100 year old letters, surveys and more containing 88 Aboriginal languages from across Australia have been collated in an interactive digital project by the State Library of NSW.
The project focuses on the Aboriginal place names and meanings for various regions, is searchable by document type or language group, and is opening up discussions in the Aboriginal community about the accuracy of the documents.
The project called Weemala, which means ‘a big lookout’ in the Gadigal (Sydney region) language, places historic survey information from the State Library’s collection relating to Australia’s Indigenous communities in a digital landscape.
“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,” said Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive.
Developer and data enthusiast Chris McDowall, who has been working with the DX Lab as a “Digital-Drop-In”, created the test platform for Weemala using transcribed survey forms and correspondence received by the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia between 1899 and 1903.
In order to document Aboriginal words, place names and meanings, the Society issued a survey to government officials (including police officers in some instances) in each colony who were then responsible for recording this key cultural information from the 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,” said Ms Thorpe.
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
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.