EVOLVING STAGES: AUSTRALIAN PERFORMING ARTS ONLINE
originally published in Online
Currents July/August 2005 and reprinted with kind permission of the
publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd.
conference of Australia’s Performing Arts Special Interest Group (PASIG), held
during Museums Australia’s national conference in May, proffered a dipstick
for reviewing one industry’s response to the online world. The theme of the
main conference - Politics and Positioning - drew attention to the essential
contexts for many working in collecting institutions. PASIG’s sessions, under
the title Resourceful Archives, gave hints of the ingenuity required to
The PASIG conference
Aubrey Mellor, the artistic director of the
National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA, http://www.nida.unsw.edu.au/),
sounded key notes when he spoke of his frustration in locating elusive
information on Australia’s theatrical heritage, and underscored the importance
of national strategies, company initiatives and information technology to
address the problem.
Under the patronage of one its successful alumni, Cate Blanchett, NIDA has
launched a campaign to raise $3 million for developing its archive to
complement well-established library services. Christine Roberts, Margaret
Leask, Peter Orlovich and Kathryn Adler laid out plans for the archive, which
houses records of NIDA, the Old Tote Theatre Company and Jane Street Theatre,
as well as personal collections and memorabilia of Robert Quentin, Ron
Haddrick, Nick Enright, John Clark, Mel Gibson and other affiliates of the
To boost its collections and capacity, NIDA has formed partnerships with other
organisations. The Seaborn Broughton and Walford Foundation is providing
significant financial support after relocating its library and archive to
NIDA. Among its holdings are a large collection of the ABC broadcaster and
theatre historian, John West, and selected material transferred from the
Sydney Opera House in 1996. Another partner, the Wolanski Foundation (http://www.twf.org.au),
provides a boutique information service that attracts about 17,000 web visits, mail and
telephone enquiries a year, mainly on the performing arts. NIDA’s 50th
anniversary will provide the focus for its archival programs over the next few
Anniversaries are influencing agendas in a number of other companies. Tanya
Cawthorne, from Sydney’s Company B (http://www.belvoir.com.au/), outlined
plans to organise its historical record, after years of neglect, for an
upcoming 21st anniversary. At Australia’s first performing arts complex, the
Canberra Theatre Centre (http://www.canberratheatre.org.au/), a 40th
anniversary has been an impetus for Richard Stone and John Thomson to clarify
archival strategies there.
Several speakers drew attention to the value of exhibitions in building
audiences, stimulating acquisitions and generating products. Beryl Davis, from
Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Museum, (http://www.qpac.com.au/creative_services/qpac_museum/)
gave the example of an exhibition on the Razar rock band, with commemorative
CD and video documentary. Peter Cox pointed to the Real Wild Child, Circus and
Strictly Ballroom exhibitions at the Powerhouse Museum (http://www.phm.gov.au/)
as generators of wider benefits. And Margaret Marshall’s example was a Kylie
Minogue exhibition, produced by the Victorian Arts Centre’s Performing Arts
The capacity of archives to unravel social contexts was an undercurrent in
Helen Trepa’s presentation on director John Tasker’s papers, held by the
Adelaide Festival Theatre Centre’s Performing Arts Collection (http://www.pacsa.asn.au).
The papers document a professional and private life that peaked in an era when
censorship and bigotry triggered police raids on theatres.
Collections demand attention ahead of online activities. John Thomson reported
on efforts at the National Library of Australia, where photographs from its JC
Williamson collection are being identified, catalogued, digitised and
progressively made available on the library’s website. Susanne Moir gave an
update on work to organise the substantial JCW collection at the State Library
of NSW, which recently launched a fund-raising campaign to streamline access
to Australiana holdings via its web offshoot, atmitchell.com.
Oral history projects, increasingly in digital form, are underway in several
organisations. Bill Stephens brought along sound grabs of interviews with June
Bronhill and others, undertaken for the National Library of Australia’s
program, to demonstrate the ability of the medium to add nuances to public
personas. Judith Seff touched on the oral history project at the Sydney
Theatre Company (http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/) in her presentation on
activities of the company’s archive. And an oral history project is underway
at NIDA, with initial funding from Lady Mary Fairfax.
The work of university libraries was represented by Cheryl Hoskin, who
reported on Barr Smith Library’s performing arts holdings, which include the
Allan Wilkie Shakespearean collection (http://www.library.adelaide.edu.au/ial/special).
Ian Hoskins’ talk, on the Luna Park archives and an upcoming exhibition at
North Sydney’s Stanton Library, flagged potential for highlighting
entertainment history in municipalities and regions.
