My hunt through SP115/1: day 1

I spent today at the National Archives in Sydney, looking at records for my Paper Trails project. My helpful reference officer, Judith, had warned me that there were 77 boxes in SP115/1, the series I need to look through. On my arrival though she told me she’s miscounted and there were, in fact, about 140. I managed to get through about 28 today. I’ll be there for the rest of the week but I’m not sure I’ll get through the remaining 112 boxes in the next two and a half days!

Series SP115/1 contains documents relating to non-white people – mostly Chinese, but also Syrian, Indian, Japanese and others – arriving into Sydney between 1911 and the 1940s. The series is arranged by ship, with each item relating to a particular voyage. Although I’ve looked at particular items in this series before, this time I’m starting at Box 1 and looking through every file, all 1780 or so of them. You may well ask why.

Although most of the documents in the series are CEDTs, which can also be found in other series (mostly ST84/1), the papers relating to Australian-born Chinese are often unique and unable to be found elsewhere. Details about these individuals might be recorded in the Register of Birth Certificates (SP726/2), but the documents in SP115/1 can include original birth certificates and other statements about identity and family background. One nice find today is the 1902 Hong Kong birth certificate of Harold Hoong, son of Julum Hoong and Rosalie Kinnane, who were living in Yaumatei at that time (NAA: SP115/1, 04/02/1915 – PART 1). Early Hong Kong birth and marriage records were destroyed during World War II, so it’s nice to see one safe and sound. Other records relate to Harold’s Australian-born siblings William, Albert and Frederick.

As well as locating documents about Anglo-Chinese travellers I know about from earlier research, looking through the whole series is yielding people I haven’t encountered in other records. Today I’ve found about half a dozen new subjects – some from families I’d already identified, but others are completely new to me. Exciting.

I’m also making a record of all the Australian-born full Chinese (for my Threads of Kinship project) and any Chinese-born women (for a paper I’m working on about Chinese wives in early 20th-century Australia).

Migrants ‘on the wing’ at Visible Immigrants Seven

Yesterday I spoke at Visible Immigrants Seven, a small conference organised by Flinders University and the Migration Museum in Adelaide. The conference aimed to explore the idea of migrant mobility before and after the major act of migration. Most of the papers focused on nineteenth-century migrants from Ireland, Scotland and England, including convicts. My paper looked at the return migration of Chinese men and their Australian families.

Assumed identities and false papers

A known but little-discussed part of the history of Chinese Australians is the entry of people on false papers or using assumed identities. Both those within the community and those of us researching the history know examples of families where this happened, but it’s only in rare cases that it is discusssed openly.

It came up during one of the sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide earlier this year and these discussions started me thinking—particularly after having just been to North America where the history of ‘paper sons’ is a well-acknowledged part of the story. In contrast to Australia, the USA and Canada addressed the issue in the 1960s by offering amnesty periods that allowed paper sons and daughters to legitimate their entry without fear of deportation or criminal charges.

So then, what is the legal situation today of Chinese people who entered Australia on false papers in the first half of the 20th century? If their stories were told, would the authorities take action against them?

In July 2012, I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to find out.

Here is part of the response I received from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:

Australia’s citizenship and migration legislation has been amended numerous times since federation, as immigration policies, immigrant source countries, settlement philosophies and notions of national identity have changed. These amendments have been enacted to remove past anomalies and discrimination.

It is difficult to comment about the legal position of people entering Australia using assumed identities before 1950 and their descendents as each person’s situation/circumstance can differ. Despite this, it is likely that these people are either Australian citizens or permanent residents under ‘absorbed persons’ provisions in the Migration Act 1958. As it has been more than 60 years since these events and given the likelihood that these people are Australian citizens or permanent residents, it would not appear to be in the public interest to actively pursue these people regarding their immigration status.

Should any members of the community require specific immigration advice, I encourage them to seek the services of a registered migration agent … If they consider that they may be an Australian citizen and wish to seek confirmation, they may apply for evidence of citizenship.

Here are copies of my letter and the department’s response:

Letter to Chris Bowen about paper sons, 12 July 2012 (pdf, 88kb)

Letter from Miranda Lauman, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 4 October 2012 (pdf, 656kb)

Where are the women?

Yesterday on Twitter Jenny Symington asked the question, ‘Where are the women?’ in relation to The real face of White Australia:

This post is a quick attempt to answer that question.

Record series

The first thing to consider is where these photographs are taken from. They are from certificates exempting from the dictation test, which were issued to non-white residents of Australia who wanted to return to Australia after travelling overseas. The particular records we have used with Faces so far are from New South Wales.


