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.’ [1] 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.

The 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.

Non-whites took 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. [2] 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.

Sherrat 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.

One archive I found of interest is the Digital Library on American Slavery, created by UNC Greensboro. [3] 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.


[1] National Museum Australia (2006). White Australia Policy.

[2] Tim Sherratt (2011). It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People. Discontents.