In an automated era, private collectors and researchers have enhanced their
role as accumulators of cultural material though the use of websites and
databases to document the passing parade. Australian circus historian, Mark St
Leon, has made available an Excel database of 10,000 entries, covering all
types of itinerant shows, with his latest publication Circus in Australia:
Index of Show Movements 1833-1966. A website, encouraging contributions from
others, will be launched soon.
Recent collaborative online performing arts enterprise has centred on four
subject gateways – AusStage, MusicAustralia, AustLit and Australian Dancing.
AusStage (http://www.ausstage.edu.au/) was fuelled by the work of one its key
players, Joh Hartog, on a database for Adelaide Festival Theatre Centre,
created during in the early 1990s to serve the Centre’s Performing Arts
Collection, programming and marketing departments. In its initial form, the
database contained basic details about events, attendances and revenue. But it
projected possible inclusion of an extensive range of rich analytical fields
relating to production history, genres and social characteristics.
With this experience as a platform, a consortium of eight universities and
PASIG was successful in obtaining two grants of $1 million from the Australian
Research Council to develop AusStage as a tool for research and analysis of
cultural and commercial aspects of Australian theatre.
Its main component, an events database with information on productions,
people, organisations, venues, publications and articles, now has records for
over 30,000 theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre productions, including
recent shows entered since January 2001, and retrospective data 1892-1996.
Retrospective data has been drawn from the Australian & New Zealand Theatre
Record 1986-1996, and, more selectively, from the Dennis Wolanski Library
program collection, now located at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the
National Library of Australia’s PROMPT collection. The other main component is
a database of selected performing arts holdings in Australian libraries,
museums and universities, compiled from a survey.
At the PASIG meeting, project manager Jenny White, reported on attempts to
sustain the initiative. Current events in the ACT, NSW, Queensland and Western
Australia continue to be added. The South Australian Arts Department has
assumed responsibility for entries on South Australian productions. Barr Smith
Library at the University of Adelaide is using the database to catalogue its
programs. AusStage has approached South Australian professional and amateur
theatre companies to encourage direct contributions. Discussions are in train
with the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Federal Minister for the Arts for
assistance in developing the project. A third ARC grant application is being
MusicAustralia (http://www.musicaustralia.org), devoted to information on
Australian music, musicians and organisations, is propelled by the National
Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive, with the
participation of the Australian Music Centre, Australian Music Online,
Australian Sound Design and most of the state libraries. It currently has
metadata on nearly 150,000 books, music scores, sound recordings, pictures,
websites, films, archival materials and a range of other music-related
material. And it provides access to digital music scores and sound recordings,
although extensive online presentation of these formats, via MusicAustralia,
is limited by copyright restrictions.
A feature of MusicAustralia, as highlighted by the National Library of
Australia’s Rashmi Madan at the PASIG conference, is its use of a centralised
metadata repository to harvest bibliographic records in MARC and other formats
from small and large organisations.
Figure 1: MusicAustralia Data Workflow
Visionary thinking behind the project is evident
from the list of enhancements proposed by its principal creators, Robyn Holmes
and Marie-Louise Ayres. They include identification of possible contributors
inside and outside the library sector, early engagement with contributors to
encourage adoption of relevant standards, and provision of alert and
Amazon-style annotation functionality to encourage user commentary and data
Information management within organisations
Performing arts organisations, like other types of organisations, are moving
through phases in adopting technology. In many, an experimental phase has
emphasised business unit interests over the broader needs of organisations.
Feudal dynamics, for example, characterised the adoption of technology at
Australia’s cultural flagship, the Sydney Opera House (http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com).
At the beginning of the 1990s, after the initial investment in personal
computers, lack of coordination, lack of formal controls and inconsistent use
of standards led to widespread ambiguity and perpetuated high levels of data
redundancy across the organisation. After the purchase of an events management
system as the intended hub of a corporate system, subsequent implementation of
IT continued to run the gauntlet of competing business unit interests,
politics, managerial turnover, and wheel reinvention throughout the 1990s.
At the Australian Film Radio and Television School (http://www.aftrs.edu.au),
according to Andrew L Urban, research for the school’s 25th anniversary in
1998 was tortuous because of past information management failures. From
1988-1993, the school maintained the mere semblance of order in recordkeeping
and “the reliability and thoroughness of data maintained prior to
computerisation was a sad and sorry thing.” Deficiencies in files and data
systems were partly overcome by drawing on library resources and the corporate
memory of library staff.
The development, at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (http://abc.net.au),
of more than twenty separate systems for managing radio and television
programs, sound effects, library and archive materials, film preservation,
rights management and other functions is indicative of a feudal past that the
ABC is now working to address.