The non-white, non-Aboriginal population of early 20th century Australia was predominantly male. Most of the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Malays (among others) who came to Australia in the 19th century did so to work and to earn money. Asian women as economic migrants were not unheard of (there were Chinese women who came to the colonies as domestic workers, for example), but generally a combination of economic, social, familial and legal factors meant that a much smaller number of ‘coloured’ women arrived on Australian shores. The Syrian community is a bit of an exception to this, as numbers of men and women were much more balanced.

Figures for ‘birthplace’ from the 1911 Commonwealth census (the first national census conducted in Australia) gives a picture of this:

  • Born in China: male 20,453 female 322
  • Born in India: male 5049 female 1595
  • Born in Japan: male 3260 female 214
  • Born in Syria: male 895 female 632
  • Born Java: male 535 female 43

In New South Wales (where the people shown in Faces mostly lived) Chinese, Indians and Syrians were the main non-white population groups.

The snapshot below has images of three women: Mary Saleba and Raja Basha, both Syrian, and Mary Hoe, who was Australian-born Chinese.

The nature of travel

Few of the men shown in Faces were travelling for leisure, as such. They were mostly either returning home to visit relatives (including wives and children), or for business reasons, or a combination of both. This, combined with the cost and logistics of travel, may have meant that women and families living in Australia did not accompany their men when they travelled.

The law and administrative processes

Travelling alongside some of the men whose images appear in Faces, though, were women and children who were not documented in the same way as their husbands and fathers. White wives of Chinese men, for example, who also travelled to Hong Kong and China, were not subjected to the indignities of photographing and handprinting, even though strictly they had become ‘Chinese’ on marriage and had officially lost their status as British subjects (their racial identity trumped their legal one). Often the only record of their travel is a name on a passenger list. Mixed-race Australians also travelled without being issued a certificate exempting from the dictation test—many Anglo-Chinese Australian women married migrant Chinese men, and accompanied their husbands to China, but they too may have avoided being photographed and handprinted, instead using their Australian birth certificates as proof of identity on their return to Australia.

Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been awarded the National Archives of Australia’s Ian Maclean Award for 2012. My project is called Paper Trails: Travels with Anglo-Chinese Australians, 1900–1939.

I’m looking to start the project towards the end of the year and will be blogging here about my progress. I’m really looking forward to spending some solid time in the archives again. And to having the time to read and think and explore in a way that’s hard to do when research is squashed in around my day job and family commitments.

Here’s some detail about the project.


The Paper Trails project will demonstrate the possibilities for using new technologies to access and understand archival records and show how archives can reveal the history of marginalised communities from Australia’s past.

Following a prosopographical (collective biography) approach, the project will involve the creation of an online database about 150 Anglo-Chinese Australians, featuring biographical information and details of overseas travel sourced from National Archives records and with links to those records. This database will form the centre of a website which will also include introductory essays, maps and visualisations, case studies, a gallery of archival material and a guide to understanding the records.

This project will investigate the overseas travels of Australians of Anglo-Chinese descent, from the turn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War II. It will explore their experience of overseas travel and their negotiation of bureaucratic processes under the Immigration Restriction Act, as well as highlighting the rich and detailed records about ‘non-white’ Australians held in the National Archives collection.

In the early twentieth century, Anglo-Chinese Australians travelled overseas, primarily to Hong Kong and China, on holidays, for education, business and to visit family. Like other ‘non-white’ Australians, they were subject to the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (later the Immigration Act), under which they did not have an automatic right of return to Australia, even though they were Australian-born British subjects who, ethnically, were half-European.

Australia’s early immigration regulations were designed to keep out unwanted ‘non-white’ arrivals, most famously through use of the Dictation Test, and the legislation was not clear on how officials should deal with those who were both Australian-born and of mixed race. Consequently, over the following decades officials developed a set of administrative practices in which their ideas of community belonging and cultural knowledge, as well as race, determined the outcomes of cases involving Anglo-Chinese Australians. The development of these administrative practices was an iterative process, where officials responded to the actions of Chinese and Anglo-Chinese Australians who, in turn, responded to and negotiated changing legislation and government policies.


The project has four primary aims:

  1. to explore the use of new technologies in providing access to archival collections and in creating a platform for innovative research into archival records
  2. to highlight the complex and detailed recordkeeping practices that evolved in the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and demonstrate how these records can be used to uncover biographical and family information about a marginalised group from Australia’s past
  3. to investigate and document the bureaucratic processes used by the Department of External Affairs and the state-based Collectors of Customs in administering the Immigration Restriction Act as it applied to Anglo-Chinese Australians
  4. to tell the stories of Anglo-Chinese Australians who travelled overseas in the early twentieth century, highlighting their ongoing connections to China and the transnational, cross-cultural characteristics of their lives.

