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 constructing and using dictionaries and encyclopaedias in the Australasian region. As computing applications 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 genuinely interdisciplinary, 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, shaped by their own historical circumstances and subject matter, yet they reveal a similar set of conventions. They are interdisciplinary and have dedicated audiences, two factors that help sustain and foster their engagement with and contribution to evolving technical methods in the digital humanities.  The projects communicate knowledge in a similar comprehensive manner, thus attracting a popular and specialist audience, which is vital for their sustainability. Further, the underlying technical structure reveals a commitment to technical sustainability, respect for historical research standards, and 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 field’s reach.

Australian Dictionary of Biography and Obituaries Australia

The Australian Dictionary of Biography ( is the premier reference resource for studying the lives of significant Australians 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 the ADB and Obituaries Australia have been built on custom databases, they will ultimately be migrated to a wiki platform. 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 ( 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 to accommodate any physical or conceptual entity (building, map, document, person, event, role, relationships, annotations, etc.) without modifying the underlying database structure or effect on existing data. The independence between the database structure and the domain model confers the flexibility required by open-ended humanities projects. It 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 ( 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 seek authoritative information and contribute to the resource to pursue their 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, screenwriting), 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 profound. AustLit records the nation’s literary development history over 220 years of publishing, reading and writing. The database, containing millions of analysable data elements, allows various interrogations 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 to help right wrongs inflicted on individuals in the past. The Australian Federal Government’s Forgotten Australians initiative provided a mandate for research and public action to improve access to records of people placed in care through services provided by both public and private institutions. Am I is a University of Melbourne, Australian Research Council-funded project involving extensive community engagement that aims to understand why it is so difficult for people in care to find and access records from that period of their lives.

Pathways: Historical resources for people who experience home care in Victoria ( is a valuable 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. It represents a breakthrough for this community to share knowledge sustainably and engagingly. Of particular note is the action research process used to engage the community and tackle the issues of widely distributed and variously managed and documented archival collections. The project has involved government and community service organisations, archival and information services. The collaborative writing of group and series-level descriptions of sets of archival records has become a significant means of developing a capability that needs to be added to the sector. (G Mccarthy)

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One response to “Rethinking the Digital Encyclopaedia Genre: An Australasian Perspective”

  1. Salman Avatar

    This is a great info. about Ausralasian archive.

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