Archives on the edge – Founders and Survivors September 17, 2015

Last month, a number of State Records NSW employees travelled down to Hobart to attend the annual Australian Society of Archivists conference. The theme of the conference was ‘archives on the edge’ – what role might archives and archivists play in the age of big data and almost everything as a service?

Judging by the rapturous response on Twitter and talking to people afterwards, one of the highlights of the conference for many attendees was a paper presented by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart on the Founders and Survivors project. This project uses massive historical demographic data (Tasmanian convict records and records of World War I soldiers – the ‘big data’ of their day) to better understand and inform social and health policies.

The Tasmanian convict records are a fantastic data set with uses far beyond the traditionally-cited family history research. They contain forensically detailed descriptions of the 73,000 men, women and children who were transported to Tasmania, including height, eye colour, literacy, skills, family history and ‘temperament’.

The records of World War I soldiers are similarly detailed.

The project is gaining some fascinating insights by tracing generations of families through these records:

  • The researchers can compare heights between convicts and their grandsons and great grandsons in the AIF – this provides insights about childhood diet and health, changes in the economy in England, Ireland or Scotland and in the Australian colonies, differences between rural and city childhoods, and the role of genetics in body size.
  • The researchers can compare the age and causes of death of succeeding generations – this provides medical researchers with information about the role of prenatal growth, infancy and childhood on adult health, and the later-life effects of childhood infectious diseases, influenza epidemics and changes in diet.
  • The records provide information about the effects of extreme stress and suffering on those who experienced the worst of the convict system or World War I, and about resilience and recovery – this is valuable for the study of cardiovascular disease and human temperament and wellbeing.
  • The researchers can compare family sizes over generations – this provides insights into changing attitudes to families and women’s health over time.

By following the history of families the researchers can see how Australia has worked as a society, and which government policies have helped people get ahead or have held them back. They can see the effects of changes in education, land selection, war service home loans, taxation policy, welfare, women’s rights and migration. They can learn more about the impact of war and economic changes. And this enables policy developers and researchers to plan for the future with a better understanding of what has worked in the past and what may work in the future.

More information about the project can be found on the Founders and Survivors website.

And this article in The Australian details one of the families that the project has traced through the records. This article notes that there are a number of similar projects worldwide. These include:

  • a database in Sweden compiled from parish records kept from 1700 to provide information on the impact of famine, economic stress and climate change.
  • records of soldiers in the Union army of the 1861-1865 Civil War in the United States used to investigate ageing.

See also Archives on the edge – know what you mean, and sometimes you might just have to break the rules for more on the conference.

Photo credit: Nagesh Jayaraman – “Livin’ on the edge” (CC BY 2.0)
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