IMAGE CREDITS: Anglo-Chinese Pauline Ah Hee and the Choy Hing family before their return to Hong Kong, c. 1905 (NAA: SP244/2, N1950/2/4918)

Representing lives from the archive of White Australia

Sophie Couchman, Tim Sherratt and I are presenting a session on ‘Representing lives from the archive of White Australia’ at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association on 19 July 2012.

Panel description

This panel offers three approaches to representing the lives of the thousands of men, women and children who were affected by the racially-based immigration policies of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia. To administer the Immigration Restriction Act and its colonial predecessors, government officials implemented an increasingly complex and structured system of tracking and documenting the movements of non-white people as they travelled in and out of the country. This surveillance left an extraordinary body of records containing information about people who, according to the national myth of a ‘White Australia’, were not Australian at all.

The first paper will examine a unique set of almost 300 identification photographs of Chinese Australians taken in Victoria in the late 1890s, considering what these photographs reveal of the lives of their subjects. The second paper will demonstrate how, through a close reading of the records, fragments of biographical information can be built into a portrait of the life of a Chinese woman living in Australia on exemption from 1910 to 1913. The final paper will consider the possibilities of digital history for reconstructing marginalised lives and reflect on the challenges of representing biographical data from the White Australia records in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

Identifying whom?: reading identification photography by Sophie Couchman

In 1900 William Nean posed proudly on his bicycle in full racing attire for the popular photographic company Yeoman & Co. in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He used this photograph as an identification portrait and it is now preserved in the National Archives of Australia amongst 268 other photographic portraits of Chinese resident in Victoria that were created under the administration of the 1890 Chinese Act between 1899 and 1901. The Act aimed to limit and control Chinese immigration in the colony of Victoria and, from the late 1890s, identification portraits of long-term Chinese residents were used as part of documentation to allow them to re-enter Victoria free from the restrictions of the Act.

William Nean’s portrait immediately raises the questions of who he was and why such an unusual photograph was used as an identification portrait. The rest of the paperwork associated with this series of photographs no longer survives—all that remains are annotated identification portraits. This paper will place these photographs in the history of identification photography and, through close readings of them, tease out what can be learnt about the lives of the men, women and children represented in them.

Shifting the lens: uncovering the story of Mrs Poon Gooey by Kate Bagnall

This paper revisits the Poon Gooey deportation case, marking two significant anniversaries. In 1913, it will be a hundred years since Ham Hop, the wife of fruit merchant Poon Gooey, was deported from Australia with their two young daughters. After Ham Hop’s arrival in Australia on a temporary permit in 1910, Poon Gooey—a fluent English-speaker, Christian and member of the Chinese Empire Reform League—mounted a determined campaign to gain permission for her to remain more permanently. The campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, found widespread support and was an ongoing embarrassment to the federal Labor government.

Fifty years later, historian AT Yarwood wrote on the Poon Gooey case as an example of early problems in the administration of the White Australia Policy. Yarwood based his study on the very substantial Department of External Affairs file, which documents the Poon Gooey story from 1910 to 1913. Greater access to records in the intervening decades, however, means that is now possible to uncover more of the context of Poon Gooey’s actions at this time and, more generally, of the two decades he spent in Australia—evidence that calls into question some of Yarwood’s conclusions about Poon Gooey’s actions and his motivations.

This paper shifts the lens even further, however, to focus on the life of Ham Hop, rather than on that of her husband. Although significant moments in her life—her marriage, periods of physical separation from her husband, travel to Australia, pregnancies, births of her children, medical problems, and finally the deportation of herself and her children—are recorded in the official case files, Ham Hop herself remains silent. Through a close reading of these records and the extensive press coverage of the case, this paper seeks to reveal what can be known of her story and to suggest possibilities for uncovering the lives of women and children who were marginalised and excluded by the White Australia Policy in the early years of the 20th century.

The responsibilities of data: reconstructing lives from the records of the White Australia Policy by Tim Sherratt

The sheer volume of records created by the White Australia Policy is overwhelming. Amidst this vast and disturbing legacy are thousands upon thousands of certificates documenting the movements of non-white residents. These biographical fragments, often including photographs and handprints, are visually and emotionally compelling. We cannot avoid the gaze of those whose lives were monitored, we cannot deny the people behind the policy.

But these records are also a source of data. Increasing numbers of these records have been digitised. As we develop the tools and techniques of digital history, we open up the possibility of extracting this data from the digitised records, of aggregating the biographical fragments, of tracing lives and mapping families. We can tame the overwhelming abundance of records and create a rich, new resource for exploration and analysis.

