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Paper, web page, rock

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Watering the cows

We are madly digitising all the published materials we can get our hands on, but technophile Geoff Ebbs has had an insight into the ephemeral nature of our digital obsession.

Keen readers of Fashion by Dad will know that I have a passion for Alec Kruger’s Alone on the Soaks which you can explore here. There is a “making of” moment in the creation of that book that has been an important contributor to my views about digitisation.

Here on Fashion by Dad, I have been reading from Alec Kruger’s book Alone on the soaks, talking about what it was like to be a stockman in the 2030s as as an 11 year old boy leading all the way up to walking off the job on Wave Hill Farm. That was a strike by First Nation Stockman that changed the nature of agriculture in Australia, which you can read about here and listen to here. 

Now it’s time for an interesting little side story about the “making of Alone on the soaks”. You can also listen to this story on the Fashion by Dad audio channel.

It was written with Alec by friend of mine, Gerard Waterford and Gerard came to Sydney where I was living at the time to do some research because he had heard that one of the Stockman, riding with Alec had kept a diary and he wanted to find that diary. Apparently the stockman donated his possessions when he died to the Mitchell Library at the Sydney Uni.

My blazer of glory 

Now in the week that Gerard and his Good Wife Joe came to stay with me and my Good Wife in Newtown in Inner city of Sydney, I was given the marvelous opportunity to donate a website that I built in 1995 to the National Library of Australia. The National Library of Australia was making an exhibition of the early days of the web, I’d written a book called the Australian Internet Book, which in the first version had all 65 websites that were in up and running in Australia in August 95 before Microsoft released the Windows 95, which was their first nod to the Internet. 

The National Library of Australia has archived some of my work from the mid-nineties.

So all the 65 websites were in our directory and we built a really, really early database. So early that some of our clients objected to having long gobbledy gook in the URLs. They were literally the first database driven websites most Australians had seen. This is before Google, before Amazon, before Microsoft got into the web. Our database was a publishing system to record web pages and provided the examples which were illustrated in the Australian Internet book of those early websites. 

One of the most remarkable things looking back at it is that there were no images. Images weren’t a feature of the web in early part of 1995 and … anyway, I thought, “well, this is my place in history. I’m going to be recognised forever as an Internet pioneer.” 

“The National Library of Australia will mount an exhibition with my early initial prototype of a database publishing system and now I will be recorded as one of the first people in the world to do that.” 

I spent the better part of a week trying to recreate a four year old website and it was almost impossible. I had engineers in Microsoft in Seattle on the phone and on the Internet. I had a company in Singapore looking at a disk from the computer that I backed up in 1995 to Singapore, so I’ve done all the backups and everything, we retrieved the backups but could not rebuild the database or the webpages. 

I had to rebuild a Windows NT Server to try and retrieve the backup. And even when we got the files we then had to try and recreate the software environment to read those files. 

In the end, I couldn’t do it. 

I could have done it if I had endless amounts of money and or endless amounts of time, but I couldn’t do it and survive. 

At the same time I had young 3 month old twins, so I was somewhat distracted. 

The bedroll in the special collection

In the meantime, while I was going through this sort of brush with fame, this attempt at glory, Gerard was hanging out at the Mitchell Library, looking for the diary of Alec Kruger’s mate. 

Now we just heard from Alec describing what it was like to be an 11 year old boy. He spent three months alone in the desert trying to keep water up to a bunch of cows and then, later, on ripped himself from eyebrow to ear hole on a branch and almost died, it took him three weeks to wake up, so you know he was living under pretty rough circumstances. 

Watering the cows at Love’s Creek

One of the people who was with him on that adventurous and dangerous life used to keep a diary at night using a stubby old pencil and had donated the diary to the Mitchell Library, so Gerard, wondered in one morning and said he was researching for a book on the life of Alec Krueger and had heard that there was this diary that’s being donated. 

They looked it up in the catalog said, “Oh yes, Sir. That’s part of the special collection.” 

“Will need a special librarian to go down to you with a special collection and take out that special piece. It’s never actually been accessed since it was donated.” 

So he came home, had lunch, had a chat, I told him about my adventures with the National Library and the Singapore Data Recovery Company, and how many thousands of dollars I was spending trying to get by moment of glory. 

He went back to the Mitchell Library was taken down stairs by one of the special collection librarians 

In the basement there was a cyclone wire gate, or door, the sort of door that rolls back. So they rolled back the gate, sliding door. Anyway Rumble Rumble cyclone wire gate rumbles open and there in the special collection is a swag, a canvas bedroll. 

So they unrolled the bedroll, and there, in the middle of the bed roll, here’s a pile of papers and Gerard said the smell of a campfire. As they unrolled the swag out came a pile of burned leaves. There were, you know, bits of dry grass and it a couple of pencils. A pile of paper, written in different inks and pencils over the years. The only copy of those papers in the whole world, and there it was, in the swag. 

He used those as part of his research for Alone on the soaks written by Alec Kruger with the help of Gerard Waterford.

My awakening 

So, one guy on horseback living life so rough that none of us allowed today can actually imagine it keeps a record of his day’s activity each night. We can read about it, fifty five years later in Alone on the soaks, and it just makes our hair stand on end to actually imagine what it was like. 

Here’s me with the help of Microsoft in Seattle and a Singapore Data Recovery Agency recommended by Microsoft as better than any data recovery agency in Australia at the time, and these best minds in the world could not recover a set of information that I’d put together five years earlier. 

At that moment I had one of those realizations. Those road to Damascus moments, where I realized that my engagement in technology, exciting new and liberating as it was, was actually ephemeral. 

Man oh man, that’s exciting. I know dedicate a big chunk of my life to collecting books and sharing the contents with you, here on Fashion by Dad.

Echoes of Farenheit 451. Watch it and weep. But that’s a story for another day. 

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