Tim Sherratt (University of Canberra) published a post on his Discontents blog entitled “Hacking heritage: power and participation in digital cultural collections,” detailing a project he shared at the DigitalGLAM Symposium on July 15 2016 in Melbourne. In order to make the Pre-1980 materials in the Australian Government’s ParlInfo Database more readable and usable, Sherratt quickly developed a tool, Historic Hansard, to serve as “an easy-to-read format for historians and other lovers of political speech.”
I initially harvested the files because I thought they’d provide a useful example for use in teaching about text analysis tools and techniques. But then I reflected on that ‘readability’ question and wondered how much work would be involved in creating a version of Hansard that was focused on browsing and reading. The answer was about two days — over the space of a weekend I created Historic Hansard.
His work revealed gaps in the publicly available data, prompting a consideration of implications and the ways in which some institutionally-provided interfaces might hide such silences in the record from researchers.
Needless to say, it’s unlikely that anyone would have noticed these gaps using ParlInfo’s web interface. It’s yet another example of why you always be suspicious of search engines. But it’s also an example of how hacking collections opens them to new forms of analysis and enables us to critique the very notion of access.
Spend sometime reading the strategic plans of cultural heritage organisations and you’ll see that ‘access’ figures prominently — access is ‘provided’, ‘given’, and ‘opened’. Online access is a ‘deliverable’ to be measured in hits and sessions.
The problem with this is it casts the public as consumers of access, rather than creators. Hacking heritage collections is one way demonstrating that access is not a one way flow of information — it’s a struggle and it must always be. We should always be uncomfortable with the categories used to structure our past. We should always want more. If we run out of questions and criticisms then something’s gone badly wrong.
He closes with a call for researchers, cultural institutions, citizens, and hackers to engage with open data and share their work in ways that enable discoveries and “to build critiques as well as websites, conversations as well as code.”