But how do we avoid imprisoning these newly-liberated lives in yet another system? How do we ensure that the challenging gaze of individuals is not lost in the transformation to data? This paper will look at some of the possibilities for extracting information from these records and reflect on the challenges of representing that data in a form that respects its origins and meanings.

‘Paper trails’: my presentation at the 5th WCILCOS conference

I’m still digesting all that I heard at the 5th WCILCOS conference and cogitating about the exciting possibilities for international collaborative work that have emerged from it. I’m hoping to pull together some more thoughts about my discussions with folk from Canada and the US about mixed-race overseas Chinese families and children.

In the mean time, though, here are the slides of my talk and the first (and much longer) version of the paper I wrote a couple of months ago: Paper trails: Anglo-Chinese Australians and the White Australia Policy (pdf, 1.9mb).

‘That famous fighting family’

A little article of mine* appears in issue 9 of Inside History magazine (March–April 2012). The article discusses the experiences of Chinese Australians during World War I through the experiences of the Sam family from West Wyalong, New South Wales.

I first came across the Sam family in the file of youngest son, Percy, who travelled with his father to China in 1915. It was noted in their applications for exemption from the Dictation Test that a number of Percy’s brothers were serving in the First AIF – they were, in fact, at Gallipoli. It seemed such an irony that at the same time as his brothers were fighting for their country overseas, Percy was made to comply with the regulations of the Immigration Restriction Act, something that suggested he was less than a true Australian.

The way that Chinese Australians were treated during World War I was full of contradictions. Some young men were able to enlist, others weren’t. I don’t mention it in the article, but Chinese nationals were required to register as aliens during wartime (and afterwards) – so there were also cases of Chinese fathers having to report to the police to register as aliens while their Australian-born sons were away fighting for country and empire.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to an online copy of the article, so if you’re interested you might just have to go and buy a copy of the magazine.

* Kate Bagnall, ‘That famous fighting family’, Inside History, issue 9, March–April 2012, pp. 37–40.

Ah Yin family of Adelong, c.1897

Every time I poke around in series NAA: SP42/1, I find something new and interesting that I hadn’t noticed before.

Today’s find is a photograph of the family of Ah Yin (or Ah Yen), who was a storekeeper at Adelong in southern New South Wales, and his wife, Ah Hoo (or Ah How). The family, with six children, left for China in 1897.

The file NAA: SP42/1, C1916/7308 PART 1 relates to a request for one of the Ah Yin daughters, Sarah (b. 1890), to be permitted to return to Australia in 1910.

More on Sarah Ah Yen’s return to Australia from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1915.

Every story has a beginning

Entering the web of data

[view the presentation...] [view the triples...]

Keynote delivered at the annual conference of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Indexers, 14 September 2011.

This is me.

Today, Wednesday, 14 September 2011, I’m honoured to be able to join you here in the luxurious surrounds of the Brighton Savoy Hotel for the ‘Indexing See Change‘ conference. This is an event, a moment in history; we can pinpoint ourselves, this gathering, both in time and in space.

If we do that, if we move outside the moment and position ourselves on a timeline or a map, interesting things start to happen. Connections emerge.

Here we are at number 150, The Esplanade, in Brighton. A bit over a kilometre away is the stately villa, Kamesburgh. For many years Kamesburgh was also known as the Anzac Hostel — a refuge for permanently-incapacitated World War One veterans.

The Anzac Hostel opened on 5 July 1919. Here it is draped in its patriotic finery, from the collections of the Australian War Memorial. According to the caption, the Anzac Hostel was ‘a home, not an institute’.

Also amongst the War Memorial’s holdings is a wheeled bed that was used at the hostel. This particular bed was apparently occupied by one man, Albert Ward, for forty-three years.

Death notice for Alexander Kelley. Argus, 29 January 1944.

It was probably in a bed just like this that Alexander Dewar Kelley passed away on 27 January 1944. Alexander Kelley was cremated, and his remains interred amongst the roses at what is now called the Springvale Botanical Cemetery. Not far from my own grandparents.

Alexander Kelley spent close to half his life in the Anzac Hostel. Like many young men, he bravely answered his nation’s call to arms, but returned from war much changed. We can follow Alex’s war through his service record, easily-accessible through the website ‘Mapping Our Anzacs‘.

Alex was a coach painter who enlisted in the AIF in January 1916. Within a year he was in France. In May 1917 he suffered a gunshot wound to the head, but was able to rejoin his unit in August. Less than a month later though, he was wounded again, this time more severely. For Alex the war was over, and he was shipped back to Australia in May 1918.

