The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 40









List of papers








by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents July/August 2005 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 


A conference of Australia’s Performing Arts Special Interest Group (PASIG), held during Museums Australia’s national conference in May, proffered a dipstick for reviewing one industry’s response to the online world. The theme of the main conference - Politics and Positioning - drew attention to the essential contexts for many working in collecting institutions. PASIG’s sessions, under the title Resourceful Archives, gave hints of the ingenuity required to sustain efforts.

The PASIG conference

Aubrey Mellor, the artistic director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA,, sounded key notes when he spoke of his frustration in locating elusive information on Australia’s theatrical heritage, and underscored the importance of national strategies, company initiatives and information technology to address the problem.

Under the patronage of one its successful alumni, Cate Blanchett, NIDA has launched a campaign to raise $3 million for developing its archive to complement well-established library services. Christine Roberts, Margaret Leask, Peter Orlovich and Kathryn Adler laid out plans for the archive, which houses records of NIDA, the Old Tote Theatre Company and Jane Street Theatre, as well as personal collections and memorabilia of Robert Quentin, Ron Haddrick, Nick Enright, John Clark, Mel Gibson and other affiliates of the institute.

To boost its collections and capacity, NIDA has formed partnerships with other organisations. The Seaborn Broughton and Walford Foundation is providing significant financial support after relocating its library and archive to NIDA. Among its holdings are a large collection of the ABC broadcaster and theatre historian, John West, and selected material transferred from the Sydney Opera House in 1996. Another partner, the Wolanski Foundation (, provides a boutique information service that attracts about 17,000 web visits, mail and telephone enquiries a year, mainly on the performing arts. NIDA’s 50th anniversary will provide the focus for its archival programs over the next few years.

Anniversaries are influencing agendas in a number of other companies. Tanya Cawthorne, from Sydney’s Company B (, outlined plans to organise its historical record, after years of neglect, for an upcoming 21st anniversary. At Australia’s first performing arts complex, the Canberra Theatre Centre (, a 40th anniversary has been an impetus for Richard Stone and John Thomson to clarify archival strategies there.

Several speakers drew attention to the value of exhibitions in building audiences, stimulating acquisitions and generating products. Beryl Davis, from Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Museum, ( gave the example of an exhibition on the Razar rock band, with commemorative CD and video documentary. Peter Cox pointed to the Real Wild Child, Circus and Strictly Ballroom exhibitions at the Powerhouse Museum ( as generators of wider benefits. And Margaret Marshall’s example was a Kylie Minogue exhibition, produced by the Victorian Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection (

The capacity of archives to unravel social contexts was an undercurrent in Helen Trepa’s presentation on director John Tasker’s papers, held by the Adelaide Festival Theatre Centre’s Performing Arts Collection ( The papers document a professional and private life that peaked in an era when censorship and bigotry triggered police raids on theatres.

Collections demand attention ahead of online activities. John Thomson reported on efforts at the National Library of Australia, where photographs from its JC Williamson collection are being identified, catalogued, digitised and progressively made available on the library’s website. Susanne Moir gave an update on work to organise the substantial JCW collection at the State Library of NSW, which recently launched a fund-raising campaign to streamline access to Australiana holdings via its web offshoot,

Oral history projects, increasingly in digital form, are underway in several organisations. Bill Stephens brought along sound grabs of interviews with June Bronhill and others, undertaken for the National Library of Australia’s program, to demonstrate the ability of the medium to add nuances to public personas. Judith Seff touched on the oral history project at the Sydney Theatre Company ( in her presentation on activities of the company’s archive. And an oral history project is underway at NIDA, with initial funding from Lady Mary Fairfax.

The work of university libraries was represented by Cheryl Hoskin, who reported on Barr Smith Library’s performing arts holdings, which include the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean collection ( Ian Hoskins’ talk, on the Luna Park archives and an upcoming exhibition at North Sydney’s Stanton Library, flagged potential for highlighting entertainment history in municipalities and regions.

In an automated era, private collectors and researchers have enhanced their role as accumulators of cultural material though the use of websites and databases to document the passing parade. Australian circus historian, Mark St Leon, has made available an Excel database of 10,000 entries, covering all types of itinerant shows, with his latest publication Circus in Australia: Index of Show Movements 1833-1966. A website, encouraging contributions from others, will be launched soon.

Recent collaborative online performing arts enterprise has centred on four subject gateways – AusStage, MusicAustralia, AustLit and Australian Dancing.

