Past and present key to unlocking language mysteries

Sydney researchers are using century-old survey data to help unlock the locations and meaning of Indigenous Australian place names across the country.

The State Library of NSW’s Weemala (“Big Lookout”) Project is an interactive experiment that is bringing historical information from the Library’s vast collections to life through digital platforms.

It’s a collaboration between the Library’s Indigenous Services team and the Library’s DX Lab, harnessing the cultural and historical expertise and the technical know-how within these two groups to bring context and understanding to the data.

They are using transcribed survey forms and correspondence received by the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia between 1899 and 1903, a treasure trove of detail and information gathered by public servants of the day.

Determined to document Aboriginal words, place names and meanings at the turn of last century, the Society issued a survey to government officials (including police officers in some instances) in each colony. They were then responsible for recording this key cultural information from local Aboriginal communities.

“The data contained in the surveys is an important source for documenting the meanings of many Aboriginal places names,” said Kirsten Thorpe, Indigenous Services Manager at the State Library. “By showing this rich data in the context of the locations it refers to, we hope to add another layer to people’s understanding of these incredible records of our languages.”

In developing Weemala, the Library’s Indigenous Services team also worked with Emma Pike, from Kaldor Public Art Projects, and the artist Jonathan Jones to look at the information contained within the surveys and how they could be further used to explore questions around relationships between land and language.

“It was important to explore the structure and nuances within the data so that Weemala could be fully developed with this understanding in mind,” said Ms Thorpe.

NSW State Librarian and Chief Executive Alex Byrne said: “This innovative collaboration capitalises on the expertise within our Indigenous Services team with the technical creativity of our DX Lab to create something new and wonderful for researchers and users to experience”.

Developer and data enthusiast Chris Mcdowell has been the driving force digitally, working with the DX Lab as a ‘Digital-Drop-In’ and creating the test platform for Weemala.

The digital experiment is part of the Library’s ongoing Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project which aims to make accessible some of the oldest languages in the world by locating, digitising and providing access to Indigenous word lists, language records and other cultural documents in consultation with the relevant Indigenous communities.

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