In the mid-1990s, government policies and guidelines emerged to guide better
practices in agencies under their control. These encourage holistic approaches
for managing data, records, archives, library resources, publications and
other information assets to reduce duplicate effort and data redundancy. The
NSW Information Management and Technology Blueprint, Information Management
Framework and other policies on the website of the NSW Government Chief
Information Office (http://www.oit.nsw.gov.au/) are examples. Legislation, the
international standard AS ISO 15489, and guidelines, such as the Australian
and NSW versions of the Dirks Manual, have reinforced more stringent,
auditable requirements for managing records.
The success of these regimes is unclear. Government recordkeeping audits
report a degree of compliance, but they also point to failures in capturing
records, limited control over electronic records, lack of formal disposal
protocols and other deficiencies. The status of IT governance as today’s Hot
Topic indicates that messages about best practice are taking time to sink in.
If Library and Archive Canada’s Information Management Capacity Check Tool and
were used to measure progress towards maturity, the likelihood is that many
organisations will attract low scores on managing information contexts,
capabilities and quality.
In performing arts organisations, as in the organisations of other industries,
challenges persist in handling information strata, islands of information, and
information black holes.
Government agencies have turned tentatively to industry-wide arts and
technology questions. In 1999, the Australia Council embarked on a study as a
step towards an arts IT strategy, but the project was abandoned, possibly
because of its focus on means over needs. Subsequent analysis of the territory
by government and parliamentary bodies has focused on macro IT issues in
narrow fields, such as museums, creative industries and libraries.
Australia’s Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 2004-2006,
available at http//www.dcita.gov.au/ie, does not single out the performing
arts. But its priorities serve as reference points for the sector: development
of capabilities, networks and tools; addressing security and interoperability
issues; developing an innovation system as a platform for productivity, growth
and industry transformation; and encouraging public sector productivity,
collaboration and accessibility.
“When the disparate systems of different government agencies and private
enterprises can interoperate,” it says, “then complex transactions will be
made much easier. There is a need for a comprehensive management framework for
public sector participation in the information economy, but this depends on
new collaborative ways of managing ICT services and investment between
agencies and all three levels of government.”
New collaborative ways of managing ICT services in the performing arts will no
doubt gravitate around the natural synergies of government, educational and
collection sectors. After lengthy gestations, two new bodies have emerged, but
are still finding their feet.
The Collections Council of Australia, established in 2004, now has an
executive director, a committee representing archive, museum, gallery and
library interests, and an affiliated Collections Australia Network (http://www.collectionsaustralia.net).
Deep interaction between the archive, library and museum sectors, though, is
likely to take some time.
The Australian Research Information Infrastructure Committee, established in
2003, represents the interests of university administrators, librarians, IT
specialists, scholars, the National Library of Australia and the Australian
Research Council. It is wrestling with the considerable complexities of an
e-learning agenda through deliberations on open access, campus architectural
middleware, a national collaborative research infrastructure, intellectual
property and grid computing.
Although it covers circumstances in the UK, the British Academy’s E-Resources
in the Humanities and Social Sciences (http;//www.britac.ac.uk/reports/eresources),
reinforcing similar studies and without any surprises, is relevant to the
Australian scene. “Providers are offering important goods, but in a largely
uncoordinated or inappropriately designed way, so the full benefits are not
realised”. It recommends, among other things, that national mechanisms for
access to both e-resources and non-e-resources be improved and high priority
be given to secondary e-resources such as catalogues over other forms of
Subject gateways and portals were once the rage as one-stop-shops. But those
developing them seem to have become more circumspect. Janine Schmidt, Anne
Horn and Barbara Thorsen say that the Australian subject gateways have met
with mixed success: while some gateways have remained viable, “others have not
been as successful in developing cost-effective management structures, [and]
maintaining currency.” Lorcan Dempsey’s view is that the portal is in a
transitional phase and that we are beginning to see an “unbundling” of
associated library services. “We imagine that the portal is a sufficient
response to the issues, [but it] is only a partial answer [and] at worst,
obscures the real question…We need to look beyond it to build and sustain the
This line of thinking seems to have taken hold in the Australian Subject
Gateways Forum (http://www.nla.gov.au/initiatives/sg/). Although the Forum’s
principles, articulated in founding documents, stress the need to avoid
duplication of effort and to create sustainable business models, recent
committee meetings have called for a broadening of the Forum’s scope to
include online service delivery in general. A strategic pulse may replace the
less compelling objective of swapping notes.
Continued development of performing arts gateways or portals is important for
uniting scholarly, publishing, ICT, library, archive, and museum interests,
and possibly wider business interests, around a common purpose. Uncovering
deficiencies in services, systems and relationships is as important as the
ultimate objective, improving access to information.