AusStage ( was fuelled by the work of one its key players, Joh Hartog, on a database for Adelaide Festival Theatre Centre, created during in the early 1990s to serve the Centre’s Performing Arts Collection, programming and marketing departments. In its initial form, the database contained basic details about events, attendances and revenue. But it projected possible inclusion of an extensive range of rich analytical fields relating to production history, genres and social characteristics.

With this experience as a platform, a consortium of eight universities and PASIG was successful in obtaining two grants of $1 million from the Australian Research Council to develop AusStage as a tool for research and analysis of cultural and commercial aspects of Australian theatre.

Its main component, an events database with information on productions, people, organisations, venues, publications and articles, now has records for over 30,000 theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre productions, including recent shows entered since January 2001, and retrospective data 1892-1996. Retrospective data has been drawn from the Australian & New Zealand Theatre Record 1986-1996, and, more selectively, from the Dennis Wolanski Library program collection, now located at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the National Library of Australia’s PROMPT collection. The other main component is a database of selected performing arts holdings in Australian libraries, museums and universities, compiled from a survey.

At the PASIG meeting, project manager Jenny White, reported on attempts to sustain the initiative. Current events in the ACT, NSW, Queensland and Western Australia continue to be added. The South Australian Arts Department has assumed responsibility for entries on South Australian productions. Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide is using the database to catalogue its programs. AusStage has approached South Australian professional and amateur theatre companies to encourage direct contributions. Discussions are in train with the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Federal Minister for the Arts for assistance in developing the project. A third ARC grant application is being prepared.

MusicAustralia (, devoted to information on Australian music, musicians and organisations, is propelled by the National Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive, with the participation of the Australian Music Centre, Australian Music Online, Australian Sound Design and most of the state libraries. It currently has metadata on nearly 150,000 books, music scores, sound recordings, pictures, websites, films, archival materials and a range of other music-related material. And it provides access to digital music scores and sound recordings, although extensive online presentation of these formats, via MusicAustralia, is limited by copyright restrictions.

A feature of MusicAustralia, as highlighted by the National Library of Australia’s Rashmi Madan at the PASIG conference, is its use of a centralised metadata repository to harvest bibliographic records in MARC and other formats from small and large organisations.


Figure 1. MusicAustralia Data Workflow

Figure 1: MusicAustralia Data Workflow

Visionary thinking behind the project is evident from the list of enhancements proposed by its principal creators, Robyn Holmes and Marie-Louise Ayres. They include identification of possible contributors inside and outside the library sector, early engagement with contributors to encourage adoption of relevant standards, and provision of alert and Amazon-style annotation functionality to encourage user commentary and data enhancements.

Information management within organisations


Performing arts organisations, like other types of organisations, are moving through phases in adopting technology. In many, an experimental phase has emphasised business unit interests over the broader needs of organisations.

Feudal dynamics, for example, characterised the adoption of technology at Australia’s cultural flagship, the Sydney Opera House ( At the beginning of the 1990s, after the initial investment in personal computers, lack of coordination, lack of formal controls and inconsistent use of standards led to widespread ambiguity and perpetuated high levels of data redundancy across the organisation. After the purchase of an events management system as the intended hub of a corporate system, subsequent implementation of IT continued to run the gauntlet of competing business unit interests, politics, managerial turnover, and wheel reinvention throughout the 1990s.

At the Australian Film Radio and Television School (, according to Andrew L Urban, research for the school’s 25th anniversary in 1998 was tortuous because of past information management failures. From 1988-1993, the school maintained the mere semblance of order in recordkeeping and “the reliability and thoroughness of data maintained prior to computerisation was a sad and sorry thing.” Deficiencies in files and data systems were partly overcome by drawing on library resources and the corporate memory of library staff.

The development, at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (, of more than twenty separate systems for managing radio and television programs, sound effects, library and archive materials, film preservation, rights management and other functions is indicative of a feudal past that the ABC is now working to address.

In the mid-1990s, government policies and guidelines emerged to guide better practices in agencies under their control. These encourage holistic approaches for managing data, records, archives, library resources, publications and other information assets to reduce duplicate effort and data redundancy. The NSW Information Management and Technology Blueprint, Information Management Framework and other policies on the website of the NSW Government Chief Information Office ( are examples. Legislation, the international standard AS ISO 15489, and guidelines, such as the Australian and NSW versions of the Dirks Manual, have reinforced more stringent, auditable requirements for managing records.

The success of these regimes is unclear. Government recordkeeping audits report a degree of compliance, but they also point to failures in capturing records, limited control over electronic records, lack of formal disposal protocols and other deficiencies. The status of IT governance as today’s Hot Topic indicates that messages about best practice are taking time to sink in. If Library and Archive Canada’s Information Management Capacity Check Tool and Methodology ( were used to measure progress towards maturity, the likelihood is that many organisations will attract low scores on managing information contexts, capabilities and quality.

