The Six Degrees of Fingerprints: Leave your Fingerprint!

When I enrolled in Exploring Digital Heritage this semester and saw the documents we would help transcribe and analyse, I experienced what I call the six degrees of fingerprints.

Initially, I thought about how the records in the White Australia Policy were like an early form of passport and wondered how passports developed.

I quickly realised the policy was about restricting immigration to people who were deemed European.

The documents within Series ST84/1 demonstrate the policy was not only applied to new immigrants but also to Australian born individuals of non-European descent because of their non-European appearance.

Documents surrounding held data on individuals interest me. They hold power, they tell us stories, they can transport us through time, they can separate us from one another; but they can also bring us together.

These documents, many with fingerprints/handprints, transported me back to 2008 when I myself experienced Australian immigration.  It isn’t an easy process, there is a mountain of paperwork, expensive fees, a medical, invasive questions, a police check, photographs, and then there is the fingerprinting.

I walked into my nearest police station and awkwardly stepped up to the clerk and explained that I was immigrating to Australia and I needed to be fingerprinted as part of the application. The clerk looked at me with a puzzled expression, looked at the paperwork, looked at me, and back at the paperwork. She turned to a colleague who looked at the paperwork and looked at me with an equally perplexed countenance.

I was eventually called into a room where an astonished policeman placed the ink and paper in front of me but refused to fingerprint me. He had never fingerprinted an innocent person and wasn’t about to do so now. He explained what I needed to do and observed my efforts at fingerprinting myself. I then paid the station for said fingerprints and sent them off with my application.

At the time, I figured I had nothing to hide, and I wanted to move to Australia so I could live with my Australian born husband. Nonetheless, the process of immigrating inadvertently segregated me, it reduced me to an untrustworthy part of Australian society. Fingerprinting made me feel like a criminal despite having no criminal past.

I often wonder why my fingerprints were necessary considering I had a police check. Why are my fingerprints on file when Australian fingerprints are not? Will my personal files show up in an archive one day for people to search through? Will my fingerprints be there telling a little piece of my experience, my story of immigration to Australia?

My sense of isolation culminated after about six months of living in Australia. I was frustrated, angry, and I felt I had nowhere to turn for help. All I wanted was to contribute, to feel a part of Australian society. Unintentional as it was, I was often reminded in one way or another that I was not Australian. How much more so must the Australian’s in the Series ST84/1 documents have felt alienated by their own government.

Eventually, I got a part time job and was befriended by Australians, both of which helped bridge the gap. It was through research however, that I got back a sense of self-worth, a sense of contributing to something special. I began researching a relative who fought in WWII as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber, and I decided to extend my research to include the whole crew.

Getting their records from the archives in Canada and the UK took many months. Nothing was digitised or transcribed. I had no idea what these documents would look like nor how much they would cost. About three months later and nearly one thousand dollars charged to my credit card, I received a hefty box full of service records.

When I opened that box of documents, I opened the door to marginalised servicemen who didn’t live long enough to make their mark in the history books. However, reading their files and writing about their lives made a huge impact on me, and I’m hoping reading and transcribing documents from Series ST84/1 might make an impact on you.

I have many fond, memorable experiences of reading through the 600 plus pages of archival service records. I turned page after page, reading document after document which included information such as eye colour, hair colour, religious affiliations, next of kin, training reports, missing in action reports and in some instances, fingerprints.

I’ll never forget experiencing those first set of fingerprints. I instinctively reached out my hand to place my fingers over those on the page. What transpired in a fraction of an instant I can only describe as electric. It was as though the page itself had dissolved, my hand passed through time, and I touched the warm, three-dimensional living flesh that had once belonged to those fingerprints.

The Series ST84/1 documents that make up part of the records of the White Australian Policy have the ability, through your help, to tell their story. However, with the benefit of computer technology and transcription, they will become a searchable database and present the possibility of seeing the records in new ways such as mapping early employment or travel to and from Australia. At bare minimum, relatives of these many Australians will thank you in assisting to make their search for their relative much easier.

Regardless of our citizenship, appearance, job or education, we all have the chance through transcription to touch the past and leave our fingerprints on these records for future generations to research. I Invite you to share in a little piece of history by contributing to the transcription of the White Australia Policy documents. Whether you spend ten minutes or many hours, even a small amount will lead to telling their story.

Transcribe now!

The transcribe-a-thon is over, but the work continues! If you’d like to help us transcribe records that document the lives of ordinary people living under the restrictions of the White Australia Policy, simply go to: 

Click on the big green ‘Get Started!’ button for an introduction to the process, and then just dive in. There’s still plenty to do.

Meet the Events Team


We’re the Events Team in the Exploring Digital Heritage Class of 2017.  We’re one of the many groups that worked on this project this semester. We have been liaising with the Museum of Australian Democracy/Old Parliament House, putting the event together , and we’re going to be the friendly guides on the weekend to make sure everything runs smoothly for the Transcribe-A-Thon.

Hope to see everyone there!

-Events Team 2017


Transcribe-a-thon this weekend!

Our transcription site is now open! Go to and start transcribing.

Check back here for updates or follow @invisibleaus on Twitter.

Transcribe-a-thon updates

9 and 10 September, 9.00am-5.00pm
Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House

Important things to note:

  • You’ll need to pay the MoAD admission fee ($2 adults, $1 children). This supports conservation work on Old Parliament House.
  • No bookings necessary — just turn up!
  • The transcription station will be set up in King’s Hall — look for the people hunched over laptops.
  • Student volunteers will available to help you — identify them by their ‘Real Face of White Australia’ lanyards.
  • If you want to help transcribe, please bring your own laptops (Mac, PC, Linux all fine). We’ll supply wifi and power.
  • There’ll be a fascinating program of talks and events throughout the weekend. Check the times!

