest that you might be close to a big break through. Over the last few months my research has been humming along. In the couple of weeks it has been particularly fruitful. This week I have been pursuing some fascinating stories in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia.

I am immersed in the thoughts of some of the most reflective men in the Australian Army during World War I through their diaries. While these soldiers are among the most forthcoming soldiers to wield a pen in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), they often stop writing when I find the subject most interesting. Over the last few months I have been working with other sources to reveal more about those tantalising stories.

The beliefs of the soldiers of the AIF were cloaked by the larrikinism of some soldiers and derisive comments about army chaplains. Their letters and diaries are dominated by accounts of the work of war but every now and then there will be a sentence or two which sheds light on the complex beliefs of the soldier. Surrounded by death every day and charged with the task of killing others, some Australian soldiers pondered the great spiritual questions of life and death as well as the moral questions which a war inevitably brings. I am now searching in other archival sources to find out more about the comments soldiers made in their diaries. In particular I am researching the stories of soldiers who may not have left any writing for us to research today.

Continue reading

The Prison Poet is Heard

Book cover for Prison Poems

Mahvash Sabet, Adapted from the original Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Prison Poems, (George Ronald, 2013).

I write if only to stir faint memories of flight
in these wing-bound birds,
to open the cage of the heart for a moment
trapped without words.
For how can one not faint for these women,
beaten so brutally?
How can one not fear for them, suffering
such tyrannical cruelty.

Mahvash Sabet, ‘The Perfume of Poetry’, Prison Poems, p. 32

A woman sits in her prison cell in Iran, poetry flows from her pen. Of all Iran’s prisoners of conscience she and six fellow prisoners are serving the longest sentences of all. A member of a persecuted minority, the charges against them were patently false and their trial transgressed basic standards of legal procedure. The jail door has been slammed shut for a long time. Continue reading