Biography, Cultural Studies, Digital Scholarship, Life Writing

Making Them Live

20.12.10 | Comment?

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) is the premier reference resource for the study of the lives of Australians who were significant in Australian history. Its 50 year anniversary was celebrated in 2009 with a special symposium ‘Between the Past and the Future’, which brought together past employees of and contributors to this important national project. Seventeen volumes of the dictionary and one supplementary volume have been published under the Melbourne University Press imprint, with Volume 18 (covering people who died between 1981 and 1990, surnames beginning L to Z) due to appear in 2012.

The editorial unit that produces the ADB has been led by General Editor Professor Melanie Nolan since 2008. In that year, the National Centre of Biography (NCB) was established at the Australian National University to extend the work of the ADB and to serve as a focus for the study of life writing in Australia, supporting the highest standards in the field, nationally and internationally. The NCB is a growing community made up of research editors, PhD students, postdoctoral and research fellows, senior academics and adjunct appointments, together with administrative support staff, a website developer and an online manager.

2006 was an especially important year for the ADB, with the launching of the online version of the dictionary by Michael Jeffery, Governor-General of Australia. The ADB online, covering almost all of the material in the existing print volumes, has quickly become one of the most widely consulted online reference works for the study of Australian history. Visits to the website at www.adbonline.com.au reached approximately 70 million ‘hits’ by 2009. The ADB online is set apart from similar biographical reference works around the world by being freely available rather than via a subscription-based online service.

As preparation of Volume 18 of the print version of the ADB draws to a close over the coming year, new plans are in the pipeline to enhance the functionality of ADB online. Print-based resources continue to be transferred to digital publication formats, and large-scale collections of information online are available to more people than ever before. As readers become increasingly digitally literate, they also expect more of online resources; they expect them to be responsive to technological innovation and to change with the times.

The NCB has set itself a goal over the next five years to be recognised as a world leader in the development of online biographical dictionaries and related resources, supporting and promoting innovation in life writing in multiple media formats. A fundamentally important step towards achieving this goal is the renovation of the underlying structure of information in the online version of the dictionary. This is currently underway. The database is in the process of literally being rebuilt from the ground up. Meanwhile, ADB online will continue to function as usual, and changes will be introduced in stages.

One of the first new features will be a fresh graphical layout, aimed to ensure ease of access for people of all ages and levels. Next will be the introduction of a much more ‘intuitive’ search interface. In practical terms, this means that scholars will be able to locate information more quickly and efficiently, and with greater accuracy. ‘Contextual’ search functions will provide clues to related information, inviting users to follow web links to, for example, a subject’s associates, or to other people who may have attended the same school or been members or employees of the same organisation.

The ADB is also raising its already exceptionally high standards for verification of historical information and accuracy in editing, by making use of new technology to streamline editorial processes. This initiative, introduced in April 2010 when I joined the NCB as its Deputy Director and as the new Deputy General Editor of the ADB, marks an important transitional moment for the ADB as it continues to build its reputation as a leader in the practical application of digital technologies in the field of history.

Arthur, Paul Longley. “Making Them Live: The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online,” History: Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society 106 (December 2010): 7–8.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity