The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 18









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The Computing Arts Conference, Sydney, September 2001

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents December 2001 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 


An international conference on digital resources for research in the humanities, held at Sydney University in September 2001, highlighted  the role of digital technology as a unifier of interests in the humanities, underscored the importance of academia as a player in the information game and unveiled tentative steps to coax kindred spirits up the same track.  

Organised by the Scholarly Electronic Text and Imaging Services and Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at Sydney University and supported by ProQuest, SUN Microsystems, Australian Academy of the Humanities, National Scholarly Communications Forum and Digital Resources for the Humanities, the conference attracted around 140 participants.

The act of terror on the World Trade Centre affected the line-up of international presenters.  But the program offered the full quid to academics, publishers, computer specialists, librarians and archivists who were assembled to compare notes on projects, collaboration, standards, systems and strategy.   


Early English Books Online 1473-1700

Austin McLean in Modelling Successful Large Scale Digitisation Projects and Mark Sandler in Advancing Humanities Research and Teaching Through Library/Publisher Cooperation demonstrated the compatibility of commercial publisher interests and those of research libraries through Early English Books Online (EEBO). 


This collaborative project aims to create structured SGML/XML text files for a significant proportion of the surviving record of the English speaking world from 1473 to 1700 by capitalising on the strengths of three initiating partners. ProQuest offers production, marketing and distribution capability, as well as front money. The University of Michigan has strengths in production - derived from its experience in JSTOR and the Making of America Cooperative Project – skills also offered by the other partner, Oxford University.


The business model consists of a board, a contribution by each library of $US50,000 over 5 years to support conversion, and matching expenditure by ProQuest of up to 20%.  Future plans, partly dependent on the market response, include the recruitment of other libraries (perhaps up to 150 libraries participating through tiered financial contributions), accelerated production, encouragement of campus use, the enhancement of tools, and integration with other projects.



Income generation is also an objective of the Austlit project, developed by the National Library of Australia and eight Australian universities with the support of a three-year $1 million Australian Research Council grant.  The new subject gateway will provide free basic information to all-comers, but a subscription will be necessary to gain access to more detailed information and services – such as links to full text documents, information in specialised datasets and holdings information from Kinetica. The subscription money will be reinvested in content and service delivery - indicating a recognition of the need for a business approach in sustaining projects beyond their initial grant stage and a burgeoning e-commerce dynamic in sites developed by major public institutions.


Online Currents November 2001 highlighted many of the site’s features, including its lassoing of existing Australian literary projects (such as AUSLIT and From Page to Stage: an Annotated Bibliography of Australian Drama).  Mary-Louise Ayres, in her conference presentation, emphasised the value IFLA’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records as a data model and the work of other groups - such as ABC Harmony, INDECS and Topic Map – as contexts for the development of appropriate metadata, workflow, quality control and technology solutions.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is free. Under the directorship of Edward Zalta, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, and with the help of part-time programmer and university graduate, the site marshals the work of 500 authors and subject editors from 20 different countries to produce ‘an authoritative, comprehensive and dynamic reference work devoted to philosophy that will remain useful to those in academia and the general public by being responsive to new research’.

In Digital Workflow Concepts for Dynamic Reference Works, Zalta described one of the most interesting aspects of project, the design of a system for recruitment and group content management, developed with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation. Using the system, Zalta can easily add entries to the database, assign editorial control for entries to the subject editors, issue invitations, track deadlines and publish entries and updates when they are made. The tracking and logging system can identify the state of any given entry, recognise which deadlines have or haven’t been met and pass the latter information through an automated email reminder system. 

Encoded Archival Context, Text Encoding Initiative and XML

Daniel Pitti, Director of the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia, spoke on Encoded Archival Context, an ongoing initiative within the international archival community to design and implement a prototype standard for the description of individuals, families and organisations.  The XML-based EAC standard has the potential impact of library name authority files and will ‘lay the foundation for building international biographical and organisation history reference resources’.  An alpha XML DTD is currently in the draft stage. 

Lou Burnard, Manager of the Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University Computing Services, in TEI and XML: A Marriage Made in Heaven, spoke about the history and motivation for the design of the Text Encoding Initiative, the range of application areas in which it has been successful and plans for the future development of the TEI in its new guise as ‘an environment for the construction of compatible XML vocabularies appropriate to many different research areas’.


Cognitive tools

Ian Johnson, Director of the Archaeological Computing Laboratory at the University of Sydney and a specialist in GIS and database applications for archaeological and historical data, reminded us of the importance of maps and images as a cognitive tool.  His presentation Mapping the Humanities: the Whole is More Important that the Sum of the Parts explored the potential of interactive maps to add value to humanities data through its capacity to index text and image information, overlay information from distributed sources, and create visual patterns and relationships in two and three dimensions, as demonstrated by his TimeMap software and the International Dunhuang Project. 

Other papers

  • Digital encyclopedias. Andrew Brown-May in Hyperhistory and Jock Phillips and Ross Somerville in Old Wine in New Bottles described their experiences in re-purposing existing print information for a wider audience through the online projects, Encyclopedia of Melbourne and Encyclopedia of New Zealand.   

  • Music: John Stinson, in Medieval music on the Web, spoke about the development of the internationally-significant website and database of medieval music at La Trobe University, containing bibliographic information on every piece of music known to have been composed in the 14th century as well as Gregorian chant from 14th century sources.  The website and database is seeking a new home and development opportunities following the closure of the music department at La Trobe.     

  • Endangered cultures and oral history projects. Linda Barwick (University of Sydney), Nick Thieberger (University of Melbourne), Anne Horn and Michael Fagg (University of Queensland) explored technical matters associated with their separate work on endangered cultures, linguistics, music and oral history, including the digitising, editing and enhancing of audio-visual material, transcribing and analysing digitised recordings, using digital recordings for public preservation, and the retrieval of audio materials on the Web. 

  • Language. Lou Burnard described the content, structure and design of the £1.6 million British National Corpus Word Edition. ‘a one-hundred million word snapshot of British English, both spoken and written, taken at the end of the 20th century’. The project is managed by a consortium of leading dictionary publishers and research centres involved in the ’widest possible selection of text types with very detailed linguistic tagging down to the part-of-speech level and rich metadata, all delivered in standard SGML format, using a state of the art search and analysis text retrieval system’.  Nicoletta Calzolari’s presentation was devoted to the ISLE (International Standards for Language Engineering) and EAGLES (Expert Advisory Group for Language Engineering Standards) - initiatives that focus on multi-lingual issues.

  • Sites based on individuals. Morris Eaves, Professor of English, University or Rochester, described websites as tools for ‘experimental action’, using his experience in developing the William Blake Archive website.  Andrew Stawowycsyk Long provided a case study in his management of the Dick Smith-sponsored Barton Project at the National Library of Australia, highlighting technical details and lessons learnt in the digitisation of the Edmund Barton papers, including the use of persistent identifier and file naming conventions, the process for delivering images online and the use of the Government Gazette as a legal tactic to overcome complex, labour-intensive copyright management problems. 

  • Papers missed: Competing streams made it impossible to taste all smorgasbord offerings, which included presentations on medieval manuscripts, image collection management, information and content management systems, learning technologies and Geographical Information Systems.  Papers or abstracts are available at


The conference was touted as ‘the first conference in humanities and computing in Australia’, which is gilding the lily a little. Certainly, it has taken time for a momentum to gather, both here and overseas, for the adoption of a holistic approach to humanities information in the digital age.  

A gathering momentum

In 1994. the report Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways, produced by the Getty Art history Information Program, American Council of Learned Societies and Coalition of Networked Information, concluded that the ability of communities to meet challenges and realise fully their contribution to the dawning electronic age were being impaired by the under-capitalisation of an ‘impressive array of exciting projects underway’ and by technological barriers that required concerted research. It proposed a national policy to encourage humanities and arts endeavours to contribute to the US National Information Initiative and enable the scientific and engineering communities to reap the benefits of research on humanities-driven technology problems. It advocated the creation of a critical mass of cultural heritage information in digital form and the development of standards, tools and services necessary for humanities and arts access. And it urged the arts and humanities community to build coalitions to ensure its representation in national and global infrastructure policy forums. 

Three years later in 1997,  Pavlicak, Ross and Henry in Information technology in humanities scholarship: achievements, prospects and challenges – the United States focus, recommended the establishment of an annual review of arts and humanities computing, greater support for standardisation requirements, promotion by scholars, administrators and librarians of the institutional and social change required for the creation of a hospitable environment for computer supported arts and humanities, development of shared methods of knowledge representation; the creation of a significant mass of digitised networked information and the fostering of further intellectual collaboration. 

In the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, the need for work on a system architecture for cross domain discovery was the subject of the Arts and Humanities Data Service workshop Discovering online resources across the humanities: a practical implementation of the Dublin Core.

In April 1998, a reference group of the Australian Academy of the Humanities published a report on Libraries in the Information Infrastructure for Humanities Scholars in Australia, as part of the series Knowing Ourselves and Others: the Humanities in Australia in the 21st Century: The report outlined some of the known patterns of information seeking by scholars in the humanities and concluded that access to printed texts will remain important for some time to come. To succeed, ‘mediated services offered by means of a virtual library require support in the form of enthusiastic publicity and trouble-shooting services from skilled library staff on-call’. 

