Coming out creative

With some hesitation – even trepidation – I have published some pages about me and some of the things I’ve made. Why the worry? Well, because I’m no extrovert. Plus, I’m in some kind of transition phase, so it’s even harder than it usually is to talk about who I am and what I do. Plus, I’m nervous. Change is a little bit scary. Thrilling but, mmm, scary.

I love drawing, and making things, and pootling about with software for making things that both look nice and mean something. But between a PhD, parenthood and full-time paid work, my energy for making things has wandered off to the sidelines. It is feeling neglected, and no doubt it has shrivelled a bit. I suppose I have prioritised being clever over being creative, for pragmatic reasons (although I read somewhere this week that the perceived value of creativity is on the rise). Actually, I think I have not ever really believed in my creativity. I think I thought I’m too introverted to be arty. I thought I was more your logical, left-brained type. But now I’m wondering why I can’t be that and creative. I want integration!

Now, I’ve quit my full-time job. Now, I am determined to give my professional endeavours more of a creative curve. I have lots of ideas – and I’m looking forward to exploring them. It feels good.

Not so kooky after all

At work, people sometimes laugh at me for doing a drawing of a concept we’re discussing. But lately (very lately – yes, I’m slow) I am becoming aware that not only is there an exciting, flourishing field of data visualisation out there – but there is also a field of visual thinking. I have always considered it is a useful practice, to think visually, especially for the sake of communicating complex ideas or processes or systems. Mostly I have kept this opinion a bit quiet. But flip, maybe I can call it a talent! Henceforth I will be more inclined to share the diagrams I make for one reason or another…

A Depression story in the National Archives

This post is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about findability of National Archives of Australia collection items for the 2008 Australian Society of Archivists conference. The idea is that anyone’s description of a record could be put to work in the service of findability. So the following is an example of a description, of a single page from a single file (of 220 pages) from a single series (of 13,749 files) from the National Archives collection (of around 45,000 series). (You can see why findability is an issue for us!)

The whole paper is available from the National Archives of Australia website.

In February 1934, Victor Fitzgibbon wrote a note to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. The Department had provided him with four weeks’ work so that he could leave Canberra with his family. Having saved enough in that time to buy and recondition a truck, Mr Fitzgibbon sought a grant to register the vehicle for three months.

Grant for three months' truck registration

Victor Fitzgibbon’s request to the Department of the Interior for a grant to register his truck for three months so he could leave Canberra with his family.
National Archives of Australia: A659, 1939/1/16561

This note – the raw record – was used the same day it was written. CS Daley, the Assistant Secretary of the Civic Branch of the Department of the Interior, inserted Mr Fitzgibbon’s handwritten page into a typewriter to make his recommendation, which was to approve the grant ‘as a debit to the Alleviation of Distress, on the grounds that his continued residence in Canberra would be a greater burden to the Alleviation of Distress than the amount requested’. The Secretary of the Department must have been away, because he then added a further annotation: ‘In view of urgency, take action as proposed and resubmit for covering approval on Secretary’s return. CSD, 16.2.34′.

Another annotation suggests that the grant was issued four days later, and HC Brown, Secretary of the Department, noted his approval about a week after that.

In this first phase of the record’s life, it has served its purpose as attestation – to the need for the grant; and as documentation – of the Assistant Secretary’s recommendation for approval, and on what grounds; of the funds’ disbursal; and of the belated approval for such.

By reading the other documents in the file that relate to Mr Fitzgibbon, a fuller picture of the situation is revealed. It was the tail end of the Depression. Victor Fitzgibbon had arrived in Canberra after 1929, so he was ineligible for the rations available to other residents in similarly difficult circumstances. He was living at Ainslie married camp, with his pregnant wife and infant child. Several months prior to writing the letter described here, he had agreed to leave the Territory by mid-January if he was unable to find work. From the Department of the Interior’s point of view, the Fitzgibbon family had received special treatment up to that time, on account of the young child and Mrs Fitzgibbon’s pregnancy. In fact, one document notes that several years prior to this time, Victor Fitzgibbon’s father had been granted transport to go to Melbourne in 1929, and that he had returned ‘unannounced’ with Victor and his family.

Probably, the Department was keen to see the back of the Fitzgibbons, its sympathy having expired. The final instalment in the archival story is a small note pinned to the letter. ‘CD’ (presumably the Assistant Secretary, CS Daley) states ‘Has Fitzgerald [sic] actually left on the vehicle.’ Another hand has written ‘Please verify from police.’ A final note states ‘Fitzgibbon left Canberra Thursday last 22.2.34 – destination unknown’.

You can also see this record in Vrroom – virtual reading room.

Into the desert – audio blog

The National Museum of Australia is exploring new territory, staking a claim in the blogosphere. It is a mission echoing its new blog’s focus – an expedition into the desert to find – amongst other things – fossils of the large marsupial lion, Thylacoleo.

Into the desert contains regular audio reports by desert archaeologist Dr Mike Smith, sent back to the Museum via satellite phone. As well as hearing about the party’s progress – including how the camels are going! – you can visually trace the path of the party via a dynamic expedition map.

I knew there used to be BIG things out there in South Australia. I had a charming paleontologist uncle who once gave my sister some little pieces of dinosaur egg. But I’d never heard of this big marsupial lion. And one thing that does not appear on the blog is a picture of the prized object of the search. So here’s a great drawing that appeared in a book published by the Australian Museum on prehistoric animals in Australia:


It was drawn by Peter Schouten, but appears here via a website on Thylacoleo.

It is good to see the Museum out there like this. I imagine there will be many followers of the mission via the blog. Pity there seems no scope for in-blog discussion. That would have been good to see, too.

Prehistoric pine and platypus

In the Australian National Botanic Gardens the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the cage that protects the young Wollemi Pine tree:


I remember when the news broke of its discovery in the depths of a rainforest gorge in the huge Wollemi National Park, just northwest of Sydney. A rare story of species discovery, rather than extinction! And a species that is old, old, old – prehistoric. That was about the extent of my knowledge recall.

This was my first encounter with a real live Wollemi Pine. The cage is odd. But it also adds to its appeal. And you can peer through and see the tree, gloriously alive and flourishing:

This is what the Gardens tells you on the spot:

I was inspired to find out more. Did you know…

  • each tree is bisexual, having both male and female seed cones – I guess this is a male one:
  • it sheds whole branches, rather than individual leaves, and
  • it is being exhibited alongside a platypus at World Expo 2005 in Japan.

See the Wollemi Pine website for information, inspiration and… a demo of clever marketing.