The existing performing arts gateways and portals, built around the
distinctive orientations of their developers, provide fertile ground for
action to strengthen their worth. MusicAustralia, as a harvester of
bibliographic resources in collecting institutions, has the stability of the
National Library of Australia at its centre. It doesn’t currently provide
access to databases of musical events, journal articles and newspaper reviews,
but its visionary scope and architecture provide the basis for future
incorporation of data routinely created by library and non-library
participants. The drawcard of AusStage is its events database and scholarly
interest in rich analytical data. Its prospects for growth and longevity may
be improved by minimising the need to recreate data that may exist elsewhere,
drawing on the routine work of collecting institutions and performing arts
organisations, developing associated collection management functionality, and
providing more sophisticated search and browse options.
The free MusicAustralia and AusStage gateways are the shop windows for
invisible Web resources, as is AustLit (a fee-based service sustained by
subscriptions). Australia Dancing, on the other hand, is a visible web
resource because much of its content, authoritatively created by the National
Library’s subject expert, Michelle Potter, is encoded on Web pages rather than
drawn from dynamic databases. This is also the case with the library’s PROMPT
collection of programs and ephemera, and similar finding aids in other
organisations such as the Collection Guide to Dance at the State Library of
Marcus Aurelius, in The Meditations, urged us to “look from above at the
spectacle of myriad herds, myriad rites, and manifold journeying in storm and
calm.” When we look out of the helicopter, possibilities for linking the
private sector with subsidised enterprise become more apparent. But converting
possibility to productivity in the performing arts industry is likely to be a
testing journey. Incentives to reduce inefficiencies and waste are more likely
to go to major industries with more urgent business cases, such as health.
Attempts to streamline complex transactions will encounter privacy and
commercial sensitivities as well as technical hurdles.
Private and semi-commercial performing arts businesses create data about
events, people and organisations in ticketing, events management, accounting,
facilities and decision support systems. The media generate a considerable
quantity of unstructured and semi-structured information about the performing
arts. Attempts by one organisation to complement and capitalise on the
information in another organisation tend to carry forward practices from an
analogue past or strike boundaries created by the narrow confines of business
interests. The State Library of NSW selectively indexed Fairfax newspapers
from 1988 to 2005 for its online database Infoquick. This included theatre
reviews, but not music reviews. Arts Hub Australia (http://www.artshub.com.au)
provides access to news stories and features, but not reviews.
Differences in the way business units work within organisations can also
thwart attempts to minimise duplication. The Dennis Wolanski Library for the
Performing Arts, for example, developed a solution in the mid-1990s for
combining MARC-based bibliographic and event records in one database. This
involved creating local rules for general material designations, subject
heading qualifiers and other data elements to subordinate programs and press
clippings as attributes of event records. However, attempts to streamline data
handling with other business systems at the Sydney Opera House, the parent
organisation, foundered on different data entry rules for business
transactions –semantic differences - rather than structural impediments.
At the 1996 AusWeb conference, keynote speaker Herman Maurer predicted that
the ensuing twenty-five years would be “all about structure.” XML has emerged
as a new way of structuring and exchanging information. In the context of the
Semantic Web agenda, the World Wide Web Consortium recently endorsed the
Resource Definition Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL) standards,
aimed at enabling content producers and libraries to integrate, share and
reuse data on the Web.
Libraries, archives and museums are grappling with an expanding suite of
associated standards and tools such as Metadata Encoding and Transmission
Standard (METS), Metadata Object Description Scheme (MODS), Open Archives
Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PHM), Online Information
Exchange (ONIX), CIMI XML Schema, Encoded Archival Description (EAD), and
Shibboleth (which aims to facilitate the sharing of Web-based, protected
resources between institutions). Commentators describe many of these standards
as immature. MODS is deemed to be the best choice for bridging traditional
library applications and other formats. The data model, Functional
Requirements for Bibliographic Resources (FRBR), is contributing to change on
a number of fronts.
The media, through the International Press Telecommunications Council, wrestle
with NewsML, EventsML, ICE and other standards relating to the packaging and
delivery of news.
A standard for managing controlled vocabularies is about to be endorsed by the
National Information Standards Organization, although interoperability
solutions for controlled vocabularies await firmer answers.
Ways of managing the performing arts information ecology will continue to
evolve. The quality of information management practices within organisations
will help or hinder future opportunities for wider efficiency and value. The
role of the National Library of Australia or surrogate institutions, with
extensive experience in coordinating macro information projects and capacity
to sustain efforts, will be crucial. Monitoring, adopting and adapting
descriptive and interoperability standards will be essential. There will be
devils in the detail.
Australian Research Information
Infrastructure Committee.<Available at http://www.dest.gov.au/
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A Dozen Primers on
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Ayres, Bemal Rajapatirana and Roxanne Missingham.
The Computerized Gaze and
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Holmes, Robyn and Ayres,
Marie-Louise. MusicAustralia: Towards a National Music Information
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Construction, Format and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies
(ANSI/NISO Z39.19-200x). Available at http://www.niso.org.
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