Rethinking the Digital Encyclopaedia Genre: An Australasian Perspective

 Defining the Genre

The term ‘genre’ is used here to loosely describe the innovative work that has occurred in the construction and use of dictionaries and encyclopaedias in the Australasian region.  As applications of computing within the humanities have expanded, so too have the boundaries of how we understand these applications.  Many digital humanities projects have grown out of their disciplinary moorings to become truly interdisciplinary in nature, engaging with new audiences beyond the traditional communities of humanities scholarship.  For instance, online encyclopaedias and dictionaries have emerged as an expression of a particular type of genre that has been embraced and progressed within numerous humanities projects in the Australasian region.

The projects are diverse in nature, shaped by their own set of historical circumstances and subject matter, and yet they reveal a similar set of conventions.  They are interdisciplinary, and they have dedicated audiences – two factors that help to sustain them and foster their engagement with and contribution to evolving technical methods in the digital humanities.  The projects communicate knowledge in a similar ‘encyclopaedic’ manner, thus attracting a popular as well as a specialist audience, which is vital for their sustainability.  Further, the underlying technical structure reveals a commitment to technical sustainability and respect for historical research standards, and for producing enduring records.  As a mode of digital scholarship, this genre is proving to be a robust model for the digital humanities, with an audience impact that broadens the reach of the field.

Australian Dictionary of Biography and Obituaries Australia

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adbonline.anu.edu.au) is the premier reference resource for the study of the lives of Australians who were significant in Australian history.  Published in print since 1966, the ADB went online in 2006 and is now one of the most cited Australian web resources for the humanities.  This presentation reports on the current redevelopment of the ADB, which is being undertaken for longer term sustainability in an online-only publishing environment, as well as to enable new forms of historical understanding and analysis.  A new companion project, Obituaries Australia, will be launched in 2011.  Rather than providing definitive accounts of prominent lives, it collects together obituaries and related digitised material from many sources including personal archives.

Although both the ADB and Obituaries Australia have been initially built on custom databases, they will ultimately be migrated to a wiki platform, and in time the two resources will be interlinked.  The broad goals for these projects are to: (1) enhance entries through collecting richer metadata; (2) digitise, document and link to the entries a wide range of documents, making primary and secondary sources easily accessible to the public as well as for internal editorial and research purposes; (3) expose the data in suitable formats for analysis and re-use by external parties; and (4) begin to trace the complex associations between people, events and places to build a collective portrait of Australian society. (P Arthur)

Structure after the Fact: From Abstract Database to Digital Encyclopaedia

 The Dictionary of Sydney (http://dictionaryofsydney.org) is built on top of a generic web database (Heurist) designed from the ground up for humanities research data.  Heurist uses an abstract data model which can accommodate any type of physical or conceptual entity (building, map, document, person, event, role, relationships, annotations etc.) without any modification of the underlying database structure or effect on existing data.  The independence between database structure and the domain modelled confers the flexibility required by open-ended humanities projects and encourages the granular recording of information (for example, birth, marriage and death as individual fact records rather than as fixed calendar attributes of individuals).  The remixing possibilities of such granular data allow decisions about delivery formats to be taken after-the-fact, allowing data to be repurposed for websites, data feeds, maps, mobile applications etc. (I Johnson)

AustLit: Mining for Meaning in Australian Literary History

Austlit (http://www.austlit.edu.au/) is a unique digital humanities resource containing comprehensive biographical, bibliographical and full text data related to Australian literary, print and narrative cultures.  Under development for the past decade and constructed as an element of national research infrastructure, AustLit is a destination for researchers to both seek authoritative information and contribute to the resource in the pursuit of their own knowledge-building agendas.  Researchers working in a diverse range of related fields use AustLit to generate highly structured yet considerably nuanced datasets.  AustLit research communities cover, for example, genre-based areas (drama, pulp fiction, screen writing), subject-specific areas (the representation of ‘Asia’ in literary texts), regional and locally based research (tropical Australia and state-based datasets), author and creator focused research (Indigenous writers, writers with multicultural or non-English speaking backgrounds), through to specialist cultural analysis projects (such as the mapping of banned or restricted books in the 20th century).

With such varied research projects all operating within the same virtual research environment, the result is the creation of a resource that is as wide as it is deep.  AustLit presents a record of the history of the nation’s literary development over the course of 220 years of publishing, reading and writing.  The database, containing millions of analysable data elements, allows for a range of interrogations to be made in order to investigate assumptions frequently made around the nature of publishing, reading and genre across history. (K Kilner)

Pathways Project: Using Archival Records

This project is a public knowledge space with the specific purpose of helping right wrongs inflicted to individuals in the past.  The Australian Federal Government ‘Forgotten Australians’ initiative provided a mandate for research and public action to improve access to records of people who had been placed in ‘care’ through services provided by both public and private institutions.  ‘Who Am I?’ is a University of Melbourne, Australian Research Council funded project involving extensive community engagement that has the aim of coming to grips with why it is so difficult for people who were in care to find and access records from that period of their life.

Pathways: Historical resources for people who experience out of home ‘care’ in Victoria (http://www.pathwaysvictoria.info/) is a useful example of a highly purpose-driven ‘encyclopaedia’ that has proven to have broad stakeholder uptake and approval.  Indeed, it is the first of its type in this sector in Australia and represents a major breakthrough for this community to share knowledge in a sustainable and engaging way. Of particular note is the action research process that was utilised to engage the community and tackle the issues of widely distributed and variously managed and documented archival collections.  The project has involved government as well as community service organisations, archival and information services.  The collaborative writing of collection and series level descriptions of sets of archival records has become a major means of developing a capability that has been missing from the sector. (G Mccarthy)

 (See websites)

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