5 QUESTIONS with Kirsten Thorpe

25 August 2016
KirstenThorpe StateLibraryNSWteam

State Library of NSW, Indigenous Services Team

What is your role at the State Library of New South Wales, and what is your background?

I am Manager, Indigenous Services, at the Library. Our team are responsible for the development of Library services for Indigenous peoples and communities in NSW. One of our main aims is to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to share and celebrate stories of Indigenous Australia, and to help people access materials held in our collections. We also have a role in working with the Library to collect into the future.

I am really passionate about building connections for Aboriginal people to access library and archive collections. I think it is so important to go out and proactively let communities know what collections exist relating to their history and heritage, and to invite people back in to view and engage with that content. I am professionally really interested in how the digital domain can be utilised as a place for communities to enhance, respond and critique collections.

I trained as an Archivist at the NSW State Archives, after starting there on a cadetship program. I love history, and the whole idea of ‘living archives’. I think the space where oral culture meets material culture (in our case, archives and records) is a place of both incredible opportunity and also a place of great tension. As Indigenous archivists and librarians, we can help facilitate understanding and share information about this, and encourage researchers to think deeply about the context of collections.

My family are Worimi people from Port Stephens, NSW. I am descendant of the Mantons, Feeneys, Newlins and Burgmanns. A lot of the work that I do is in honour of the strong women in my family, including my grandmother Florence Rose Burgmann (Newlin), who I sadly never had a chance to meet.

What kind of Indigenous language material does the State Library have in its collection?

The State Library has a large and diverse collection documenting the history and heritage of Australia and Oceania. These collections hold significant records relating to Indigenous peoples and communities, including original manuscript material documenting Indigenous languages from across Australia.

Compiled by Europeans—colonists, government officials, explorers, missionaries and travellers, the Library’s collection includes material such as vocabularies embedded in historical documents, letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals and printed works. It is a unique collection from across Australia. These materials are a vital resource for communities, particularly in relation to language and cultural revitalisation.

Examples of the original historic manuscripts include collections such as: Aboriginal word list collected by Joseph Banks on board the Endeavour; Mary Jane Cain, “Reminiscences of Coonabarabran“; and The Gospel of St Mark, translated into the language of Lake Macquarie Aborigines, 1837.

Watch Kirsten Thorpe on the ‘Working with language’ panel with Jonathan Jones, Stan Grant Sr AM, Dr Christine Evans and Ronald Briggs at Spot Fire Symposium 1: Landscape and language at the State Library of NSW. 

You spoke at Jonathan Jones’ first Spot Fire symposium on a panel about working with language. What has the State Library been working on with regard to Indigenous languages?

Over the past few years, the Library has been involved in a major project Rediscovering Indigenous Languages which aims to uncover and make accessible these dispersed collections relating to Indigenous languages. A project website was launched in 2014 that provides access to digitised copies of the materials.

Making these items available digitally means enabling wider access to the collections. As well as being able to connect previously dispersed materials, we have the opportunity now to build dialogue with communities and scholars around the content. This encourages community to enrich, critique and discuss the nature of the documents. It is an emotional space, though, and we acknowledge the full spectrum of emotion that people have in connecting with the material.

This year, our focus has been in two areas. Firstly, we have been working with key language speakers throughout NSW to record a new educational component called Say It In. Designer Lucy Simpson has developed visual designs for an online storybook, which will be recorded in language. We are very appreciative of the partnerships we are building with community to develop these online resources, which will be launched later this year.

Our other key focus is looking at ways we can improve access to our Indigenous digital collections. We have been piloting the use of Mukurtu (an open source system which utilises Indigenous protocols) as a way to provide access to materials, as well as providing opportunity for community to be co-curators in their cultural heritage. The Library is excited about building this program further over the coming year.

What is the Weemala project?

As part of the Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project, we have enabled a process for collections to be transcribed through the Library’s online transcription tool. Over the past three years, we have had some dedicated volunteers working on transcription of the historic manuscripts. This has been an incredible piece of work, enabling people to be able to search and read the content much more closely. We also invite interns to come in and work with our team, to build practical experience of working within the information profession.

Weemala was a result of this background, where volunteers had begun a process to transcribe data, and our intern program extended this by developing a dataset that could be shared with our DX Lab. Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader, then took the dataset and engaged Creative Technologist Chris McDowall to build a new interface for engaging with the collection. The purpose of the Lab is to experiment with data to deliver creative, engaging new ways to explore the Library’s collections.

It was a five-day project to test the data in this visual form. We would love to develop the interface more, including testing user experience, and expanding the amount of transcribed material and links to the map. I would love to see a new layer added, where community could record the correct pronunciation of the words, or make comments about their historical accuracy.

What was the purpose of the State Library’s NAIDOC Week event ‘Collecting Indigenous Voices’?

It has been an exciting couple of years for us at the Library, building a real focus on community and the development of Indigenous Services. In July this year, as part of our NAIDOC program, we launched a new Indigenous Collecting Strategy. The strategy really is about building trust and relationships with community, to build our collections. We are now putting emphasis on developing collections created by Indigenous people, who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the life of NSW and its communities. The Library is looking in particular for opportunities to seek community-generated content and experiences.


Image, top: State Library of NSW Indigenous Services Team (left to right) Monica Galassi, Kirsten Thorpe, Ronald Briggs, Melissa Jackson, Nathan Sentance