‘Mapping Our Anzacs’ includes a scrapbook feature through which visitors to the site can attach notes or photographs to a service record. Amongst the the many thousands of postings is a fragment from a diary, found tucked inside the bible of Alexander Kelley’s mother. The diary entry reads simply: ‘Alex arrived from Front. Wet day. Saw him at “Caulfield”.’

Alex had survived and had returned to his family. This was a day to remember. But there was sadness too, for Alex was not the same young man who had left for the battlefields of Europe. In the diary fragment, ‘Caulfield’ is enclosed in inverted commas, indicating perhaps that the reunion took place, not in the suburb, but in the Caulfield rehabilitation hospital. Alexander Kelley was wounded in the face, hands and legs. He was left blind in both eyes and his right leg was amputated. He would live the remainder of his life a little over a kilometre away from here at the Anzac Hostel.

This is just one story. There are over 375,000 World War One service records held by the National Archives of Australia. How can we hope to understand a number like that? How can we hope to imagine the war’s impact on families, on communities?

‘Mapping Our Anzacs’ uses familiar Google maps to display the places of birth and enlistment recorded in many of those service records. But technical limitations make it impossible to display all the places at once. You can, however, take the same data and open it in Google Earth. If you then zoom in on Victoria, you see something like this.

Mapping Our Anzacs data viewed in Google Earth.

Each marker represents a place where a service person was born or enlisted. It’s impossible to read, of course, but that’s the point. There is so little blank space. As you zoom further, more markers appear, more place names resolve. It’s simple, but it’s powerful. They came from everywhere. From the smallest village to the biggest city; nowhere was untouched.

The ‘Mapping Our Anzacs’ scrapbook offers another perspective. It’s possible to extract the images posted to the scrapbook and present them on a 3D wall. Amidst an assortment of memorabilia, there are faces. Not places, or records — this is a wall of people.

Mapping Our Anzacs Scrapbook photos viewed through CoolIris

It’s worth noting too that like the markers on the maps, these faces link back to the actual service records. So they’re not just a new way of seeing the collection, they’re a new way of exploring it.

But the records don’t stand in isolation, they themselves have a context. A couple of years ago, Mitchell Whitelaw from the University of Canberra, undertook a project called ‘The Visible Archive‘ to investigate ways of visualising the holdings of the National Archives of Australia. Have you ever wondered what 360km worth of records looks like?

The collections of the NAA visualised by Mitchell's Series Browser.

This represents the holdings of the National Archives. Files within the archives are organised into series, and each square in this image represents a single series — there are about 60,000 of them. Naturally the size of the square gives an indication of the size of the series itself. It’s a fascinating and strangely beautiful picture.

It’s easy enough to pick out the World War One service records — Series B2455. In the interactive version of Mitchell’s series browser you can click on a box and display links between series, as well as other series created by the same government agency. Again, it’s not just a way of seeing the collection, but a means of exploring and interpreting it. As Mitchell says:

Visualisation enables us to literally show everything, to display large volumes of data in a way that reveals patterns and communicates context, but also provides access to the fine grain of individual elements.

But we can also employ such techniques to ask new kinds of questions. Can you imagine how Alexander Kelley and the other inhabitants of the Anzac Hostel must have felt in 1939? They had lost so much in the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, and yet within their own lifetime it was all happening again. More young men were answering the call, more lives were going to be destroyed.

There must have been a dreadful, disheartening moment when Australians realised that the Great War was not an end, but a beginning — the first in a series of devastating global conflicts. At some point the ‘Great War’ became the ‘First World War’, but when?

When did the 'Great War' become the 'First World War'?

This is one possible answer. This graph draws its data from the 50 million or so digitised newspaper articles in Trove, the National Library of Australia’s discovery service. It shows the proportion of newspaper articles that included the phrase ‘the great war’ compared to the proportion containing ‘the first world war’ (and variations thereof). The lines cross late in 1941. With German victories in Europe and Africa, the opening of the Eastern Front and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, 1941 makes sense.

What is perhaps more intriguing is the dramatic peak in the occurrence of ‘the great war’ in 1939. It’s no surprise that the looming threat of a new conflict would provoke comment and comparisons, but it does make you wonder about the context of those discussions and how they might have changed as the reality of war edged closer.

To start exploring this I’ve harvested the content of the 6,600 articles from 1939 that included the phrase ‘the great war’. Using an online text analysis service called VoyeurTools I can quickly generate a picture of their contents.

This simple visualisation shows us the relative frequencies of words within the articles. It doesn’t reveal any great mysteries, but it does suggest some possibilities for further prodding. The prevalence of ‘time’ and ‘new’, for example — might these help us understand the shift in perspective from one war to the next? We can follow this up by browsing the different contexts in which the words were used.

