In 1901, one
of the first acts of the Commonwealth of Australia was to create a system which
would keep the newly-formed nation white. The legislation was specifically
designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. In Australia, this idea
focused particularly on people of Asian descent, but applied to all non-whites,
including indigenous Australians, who were viewed as a ‘dying race.’  In his
article, It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and
People, Tim Sherrat, an historian and self-described hacker, turns this
system of rejection and control on its head by making the invisible, non-white
Australians visible through the creation of a database.
administration of what was to become known as the White Australia Policy created
a colossal volume of records, most of which is still preserved within the
National Archives of Australia. In the National Archives of Australia there are
thousands of photographs attached to certificates that non-white residents
needed to get back into the country if they traveled overseas. These certificates
are poignant reminders of the thousands of lives which were tracked and
supervised by the government of Australia.
back some of the control of their lives by having professional photographic
portraits taken, rather than using the standard mug shot style photos, and were
able to present themselves instead in a dignified manner. Sherrat has used
facial detection technology to find and extract the photographs from digital
copies of the original certificates made available through the National
Archives of Australia’s collection database. He reverse-engineered the web
interface and created a script that would harvest the metadata and download
copies of all the digitized images.  Thanks to this ingenious technique,
Sherrat built a resource which granted the opportunity to view these certificates
and photos not as records, but as people. He linked the faces he found to the
copies of the original certificates back to the collection database of the
National Archives, effectively constructing a finding aid.
quotes Margaret Hedstrom, a professor at the School of Information at the
University of Michigan, as she describes the archival interface as a ‘site
where power is negotiated and exercised.’ Sherrat asserts that finding aids or
collection databases are the product of conscious design decisions. His hope is
that his database will return a portion of power back to the people within the
records. Sherrat was able to create his database without any assistance from
the National Archives itself. In doing so, Sherrat has managed to shift some of
the power away from the National Archives and to his database which is refers
to as a resource that adds information to the existing archives, but simultaneously
is also a pointed critique of the collection. It is digital technology that has
taken some of the control away from cultural heritage collections and given it
to the public.
I agree with
Sherrat’s statement that recordkeeping systems tend to reflect the structures
and power relations of the organizations that create them. His assertion that
records can find new meanings and power can be reclaimed with technology is
significant when we consider that Nazi records of items confiscated during the
holocaust have been used to assist the process of restitution and reparation. In
addition, through the examination of slave records in the United States we can accomplish
a similar goal to Sherrat’s, in that we can show the slaves as people, rather
than a commodity being bought and sold.
In my own work in the field of American art history, I may not be ready to write my own code, but I can see myself creating a database on Winslow Homer. I would like to include an interactive map of where he painted, and where the paintings currently reside. There could also be a timeline of important events of the nineteenth century cross-referenced with Homer’s work. Perhaps I could tie my database to other scholarly sites on Homer, as a potential finding aid.
I found of interest is the Digital Library on American Slavery, created by UNC
Greensboro.  You can search for information by names, or by keywords. There
is also an advanced search option in which you can search by year, state, and
slave status. The site also contains the Race and Slavery Petitions Project,
which provides information on approximately 150,000 individuals (slaves, free
people of color, and whites). This data was gleaned from 2,975 legislative
petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, as well as a variety of related
documents which includes wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions,
court proceedings, and amended petitions. In these documents are the names and
data of roughly 80,000 slaves, 8,000 free people of color, and 62,000 whites,
both slave owners and non-slave owners. The archive also contains the North
Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, which provides online access
to all known runaway slave advertisements published in North Carolina newspapers
from 1751 to 1840. These ads offer a view into the social, economic, and
cultural world of the American slave system as it pertains to North Carolina. The
site includes The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database from Emory University,
which features information on more than 35,000 slave voyages for transport to
the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Researchers can also
find a collaborative endeavor between the UNCG University Libraries, North
Carolina Division of Archives and Records, and North Carolina Registers of
Deeds, called People Not Property – Slave Deeds of North Carolina. This
project is leading towards a unique, centralized database of bills of sales
indexing the names of enslaved people from across North Carolina. Finally, the
site includes a section of Slavery Era Insurance Registries, an index of
insurance companies who wrote policies insuring slave owners against the loss,
damage, or death of their slaves. The Digital Library on American Slavery is an
excellent resource which offers many potential avenues of research for historians.
One that comes to mind is the cross-cultural influence on art using The
Trans-Atlantic Slave Database as a resource.
 National Museum Australia
(2006). White Australia Policy. nma.gov.
 Tim Sherratt (2011). It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People. Discontents. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/its-all-about-the-stuff-by-tim-sherratt/.