Dictionary of Sydney

As many of you know, until recently I was employed at the Dictionary of Sydney as the Multimedia Coordinator. I left a couple of months ago and took up a short-term contract at AustLII running the Australasian Legal Scholarship Library. However it was at the Dictionary of Sydney that I ‘cut my teeth’ in copyright and also in GLAM relation so it’s fair to say that I still have a strong connection with the project.

Simply put, the Dictionary of Sydney (DoS) is a free-access, digital history of the city – its people, stories, places, events – managed by the DoS Trust funded by the Australian Research Council. And it is a professional history project, not the Yellow Pages…

…and it just recently launched!

All DoS texts are original research by known scholars of the topic and most – and this is the bit that I’m most proud of – are licensed under the Creative-Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (cc-by-sa) and are therefore Wikipedia-compatible Free Cultural Works. All of the contributing authors were given the option of allowing their work to be re-usable and most chose to do so. This kind of optional CC licensing is AFAIK up-there as CC best practice and it was discussed in the CC-Australia blog and also in their Australasian case-studies book. You can see all of these articles by clicking “sort by license” here – hundreds of them!

Differences from, and relationship with, Wikipedia

Of course, one of the most frequently asked questions is why do we need a new encyclopedia in this era of Wikipedia. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I was brought onboard the project – to make sure that the two projects were complementary and not competing.

1) anti-NOR
One thing that needs noting is that DoS is all Original Research: the scholarship is new; it has named authors; it has an authorial point of view. Also, unlike most professional encyclopedia, it cites its references. Because of all this DoS is a fantastic source of references for Wikipedia. DoS already links to Wikipedia in the “external links” section of some of its records about people, for example the famous photographer Harold Cazneaux or the convict Esther Abrahams.

2) Records
If you go the Wikipedia page about the Sydney Opera House you are taken straight to the article. In DoS, you are taken first to the record view which concatenates all information about the subject including a link to the article itself. In Wikipedia parlance this is somewhere between a stub, disambiguation page and an infobox and means that DoS can have records for subjects that it knows exist, but no one has yet written an article about it.


I like to think of the record view as akin to a 21st Century library card catalogue. The article contains a full text (sometimes with curated pictures alongside) but the record view contains information such as mapping, demographics, timelines, multimedia galleries and semantic relationship statuses.

3) Semantic relationship statuses
Say what? [warning! somewhat technical]
What this means is that all records are linked to each other through a series of structured relationships. In Wikipedia we have a folksonomy of categories – whatever seems to work best, that’s what Wikipedia creates. By contrast, in DoS there is a structured ontology (with relatively shallow nested depth) of types of things that any subject can “be”. If it is “sub-type: animal” then it must also be “type: natural” – see for yourself by sorting by type in any of the browse buttons on the right hand column’s toolbar.

Furthermore, all relationships between subjects are also chosen from an equally highly structured ontology. For example, the famous colonial Sydney architect Francis Greenway designed the equally famous Sydney building the Hyde Park Barracks. The relationship of Greenway’s article to the Barracks’ article is “relationship type: architect of”. This also means there is an automatic inverse relationship from the Barracks back to Greenway. There are a limited number of relationship possibilities and include things like “friend of” and “married to” and these allow you to plot the shortest distance between different subjects – a semantic Sydney-bacon number if you will. This enables the possibility for the first time to find connections between disparate aspects of the city’s history that were not previously known.

The relationships can also be given a location in time and/or place. For example, Greenway’s professional patron was the Governor of the day – Lachlan Macquarie. They have the relationship of “patron/patronised”. However, at some point the two had a big falling out and this is where the time aspect is important. This relationship was not everlasting but had specific start and end dates that can be automatically mapped on a timeline.


The relationships, and automatically generated interactive timeline of Lachlan Macquarie (whose DoS article is also cc-by-sa, by the way).

In Wikipedia there are no formal relationship statuses and therefore all links are “dumb links”. That is, the website does not know why the two articles are linked together and you have to work it out from reading the context of the linked words. Pieces of information that know their place in the database constitute the core of the “semantic web“. For the technically inclined, DoS uses “RDF triples” which is what Semantic MediaWiki and DBpedia are also working on.

[I must admit, we had good fun in the office working out what the relationship statuses would be, and especially the reverse statuses. For example, if you’re allowed “friend of” can you also have “nemesis of”? And, what if the relationship isn’t mutual – can you be “friended by” or “nemesis-ed of”?]

4) Essays
Most of the articles in DoS are about specific “things” – buildings, people, events, places. However, many articles are also about “subjects” such as transport, health, politics… These essays have no “record view” (described above) because they cannot be given a time, place or formal relationship status. They just are. Some are comparable to Wikipedia articles whilst others simply don’t match the manual of style for what constitutes a Wikipedia article. The list of all these essays can be found under the heading “sort by type > Thematic entries“. Some of the more esoteric essays are:
Reading the Roads a history of road markings in Sydney, official and user-generated (cc-by-sa)
Aboriginal Migration to Sydney since WWII which is pretty self explanatory, if complex.
Coal Lumpers the wonderful profession of hauling coal on and off ships (cc-by-sa)

Looking over Miller’s Point, c1875-85, where Coal Lumpers would live during the week near the shipyards [used to illustrate the Coal lumpers article]

5) Anti-NPOV
The structure of the website allows for multiple, potentially conflicting, stories to be written about the same topic whereas in Wikipedia these stories must be merged into one neutral narrative. The articles do not attempt to have a Neutral Point of View. Currently there are no “double articles” of this type, but they will come in the future.

6) Scope
Obviously, being the Dictionary of Sydney (albeit the greater Sydney region) there is a geographical constraint of scope that Wikipedia does not have. This means, for example, that the article on the Chinese is only about their experience and impact on Sydney – not worldwide. Perhaps in the future Wikipedia might also include ethnographic histories at this level of granularity but currently it does not.

mmmm…. Sheep’s tongue for eight penny ha’penny and good sperm candles a bargain at five penny ha’penny per pound! [used to illustrate the Chinese in Sydney article]

Future releases of the website will be including things like:
– Mobile version, integrated with QR codes (or similar) on the official information panels around the city.
– More articles (obviously), but more importantly, contesting articles about the same subject.
– More external links from DoS out to Wikipedia articles, including links to articles in non-English editions (when applicable).

I have listed a couple of DoS’s cc-by-sa articles in the external links of some of Wikipedia’s articles: The suburb Surry Hills (WP, DoS); The Archibald Fountain (WP, DoS) and Sydney’s Trams (WP, DoS). I’ve also notified Wikiproject:Sydney and indicated my clear CoI. If these links are positively received I will progressively add some more and hopefully people will start to incorporate some of the Dictionary of Sydney’s research into Wikipedia too!

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