But what actually is it that we’re actually searching? We know that Trove includes newspapers from 1803 to 1954, but if we’re really going to analyse shifting words and ideas it’s important to have a clear picture of the sources of those words.

Something like this perhaps. This graph shows the holdings of the Trove newspaper database on 4 August 2011, organised by state. You can see, for example, that if you’re searching on a topic between the 1920s and 1940s you’re probably likely to get more results from Queensland than anywhere else.

So starting from our location here, today, we can make connections across time and space. We can pull back and look at the big picture, or dive in and examine the fabric of a single life. Through the web we can build and explore a rich and complex contextual network.

It’s an exciting time to be a cultural data hacker. We now have a growing range of tools and technologies available for extracting interesting data from a wide variety of sources, both structured and unstructured.

The ‘Visible Archive’ project started with well-structured data, courtesy of Peter Scott, the developer of the Series System — the descriptive framework used by many Australian archives. But we’re rarely so lucky.

Even when the data starts off in nicely-organised fields in a database there’s no guarantee that that’s how it’s going to be delivered to our web browser. In order to extract the data from my Trove graphs, for example, I had to write a little program called a ‘screen scraper‘ to identify and save the important metadata elements from the raw web page itself.

Where there are no subject keywords we can infer them using techniques such as topic modelling. Where there are no access points we can identify people, organisations, places and events using special tools developed for named entity extraction. Where there are no common identifiers across datasets we can employ record linkage technologies to find possible connections.

We can count words, we can identify parts of speech, we can formulate a measure of the similarity of any two pieces of text. Once we have some useful data we can manipulate and enrich it. Place names can be geolocated — you simply send your place name off to a web service and get back its latitude and longitude.

Increasingly these sorts of tools are becoming accessible to anyone. For historians they offer a means of wrestling with rapidly-growing bulk of source material that is becoming available in digital form. How do you make use of 5 million digitised books, 50 million newspaper articles or the complete archive of every public message ever sent on Twitter?

The digital historian Dan Cohen has noted:

These computational methods which allow us to find patterns, determine relationships, categorize documents, and extract information from massive corpuses, will form the basis for new tools for research in the humanities and other disciplines in the coming decade.

Dan is involved in a number of interesting projects investigating the possibilities of these techniques — often grouped together under the heading ‘text mining’. One of these projects, ‘With Criminal Intent‘, is looking to see what patterns can be drawn out of the digitised proceedings of criminal trials held at the Old Bailey from 1645 to 1913. That’s 197,745 trials, in case you were wondering.

Here’s one of their visualisations showing how the length of trials varies over time. Much to the surprise of the research team, this graph suggests a dramatic shift in legal practice around 1825 — defendants started pleading guilty!

A visualisation by the With Criminal Intent project showing changing trial lengths.

Rather than falter under the growing weight of digital sources, these technologies can actually thrive. The more raw material available, the more chance there is to observe and track new patterns. As digitisation continues apace will we ever reach the point when history can simply be read from a graph?

There are some researchers at Harvard who seem to think that’s where we’re heading. Borrowing liberally from the store of scientific metaphors they have staked out the new field of ‘culturomics‘. By mining massive digital resources, like Google’s scanned books, they hope to map the ‘cultural genome’ that would enable us to follow the evolution of language and culture.

But there’s something quite barren in this ambition. I prefer the vision of digital humanist Stephen Ramsay, who commented in regard to the ‘With Criminal Intent’ project:

The Old Bailey, like the Naked City, has eight million stories. Accessing those stories involves understanding trial length, numbers of instances of poisoning, and rates of bigamy. But being stories, they find their more salient expression in the weightier motifs of the human condition: justice, revenge, dishonor, loss, trial. This is what the humanities are about. This is the only reason for an historian to fire up Mathematica or for a student trained in French literature to get into Java.

Ultimately it’s the stories that nourish, anger, inspire and depress us. The closely-packed map of places recorded in World War I service records is so powerful because we know that under each marker are men, women, families, communities — each with their own story. These new technologies offer new perspectives, they raise new questions, and they challenge us with new contexts to explore and understand. But there is still space for stories and perhaps we can use them to give our stories new life and depth.

This is another World War One service record. It belongs to Charlie Allen. Charlie enlisted three times in the AIF and was discharged on medical grounds each time. It seems he had a problem with his ankle.

Charlie’s service record notes a tattoo, proclaiming his love for ‘Maud Gordon’. He married Maud in Sydney in 1917 and had two daughters soon after.

Charlie survived the war without further injury, but was not so lucky in peace. On 11 March 1938, Charlie was crushed to death between two railway cars. The accident happened at the Bunnerong Power Station, only a short distance from his home in Matraville. He was buried nearby in the Botany Cemetery.

