Australia's first freely accessible online tool for art history research, the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online (DAAO), has been launched at the University of New South Wales.

Billed as the art world's equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, the service is a culmination of more than two years of intensive work by a team based at the UNSW Library, the Faculty of the Built Environment, and College of Fine Arts (COFA).

The site is powered by a custom-built search engine and draws on a preliminary 7,000 foundation biographies by more than 437 authors. It is aimed at anyone working in the field of Australian art who needs quick access to accurate biographical information, including academics, students, curators and librarians - or any curious member of the public.

While thousands of biographies have been indexed so far, the site plans to include far more, eventually to be the final authoritative source of information on Australian artists.

Supported by two ARC Linkage Infrastructure Grants so far, the DAAO brings together the resources of its member organisations, including UNSW, the Universities of Sydney, Monash and Adelaide, the National Gallery, the National Library and various state galleries and libraries.

Launching the dictionary at UNSW were Chancellor David Gonski and the DAAO editor-in-chief, NewSouth Global Professor Vivien Johnson.

The vision behind the DAAO is enormous and almost utopian, Professor Johnson says.

"It's utopian in the sense that we aim to include in the dictionary every Australian artist since colonisation, since the concept of art as art arrived here and even back before if that were possible. It's an enormous task," she says.

The idea originated with the late art historian Joan Kerr, who published several volumes of definitive works, including the original Dictionary of Australian Artists to 1870 and Heritage, a tome on 500 Australian women artists. Toward the end of her life, Kerr had become frustrated that the books that had taken so much research were out of print and not likely to be reprinted - and that others could not find a publisher at all.

Kerr's colleague and one of DAAO's chief investigators, Joanna Mendelssohn, suggested the internet, and the idea of a truly authoritative and inclusive resource was born.

Also at the launch were members of Dr Kerr's family - widower Jim Kerr and daughter Tamsin Kerr.

The dictionary functions like a combined Google and Wikipedia. It offers online authoring of texts and commentary. But unlike Wikipedia, where anyone can alter entries, the DAAO has an editorial board to oversee the process and keep an eye on the authenticity of the work.

The capacity of the DAAO's search engine also differentiates it from other internet-based services.

"We have been working for several years now to develop this machine, this giant search engine, because the other thing that the DAAO does, which is really significant, is search the content of the DAAO over a range of more then 34 fields."

Professor Johnson says the initiative represents a watershed in publishing in Australia.

"That you can publish on the internet and work collaboratively to build a resource that is inclusive and is not part of a single person's empire building, is a major development."

For more information go to the website

Media Contacts: Professor Vivien Johnson 0404 649 558; A/Professor Joanna Mendelssohn, 0411 115 608; Steve Offner, UNSW Media, 9385 1583 or 0424 580 208