Taking a break part 2


It’s far too easy to take the benefits of digitisation for granted – as the blog was reminded in the last month or so. Recently the blog attended the launch of a history of Port Melbourne, The Borough and its People, by Margaret and Graham Bride. It’s a terrific book and the subject desperately needed to be re-visited since the 1983 publication of A History of Port Melbourne co-authored by the blog and Nancy U’Ren.

Back then we faced haphazard council records, hard copies of some newspapers, the dreaded microfiche version of others and the still emerging archive culture and resources which Nancy was instrumental in contributing to through her work at the National Archives. Since then the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society has published a number of booklets and established a local history data base and Margaret and Graham have mined an astonishingly rich range of sources to identify much about Port and the people who lived and worked there. One impressive find, in the Public Records Office, was a journal by a local school teacher which provided remarkable detail and colour about local schools and students.

In the case of Margaret and Graham it has produced an entertaining and illuminating work.Some of the big data analysis (see the item on social sciences in the post earlier today) is another example of the massive benefits. Now the University of Melbourne Library is doing the same with the significant book bequest by Sir Robert Menzies, who has well as being PM was also the university’s Chancellor. The collection is extensive and has a large number of presentation copies. For instance it contains presentation copies from Arthur Calwell with clear demonstrations of friendship. Can one imagine Abbott presenting an affectionately inscribed copy of Battlelines to Julia Gillard or her presenting it to her alma mater? Currently the university (Collections Issue 12, June 20 2013) is developing a program which will allow researchers to develop much better understanding of Menzies and relationships through the books and their connections.

This sort of work is the best side of digitisation. But the other side – aimless crunching of data – is still  best summed up by the very pre-digital T.S.Eliot in The Rock

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information

Media ironies

One of the great ironies of modern media is that some of the most valuable articles are increasingly becoming free while the least valuable are becoming expensive.

In the print media there has been much discussion about how to make money out of news and the general consensus is that it comes from some form of pay wall. In academic circles the debate has been more about the huge profits academic publishers make out of largely voluntary labour and exorbitant prices charged for subscriptions to the institutions which employ the voluntary labour.  So if you want information from a mainstream media outlet about Lady Gaga you need to pay for it. Sometimes that might be worth it to discover, for instance, that she had a bit part in Sopranos as one of AJ’s fellow students but generally you have to wonder. On the other hand an academic paper of huge social, technical, scientific or other interest is increasingly likely to be available free on line. Barack Obama, for instance, has ruled that if public money is involved in funding the research then it needs to be publicly available. Typical of Obama however there is a bit of a fudge with a longish time limit involved which allows academic publishers to continue to prosper. And, of course, most academics want to be published in the most prestigious journals which generate points in countries’ funding formulae based on academic research scoring systems. A discussion of what’s happening can be found at http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1346

Third world labour

The blog has always been ambivalent about outbursts of compassion and outrage over manufacturing in developing nations. The horrific fire in Bangladesh was a tragedy. Child labour is awful. Many developing country labour practices are abysmal.  But in the case of most developing countries the real issues are more complicated. Do you stop children from earning money or do you try to have an influence on how they work and whether they get an education? Do you close down factories mainly employing women because they are exploitive or do you think about how you can help the women take the next steps to more freedom and independence? Deciding to boycott individual brands might make you feel good in the short term but is it the best option in the long-term? Are you prepared to pay more for goods manufactured in your home country? None of the questions can be answered with T-shirt slogan approaches. To give an indication of the complexity see http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/bangladeshi-garment-factories-help-promote-women-in-society-a-910214.html#ref=nl-international