We also know quite a bit about Charlie’s early life. Why? Because Charlie’s father was Chinese and he was therefore categorised as a ‘half-caste’, as someone who was not white, and therefore fell under the restrictions imposed by the White Australia Policy.

Charlie was born in Sydney in 1896. His mother was Frances Allen (sometime sweet shop owner and brothel keeper), his father Charlie Gum (a buyer for Wing On company). Charlie was raised by his mother, but in 1909, at the age of 13, he was taken to China by his father.

NAA: ST84/1, 1909/22/41-50

This certificate granted Charlie an exemption to the Dictation Test. Without it, he may not have been allowed back into the country.

Every time one of many thousands of non-Europeans resident in Australia sought to travel overseas and return home again they needed one of these certificates.

Charlie’s father returned to Sydney, leaving him in China. He lived with relatives in the town of Shekki (inland from Hong Kong). Charlie was naturally homesick, but had no means of getting back to Australia. He wrote to his mother in 1910:

Do try and bring me home every minute I think of you and long for a piece of bread and butter this tucker is not doing me well.

His mother wrote to the Prime Minister Billy Hughes in an attempt to enlist government help but to no avail. Charlie finally returned to Australia in 1915.

Despite this experience, Charlie visited China again in 1922 for 7 months. Once again carrying papers to grant him re-entry to the country of his birth.

These fragments of Charlie’s life have been assembled by my partner, Kate Bagnall, a historian of Chinese-Australia. They are remarkable, and yet not so, because there are many thousands of stories like Charlie’s contained within the voluminous records generated by the administration of the White Australia Policy.

We’re all of course familiar with the general outlines of the White Australia Policy, and the way it underpinned conceptions of Australia as a nation in the first half of the 20th century.

But what we sometimes forget is that it was also a massive bureaucratic exercise.

Forms and certificates were printed, issued, used and filed. Regulations were modified, guidelines were distributed and administering officers were managed and advised. Individual cases were reviewed, policy was changed and new forms and certificates were printed, issued, used and filed…

Much of this system is now preserved in the National Archives.

You can get a idea of the range of material available from a case study Kate has prepared focusing on the efforts of Poon Gooey, a successful businessman in Horsham, to keep his wife and family in Australia.

If we look again at Charlie’s certificate from 1909 we can see that it contains a lot of interesting structured data:

  • name
  • place of birth
  • age
  • height
  • destination
  • date of departure
  • name of ship

We estimate that there are probably about 50,000 of these forms remaining in the Archives, and then there’s case files and a variety of other government documents.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could extract this structured data. If we could piece together the slivers of identity that remain within the Archives and give people back their lives.

This is the dream of Invisible Australians, a project Kate and I are trying to turn into a reality. Our aim is to build systems that will enable this data to be extracted, aggregated, shared and connected — whether to a family tree, a cemetery record, or another document in another archive.

Imagine being able to navigate the network of lives, families and relationships. To follow their journeys, to share their tragedies, to celebrate their small victories against a repressive system.

Imagine being able to watch them age.

We tend to assume that new technologies require us to change, to adapt. But sometimes they can take advantage of our strengths. Mitchell Whitelaw is interested in finding out what happens when you take large cultural datasets and try to ‘show everything’. Such an approach, he suggests, takes advantage of the raw processing power of computers, while giving us space to do what we’re good at — finding patterns, making connections, crafting meanings.

The History Wall tries to create a similar sort of space. The History Wall brings together material from a range of different sources — newspaper articles from Trove, biographies from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, records from a database of NSW convicts, population statistics, collection items from the National Museum of Australia — you can pretty much plug anything in as long as it has a date attached to it.

Irish History Wall

For a particular year, the Wall retrieves a random sample from the available sources, jumbles everything up and then throws it onto the screen. As a result, no two views of the Wall are ever quite the same. This is not a traditional exhibition. There is no curator controlling the content or designing the structure. It’s ephemeral, it’s serendipitous — instead of relying on an authorial voice to smooth over the gaps and transitions, it leaves open the cracks and allows new contexts to seep in and around each item.

As the pioneering digital historian Edward Ayers noted:

even isolated and inert pieces of evidence — a list, a letter, a map, a picture — can assume new and unimagined meanings when placed in juxtaposition with other fragments.

This is not an absence of narrative, but an opportunity for narration. Edward Ayers suggests that we’re actually quite comfortable filling in blanks and untwisting timelines:

Humans, presented with pieces of information about people, put things into the form of a story. They need not be simple stories, for we know how to deal with unexplained lapses of time, flashbacks, and overlapping narratives. We know how to imagine, infer, things happening at the same time in different places. Film and television train all of us at early ages to weave strands of narrative out of intentional (if carefully constructed) confusion and to take pleasure in that weaving.