There is now a plethora of bodies and conferences across the globe devoted to the humanities and digital technology – as well as long-standing bodies and conferences dealing with specialist interests.  

Making a difference

Grace Koch in here presentation Small Voices in Cyberspace: Digitisation Issues in Research Archives, drew attention to the funding disparities between Australian and overseas projects, partly reflecting population sizes.  In December 2000, for example, the US Congress authorised a $US99.8 million dollar appropriation towards developing digitising standards and a nationwide digitisation strategy centred on the Library of Congress.  Additional substantial funding is allocated by government bodies like the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations like Kellogg and Getty. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust recently promoted the idea of an $US18 billion investment fund from radio spectrum auctions to support venture capital projects to enable digitisation of the holdings of non-profit organisations such as archives. 

In the United Kingdom, the higher education sector has taken a leading role in developing well funded digital agendas. Alan Morrison’s conference presentation described progress by one project, the Arts and Humanities Data Service, in establishing a gateway and subject groupings, developing standards and best practice guides and providing advisory services, training and conferences.  In future, AHDS is likely to extend its scope and strategies into such areas as linguistics, further education and secondary education, deliver generic workshops and training, relaunch the AHDS gateway/portal and build relationships with other notable higher education initiatives, the Distributed National Electronic Resources and Resource Discovery Network. Curiously, Morrison said the need for cross-domain searching capability, identified as a priority in 1997, had declined as an important issue.. 

In Australia, the National Library of Australia has played a major role with other national cultural institutions and the higher education sector, backed by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) and other funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council and Australia Council.  The National Library’s Australian Subject Gateways Forum is an important focal point for bringing together and strengthening the development of subject access points that are increasingly taking on a more dynamic form.

DCITA recently embarked on a study on Key Needs of Australian Heritage Collections, including museums, galleries, libraries, archives and specialist collections. It initiated another inaugural cross domain computing conference, Ozeculture, in June 2001 (see Online Currents September 2001) and will be holding the next conference in May 2002 as part of an ongoing annual commitment.

Pam Thompson, President of the International Association of Music Librarians, Archives and Documentation Centres, speaking at a separate meeting in Sydney a week or so before the Computing Arts conference, promoted the need for professional associations to create a digital agenda.  In her talk Jargon Today, Jam Tomorrow: How Joined-up Thinking Put Music Libraries on the Map, she traced the almost accidental way in which IAML UK has been able to latch on to funding opportunities because the Follett Report had forced it to go through a process of considering industry needs and articulating possible solutions. It was this work in the early 1990s that had placed it in a position to gain funding for projects like Cantate (Computer Access to Notation and Text in Music Libraries), Cecilia (Mapping the UK Music Resource), Encore (the UK Catalogue of Sets of Vocal Music In Libraries), Ensemble (a Distributed national library resource for music) and Music Libraries Online.  Australian curatorial associations tend to be contributors rather than initiators of digital projects - to some extent because of the leading role taken by cultural institutions in which many of its members work and to some extent because of the primarily social objective and voluntary nature of many groups.       

Linda Luther’s paper The Follett Report and its Relevance for Australia indicated the need for an information framework or strategy for Australian higher education sector,  a concept that has recently gained wider currency in government and library circles.

Malcolm Gillies, President of the Australian Academy of Humanities, closed the conference by announcing the establishment of an Australian e-Humanities Network as a ARC-funded joint venture by University of Sydney, Australian Academy of the Humanities and Newcastle University. It will act as a national clearing house for projects, establish a gateway, produce e-newsletters and hold a biennial conference, modelled presumably on overseas projects like H-Net.  .

The Computing Arts conference, the Ozeculture conference and Australian e-Humanities Network have been notable milestones in 2001. There is a sense, however, that government, academic, curatorial and business sectors are running on separate exploratory tracks. The business of the humanities will have matured when the parties have come closer together and their conferences have become opportunities for setting agendas as well as forums for comparing notes.      


  • Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways.: a profile (1994). Final Report. A national initiative sponsored by the Getty Arts History Information Program, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Coalition of Networked Information. http://www.cni.orf/projects/humartsiway 

  • Johanson, Graeme, Schauder, Don and Lim, Edward (1998). Libraries in the Information Infrastructure for Humanities Scholar in Australia. (Knowing Ourselves and Others: the Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century, Vol 3, Chapter 8).

  • Luther, Linda (1997). The Follett Report and its relevance to Australia.

  • Pavliscak, Pamela, Ross, Seamus and Henry, Charles (1997). Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship: Achievements, Prospects and Challenges – the United States Focus. American Council of Learned Societies, Occasional Paper no 37.      




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