Transcription site updates

The transcription site is:

If you’re having your own personal transcribe-a-thon let us know on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #uc10154.

Some things to note:

  • Open to everyone, everywhere. No login or registration required, just follow the instructions and start transcribing.
  • The site is designed for laptop/desktop machines. While some of the tasks, such as transcription and verification, can be done on a mobile device, the lack of screen space makes it rather tricky.
  • See here for an overview of the transcription process.

An overview of the transcription process

The aim of this project is to extract structured data from digital copies of identification documents used in the administration of the White Australia Policy. To do this we’re creating a website using the open source Scribe Framework.

Scribe is designed to work with structured data — the sort you find in forms and certificates. It breaks the transcription process down into three main tasks:

  • Marking
  • Transcribing
  • Verifying

Marking identifies the fields that need to be transcribed. All you do is choose the field from a list and then draw a box around the corresponding value in the document. You might also be asked to mark things like photos, handprints, and Chinese characters.

Marking fields

Transcribing is fast and fun! All you do is type what you see in the highlighted area of the document. The handwriting can be tricky at times, but you don’t need to worry too much as each field is transcribed multiple times for accuracy. Just try your best!

Transcribing marked fields

If transcribers disagree about the contents of a field, it’s sent to an additional verification stage, where you vote on the most accurate transcription. Once a broad consensus is achieved the field is tagged as complete.

Verifying transcribed data
Almost ready to go!

The transcription site is almost ready. We’ll be posting a link here on Saturday, 9 September. You can also follow @invisibleaus and like our Facebook page for updates.

The site will be open to all willing volunteers — wherever you are around the world you can help us document and understand the lives of people living under the restrictions of the White Australia Policy.

If you’re in Canberra on 9-10 September, bring your laptop along to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House where we’ll be running a transcribe-a-thon. How many documents can we transcribe in a weekend?

Transcribe-a-thon program

Saturday, 9 September

All day, KING’s Hall

Come and try your hand at transcription, or simply find out out more about the project. We’ll be set up in King’s Hall all day, so drop in! There’ll be live updates on the progress of the transcribe-a-thon projected on the walls of King’s Hall. How many documents can we process in a weekend?

Saturday, 11.00am-11.30am, Senate

Sophie Couchman, ‘Chinese in Australia and the making of the mugshot’

Dr Sophie Couchman is a curator and public historian with an Honorary Research Fellowship at La Trobe University. She is interested in the place of migrants in Australia’s history and has researched and published in the field of Chinese Australian history and heritage for many years, including as Curator at the Chinese Museum in Melbourne. Sophie has a particular interest in the creation and circulation of visual representations and how they shape our understandings of Chinese Australians, a topic explored in her PhD research on Chinese and photography in Australia from the 1870s to the 1940s.

Saturday, 12.30-1.00pm, House of Representatives

Kate Bagnall, ‘Women and the records of White Australia’

Dr Kate Bagnall is a Canberra-based historian and writer. She currently holds an ARC DECRA Research Fellowship in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong, where she is working on a comparative study of Chinese colonial citizenship in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Kate has published on various aspects of Chinese Australian history, including on the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and on the archives of White Australia. She is @baibi on Twitter and you can find her blog at

Saturday, 3.00-3.30pm, Senate

Peter Prince, ‘White Queensland: bananas, aliens and dictation’

Dr Peter Prince has spent the last 15 years working on ‘aliens’, much to the amusement of his children. He published a series of papers for the Commonwealth Parliamentary library on the subject and in 2016 completed a PhD thesis with the ANU College of Law on use of the word ‘alien’ as a key language tool in the creation of a ‘White Australia’. He has worked for Defence and the DFAT and is currently a lawyer with the Department of Health, working mainly in the aged care area.

Sunday, 10 September

All day, KING’s Hall

Come and try your hand at transcription, or simply find out out more about the project. We’ll be set up in King’s Hall all day, so drop in! There’ll be live updates on the progress of the transcribe-a-thon projected on the walls of King’s Hall. How many documents can we process in a weekend?

Sunday, All MORNING, KING’s Hall

Chinese Family History Drop-in

Come and chat with our Chinese family history experts Kate Bagnall and Sophie Couchman.

Sunday, 12.30-1.00pm, House of Representatives

Lisa Russ, ‘The six degrees of fingerprints: Leave your fingerprint!’

Lisa Russ is currently a Bachelor of Heritage, Museums and Conservation student at the University of Canberra. She has lived in Canada, the United Kingdom, and now calls Australia home. Transcribing and analysing Series ST84/1 documents, many of which have handprints, inspires Lisa to talk about the power of fingerprints.

Sunday, 3.00-3.30pm, Senate

Tim Sherratt, ‘Mobilising the digital: A live experiment in meaning, place, and history’

Dr Tim Sherratt is a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections. He’s worked across the cultural heritage sector and has been developing online resources relating to libraries, archives, museums and history since 1993. Tim’s tools and experiments include important things like The Real Face of White Australia, useful things like QueryPic, and weird things like the Vintage Face Depot. He’s currently Associate Professor of Digital Heritage at the University of Canberra. You can find him at or as @wragge on Twitter.

Photograph of King’s Hall by KgboOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link