In performing arts organisations, as in the organisations of other industries, challenges persist in handling information strata, islands of information, and information black holes.

Industry-wide initiative


Government agencies have turned tentatively to industry-wide arts and technology questions. In 1999, the Australia Council embarked on a study as a step towards an arts IT strategy, but the project was abandoned, possibly because of its focus on means over needs. Subsequent analysis of the territory by government and parliamentary bodies has focused on macro IT issues in narrow fields, such as museums, creative industries and libraries.

Australia’s Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 2004-2006, available at http//, does not single out the performing arts. But its priorities serve as reference points for the sector: development of capabilities, networks and tools; addressing security and interoperability issues; developing an innovation system as a platform for productivity, growth and industry transformation; and encouraging public sector productivity, collaboration and accessibility.

“When the disparate systems of different government agencies and private enterprises can interoperate,” it says, “then complex transactions will be made much easier. There is a need for a comprehensive management framework for public sector participation in the information economy, but this depends on new collaborative ways of managing ICT services and investment between agencies and all three levels of government.”

New collaborative ways of managing ICT services in the performing arts will no doubt gravitate around the natural synergies of government, educational and collection sectors. After lengthy gestations, two new bodies have emerged, but are still finding their feet.

The Collections Council of Australia, established in 2004, now has an executive director, a committee representing archive, museum, gallery and library interests, and an affiliated Collections Australia Network ( Deep interaction between the archive, library and museum sectors, though, is likely to take some time.

The Australian Research Information Infrastructure Committee, established in 2003, represents the interests of university administrators, librarians, IT specialists, scholars, the National Library of Australia and the Australian Research Council. It is wrestling with the considerable complexities of an e-learning agenda through deliberations on open access, campus architectural middleware, a national collaborative research infrastructure, intellectual property and grid computing.

Although it covers circumstances in the UK, the British Academy’s E-Resources in the Humanities and Social Sciences (http;//, reinforcing similar studies and without any surprises, is relevant to the Australian scene. “Providers are offering important goods, but in a largely uncoordinated or inappropriately designed way, so the full benefits are not realised”. It recommends, among other things, that national mechanisms for access to both e-resources and non-e-resources be improved and high priority be given to secondary e-resources such as catalogues over other forms of digitisation.

Subject gateways and portals were once the rage as one-stop-shops. But those developing them seem to have become more circumspect. Janine Schmidt, Anne Horn and Barbara Thorsen say that the Australian subject gateways have met with mixed success: while some gateways have remained viable, “others have not been as successful in developing cost-effective management structures, [and] maintaining currency.” Lorcan Dempsey’s view is that the portal is in a transitional phase and that we are beginning to see an “unbundling” of associated library services. “We imagine that the portal is a sufficient response to the issues, [but it] is only a partial answer [and] at worst, obscures the real question…We need to look beyond it to build and sustain the services.”

This line of thinking seems to have taken hold in the Australian Subject Gateways Forum ( Although the Forum’s principles, articulated in founding documents, stress the need to avoid duplication of effort and to create sustainable business models, recent committee meetings have called for a broadening of the Forum’s scope to include online service delivery in general. A strategic pulse may replace the less compelling objective of swapping notes.

Continued development of performing arts gateways or portals is important for uniting scholarly, publishing, ICT, library, archive, and museum interests, and possibly wider business interests, around a common purpose. Uncovering deficiencies in services, systems and relationships is as important as the ultimate objective, improving access to information.

The existing performing arts gateways and portals, built around the distinctive orientations of their developers, provide fertile ground for action to strengthen their worth. MusicAustralia, as a harvester of bibliographic resources in collecting institutions, has the stability of the National Library of Australia at its centre. It doesn’t currently provide access to databases of musical events, journal articles and newspaper reviews, but its visionary scope and architecture provide the basis for future incorporation of data routinely created by library and non-library participants. The drawcard of AusStage is its events database and scholarly interest in rich analytical data. Its prospects for growth and longevity may be improved by minimising the need to recreate data that may exist elsewhere, drawing on the routine work of collecting institutions and performing arts organisations, developing associated collection management functionality, and providing more sophisticated search and browse options.

