GLAM Blog Club: Discovery

I scroll, scroll, scroll backwards in time. Past COVID-19 streetscapes. Past climate protests. Past flood damage. Past fire. More fire.

There. There, wedged between photos of flames cresting ridges and screenshots of abysmal air quality readings is the image I want. The mandatory I-am-a-traveller shot.

The wing-from-plane photograph.

I discover myself to be a hypocrite.

It is January 2020 and I do something future-Wildie will find difficult to comprehend. I finish my shift, drive to the airport, catch an interstate flight and present at a conference.

I tell myself this is the last conference I will attend that involves flights. The Black Summer —this tangible and visceral and devastating realisation of climate change —is unlike anything I have experienced, and while jetting off on cheap flights on my flex day may be convenient, it also makes me a fraud.

The GO GLAM (Generous and Open: Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) miniconf was a special little part of LCA2020, where GLAM met FOSS. Organised by the very excellent Sae Ra Germaine and Hugh Rundle, and with its origins in the bloody awesome LCA2018 Open GLAM miniconf, GO GLAM sought to bring GLAM workers and technologists together to consider how institutions and users critically engage with ‘Openness’, access and ethics.

I was lucky enough to speak on finding aids as data and how they might data drive stories of the past. Utilising index data liberated by Tim Sherratt from behind institutional interfaces and set free as open data, I presented a few short data journeys while considering how this may provide new ways of access and discovery for the user.

Is there, for example, a link between occupation and location as evidenced by the visualisation of index data for the unemployed in Sydney, 1866? Was a spike in data extracted from the publican licences index for the 1850s a result of the NSW gold rush? Are Mary and William, married by Samuel Marsden in 1830, a typical convict couple, or an example of systemic reductionism of identity and experience operating within the ‘System’?

My central argument was that these data-driven stories were examples of how using index data as open data may inspire discovery and exploration, take us into the past, and encourage us to ask new questions of these materials.

What emerges alongside the narrative of discovery and exploration is a realisation that the data is not as benign as we might imagine. While provoking questions, we are also pushed into areas of discomfort. (At this point, check out the Transgressive Archivist’s excellent post on “Playing with Data”).

The names of the unemployed, for example, were taken against their will. The records are a product of State surveillance, with little right of reply accorded to those recorded.

As we interrogate the stories, it becomes apparent that this is not just data, not just lists of names and people, but actual —and often marginalised —people, operating within a system they have very little control over and where acts of agency are often punished.

You can watch the presentation here (which I’ve started a little way in – just to skip the intro of libraries vs archives).

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