And so I can show you a death notice, or a certificate and you will take those fragments, those isolated data points and you will construct a story — you will see the person behind them, you will imagine their life. It’s what we do. We’re good at it.

Computers on the other hand will just see data.

In her ode in praise of humanities data, digital humanist Amanda French wonders whether we always need to crunch our data into abstract, pliable forms:

What I wonder is whether instead we can begin with the data, or with a datum, and simply watch for what it may tell us, even if what it tells us is simply a story.

Yes we can. And we should teach computers how to do it as well. Not because we want them to take over. Not because they can necessarily do it faster or better. But because they can help us share, preserve and connect those stories.

Let’s think again about the array of documents that Kate has assembled to piece together the story of Charles Allen. How can you share this sort of material? Typically you’d ‘write it up’. You’d capture the story behind the data and commit it to words. The documents would then become evidence — points of connection between your text and the historical record.

So in order to share the meanings of these documents we remove them from the context of the person’s life and marshal them as allies to proclaim the authenticity of our rendering. Wouldn’t it be better if we could tell the story, but maintain within our texts the direct connections between sources and subject?

What we need is a data framework that sits beneath the text, identifying people, dates and places, and defining relationships between them and our documentary sources. A framework that computers could understand and interpret, so that if they saw something they knew was a placename they could head off and look for other people associated with that place. Instead of just presenting our research we’d be creating a whole series of points of connection, discovery and aggregation.

Sounds a bit far-fetched? Well it’s not. We have it already — it’s called the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web exposes the structures that are implicit in our web pages and our texts in ways that computers can understand. The Linked Data movement takes the basic ideas of the Semantic Web and turns them into a collaborative activity. You share vocabularies, so that other people (and computers) know when you’re talking about the same sorts of things. You share identifiers, so that other people (and computers) know that you’re talking about a specific person, place, object or whatever.

Linked Data is Storytelling 101 for computers. It doesn’t have the full richness, complexity and nuance that we invest in our narratives, but it does at least help computers to fit all the bits together in meaningful ways. And if we talk nice to them, then they can apply their newly-acquired interpretative skills to the things that they’re already good at — like searching, aggregating, or generating the sorts of big pictures that enable us to explore the contexts of our stories.

This is why we’ve always imagined Invisible Australians to be something more than an online database. We want to provide points of connection that other people can build into their own stories. But to do that we have to pay attention to things like vocabulary management and authority control, we have to construct web addresses that are not going to break every time we upgrade our software. We have to think about the sorts of things we’re talking about — not just people, but government agencies, legislation, certificates, and correspondence. How do we describe these entities and what sorts of relationships do they have?

And of course we need to expose all these structures so that we can say, these things are people, these are events, these are places and these are documents.

Or perhaps, to introduce Alexander Kelley.

Or remember Charles Allen.

You might be wondering why we don’t just leave it all to the computers themselves. Didn’t I just talk about all the exciting new tools and techniques that enable us to analyse the structures of texts? Perhaps we should just wait for the Culturomics guys to solve all the problems.

But who defines the problems?

Our postmodern sensibilities encourage a suspicion of neutrality. Labels like ‘the new museology’ or Archives 2.0 reflect an awareness that the way we describe and arrange our collections is itself culturally-determined. It’s not just a matter of what our descriptive systems show, but what they hide.

Tim Hitchcock, another member of the ‘With Criminal Intent’ team, has described how online technologies can change the way we access archives. Instead of being forced to navigate the hierarchical structures that archives impose on records, which in turn tend to reflect the workings of the institutions that created the records, we can directly find the people whose lives were regulated, influenced, shaped or controlled by the policies of those institutions.

Instead of merely hearing ‘the institutional voice… in all its stentorian splendour’, he says, we can listen in to ‘the quieter tones uttered by the individual’.

This reminds us that search boxes, along with other digital tools, themselves embody arguments. There are assumptions built into their code about what is relevant, what is significant, what is necessary.

We can build our own tools of course, and we can critique other people’s algorithms. But what if we just want to collect and share stories?

Linked Data gives us a way to present an alternative to Google’s version of the world. We can argue back against the search engines, defining our own criteria for relevance, and building our own discovery networks.

Changing the way we access resources changes the sorts of stories we can tell. Tim Hitchcock asks:

What happens when institutions and archives are ‘decentred’ in favour of the individual? What changes when we examine the world through the collected fragments of knowledge that we can recover about a single person, reorganised as a biographical narrative, rather than as part of an archival system?

Perhaps the invisible become visible.