The free MusicAustralia and AusStage gateways are the shop windows for invisible Web resources, as is AustLit (a fee-based service sustained by subscriptions). Australia Dancing, on the other hand, is a visible web resource because much of its content, authoritatively created by the National Library’s subject expert, Michelle Potter, is encoded on Web pages rather than drawn from dynamic databases. This is also the case with the library’s PROMPT collection of programs and ephemera, and similar finding aids in other organisations such as the Collection Guide to Dance at the State Library of NSW (

Marcus Aurelius, in The Meditations, urged us to “look from above at the spectacle of myriad herds, myriad rites, and manifold journeying in storm and calm.” When we look out of the helicopter, possibilities for linking the private sector with subsidised enterprise become more apparent. But converting possibility to productivity in the performing arts industry is likely to be a testing journey. Incentives to reduce inefficiencies and waste are more likely to go to major industries with more urgent business cases, such as health. Attempts to streamline complex transactions will encounter privacy and commercial sensitivities as well as technical hurdles.

Private and semi-commercial performing arts businesses create data about events, people and organisations in ticketing, events management, accounting, facilities and decision support systems. The media generate a considerable quantity of unstructured and semi-structured information about the performing arts. Attempts by one organisation to complement and capitalise on the information in another organisation tend to carry forward practices from an analogue past or strike boundaries created by the narrow confines of business interests. The State Library of NSW selectively indexed Fairfax newspapers from 1988 to 2005 for its online database Infoquick. This included theatre reviews, but not music reviews. Arts Hub Australia ( provides access to news stories and features, but not reviews.

Differences in the way business units work within organisations can also thwart attempts to minimise duplication. The Dennis Wolanski Library for the Performing Arts, for example, developed a solution in the mid-1990s for combining MARC-based bibliographic and event records in one database. This involved creating local rules for general material designations, subject heading qualifiers and other data elements to subordinate programs and press clippings as attributes of event records. However, attempts to streamline data handling with other business systems at the Sydney Opera House, the parent organisation, foundered on different data entry rules for business transactions –semantic differences - rather than structural impediments.

At the 1996 AusWeb conference, keynote speaker Herman Maurer predicted that the ensuing twenty-five years would be “all about structure.” XML has emerged as a new way of structuring and exchanging information. In the context of the Semantic Web agenda, the World Wide Web Consortium recently endorsed the Resource Definition Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL) standards, aimed at enabling content producers and libraries to integrate, share and reuse data on the Web.

Libraries, archives and museums are grappling with an expanding suite of associated standards and tools such as Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS), Metadata Object Description Scheme (MODS), Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PHM), Online Information Exchange (ONIX), CIMI XML Schema, Encoded Archival Description (EAD), and Shibboleth (which aims to facilitate the sharing of Web-based, protected resources between institutions). Commentators describe many of these standards as immature. MODS is deemed to be the best choice for bridging traditional library applications and other formats. The data model, Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Resources (FRBR), is contributing to change on a number of fronts.

The media, through the International Press Telecommunications Council, wrestle with NewsML, EventsML, ICE and other standards relating to the packaging and delivery of news.

A standard for managing controlled vocabularies is about to be endorsed by the National Information Standards Organization, although interoperability solutions for controlled vocabularies await firmer answers.

Ways of managing the performing arts information ecology will continue to evolve. The quality of information management practices within organisations will help or hinder future opportunities for wider efficiency and value. The role of the National Library of Australia or surrogate institutions, with extensive experience in coordinating macro information projects and capacity to sustain efforts, will be crucial. Monitoring, adopting and adapting descriptive and interoperability standards will be essential. There will be devils in the detail.



Australian Research Information Infrastructure Committee.<Available at

Dempsey, Lorcan. The Recombinant Library: Portals and People, 2003.

A Dozen Primers on Standards (Computers in Libraries vol 24 no 2 February 2004).

European Commission. Emerging Technologies for the Cultural and Scientific Heritage Sector (DigiCULT Technology Watch Report 2), February 2004. <>

[Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records]. See three articles in the Australian Library Journal, February 2005, by Barbara Tillett, Marie Louise Ayres, Bemal Rajapatirana and Roxanne Missingham.

Hartog, Joh. The Computerized Gaze and the Performing Arts. Australasian Drama Studies no 32, April 1998: 107-130.

Holmes, Robyn and Ayres, Marie-Louise. MusicAustralia: Towards a National Music Information Structure. October 2004. <>

National Information Standards Organisation. Guidelines for the Construction, Format and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies (ANSI/NISO Z39.19-200x). Available at

Schmidt, Janine, Horn, Anne and Thorsen, Barbara. Australian Subject Gateways, the Successes and Challenges. IFLA conference, August 2003. < papers/166e-Schmidt_Horn_Thorsen.pdf >

Urban, Andrew L. Edge of the Unknown World: the Australian Television and Radio School: impressions of the first 25 years: interviews by Andrew L Urban; edited by Meredith Quinn and Andrew L. Urban. North Ryde, NSW: AFTRS, 1998.


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