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Digital Memories at State Library of NSW :: From Sydney to Singapore

At a recent seminar at the State Library of New South Wales entitled Digital Memories: How cultural institutions are documenting our communities, synergies emerged between two exciting digital history projects — the Singapore Memory Project and the Dictionary of Sydney. Paula Grunseit reports.

The Singapore Memory Project

Gene Tan, Director of the National Library of Singapore dreams big. In a highly entertaining and interactive presentation which included gifts for audience members who looked happy or enthusiastic or better still, could “fake looking enthusiastic”, he spoke about his passion, the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), “a whole of nation project” that was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a National Day Rally in 2011.

With an initial budget allocation of $42 million through to 2013, it aims to develop a national bank of content on Singapore through collecting, preserving, organising and promoting the use of anything that has ever been said, thought or felt about Singapore. Contributions in the form of photographs, letters, ephemeral, manuscripts, videos, or oral interviews are invited via a public portal accessible from the National Library’s website. A target of 5 million memories has been set for 2015, when Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary, the core idea being that “every voice matters”. Tan believes it is vital to tell untold stories. He explains: “This is not a linear way of looking at history but rather seeing history as a constellation, a galaxy of stars where no particular star is more important than the other,” he says. “The Singapore Memory Project started from movies — from a cinematic experience. I say that because every individual in Singapore deserves a Hollywood movie treatment. You don’t have to be the most important person in the country or have to look like a movie star for your memories to be considered important.”

When he was recently asked by a journalist to describe the national identity of Singapore, Tan was put off by the question. “I think that’s the wrong approach”, he said. “I think the Singapore personality should be messy and complex. All the minutiae of every Singaporean, every life, should be represented. It should be messy; the Singapore Memory Project should be messy because history is messy. My job is to capture everything.”

Another major objective of the project is that it should encourage unity amongst Singaporeans, bridging gaps across communities and generations. Says Tan: “I think of libraries as an emotional experience and I was fascinated by what memories can do not just in the typical way of collection development but how it can transform the way generations understand each other. I hope that everyone will be able to find themselves in this library; we want to create the emotional journey of a Singaporean and enable them to leave their mark.”

The SMP has started a national conversation about capturing memories and the focus is now on encouraging as many people as possible to create their own projects and content about memories. This has resulted in a number of publishing projects. Says Tan: “What I hope to do is to help the individual to find his/her place in history. We are trying to make everyone feel they are not alone, that they are connected to history.”

The Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney is a freely accessible, digital, public history project sharing many synergies with the Singapore Memory Project but its budget and staffing allocations could not be more different. Run by a not for profit trust, The Dictionary of Sydney team does its remarkable job with a host of volunteers and staff including its Chair, Historian Dr Lisa Murray. 

Operating on multiple layers and levels, the dictionary provides access points to information about people, places, structures, artefacts, buildings, events, natural features, and organisations. It includes images, maps, documents, oral history, photos, films, documents, and links to Sydney’s collections. Says Murray: “We’re not a Wikipedia of Sydney it’s not just about entries. It’s about aggregation and connection of information and ideas.”

Describing the project as “random but beautiful”, Dr Murray says: “It grows like the city does — it’s a living, evolving biography and represents the bringing together of lots of people who are passionate about history.”  Murray says that the impact of digitisation has been enormous and she acknowledges the State Library of New South Wales and other libraries without whose work she says the dictionary could not have been built.

One of Murray’s main interests is the way in which family and local history connections fit into the “bigger picture” of the story of a city, or of a nation. She explains: “Digital history projects have enormous potential for local and community history especially for the way family and local history can be connected into and reflect the complexity of history.”

In this way, Murray says the Dictionary of Sydney is similar to Tan’s non-linear, constellation approach to the digital presentation of history. It is also similar in that it maps communities and invites contributions from everyone including community writers, historians, journalists, and cultural institutions. Says Murray: “One of the strengths of the Dictionary is its ability to open up the resources of cultural institutions and private collections and place these collections within the context of Sydney’s history, making the collection as relevant and as accessible as possible to Sydney-siders and the world. The great thing about the digital humanities is that it is not confined by a particular mode of presentation. Everyone can participate in historical production and be part of the storytelling (like the SMP). It’s about history, innovation, connectivity, community and collaboration,” she says. It’s also about fun ways of engaging with history and Murray is excited to announce a new by-product of the project — the dictionary has launched its first downloadable walking tour app, the Old Irish Sydney walk, as part of this year’s St Patrick’s Day.

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