Digital scholarship blog

2 posts from June 2016

21 June 2016

Announcing the BL Labs Competition finalists for 2016

BL Labs are pleased to announce the two finalists of the BL Labs Competition (2016)!

The judging panel, consisting of the BL Labs Advisory Board and members of the British Library's Digital Scholarship team, definitely had their work cut out for them as the Competition had so many strong entries this year. 

After much deliberation, BL Labs is excited to introduce the BL Labs Competition (2016) finalists and their two projects:  

Black Abolitionist Performances and their Presence in Britain 

Hannah-Rose Murray, PhD student at the University of Nottingham  

Hannah-Rose describes her winning project for us: 

My project will create an original and exciting window into Victorian society by analysing the African American presence in Britain and how their performances and lectures reached nearly every corner of the country. It asks, how can we uncover hidden black voices in the archive?

I have searched through the British Library’s online Newspaper Database to collect as much data as possible referring to formerly enslaved African American Frederick Douglass’ lectures in Britain and, for the first time, I have collated this information to provide a systematic and detailed analysis of his experiences. I have created a map showing some of Douglass’ lectures (image below with the red pins) and a second map listing lectures given by other black abolitionists (image below with multi-coloured pins). This is displayed on my website,

Map: locations of Frederick Douglass’ lectures in the United Kingdom and Ireland

 Map: location of lectures given by other black abolitionists in the United Kingdom and Ireland

Searching the online newspaper database can only provide partial information, and there are thousands of lectures just waiting to be uncovered, and then plotted onto a map. But how can we achieve this? I want to build on the work of the previous BL Labs Competition winner, Katrina Navickas’ Political Meetings Mapper, and develop a process that searches for the individual rather than a record of the lecture in question. This will allow us to analyse the impact of black abolitionists on British society and how far they travelled to lecture against
American slavery. Mapping their movements has never been done before and we can use this visual representation to gather an estimate of how many lectures they gave and, most importantly, allow their hidden voices to be heard. We can explore their performances through their own words and follow how they interacted with British audiences to win support for abolition and combat the deeply entrenched racism of the period.

Image1Hannah-Rose Murray is a second year PhD student with the Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham. Her AHRC/M3C-funded PhD focuses on the legacy of formerly enslaved African Americans on British society and the different ways they fought British racism. Hannah-Rose received a first class Masters degree in Public History from Royal Holloway University and has a BA History degree from University College London (UCL). In Nottingham, Hannah-Rose works closely with the Centre for Research in Race and Rights and is one of the postgraduate directors of the Rights and Justice Research Priority Area, which includes the largest number of scholars (700) in the world working on rights and justice. 

SherlockNet: Using Convolutional Neural Networks to automatically tag and caption the British Library Flickr collection

Luda Zhao, Brian Do and Karen Wang, students from Stanford University, California

The SherlockNet team tell us about their winning project:

Book illustrations, such as those in the British Library’s Flickr Commons 1 million collection, provide valuable insights into the cultural fabric of their time. However, large image collections are only useful and discoverable by researchers if they can be deeply explored, and the process can often be time-consuming, requires expertise and relies on humans to recognise patterns. Thus, a computationally guided approach providing automatic pattern recognition would allow art historians to study them in a more unbiased and efficient manner.

Machine learning can extract information and insights from data on a massive scale. In particular, deep learning methods such as convolutional neural networks (CNNs), inspired by biological neural networks in the brain, are particularly suited for understanding the content of images, due to the hierarchical nature of the “neurons” that make up the network. CNNs are composed of layers of neurons, where each neuron is a “mini-calculator” of sorts that takes in information from the layer above and outputs more information. Progressing deeper into the network means that neurons will be working on increasingly complex information, progressing from detect features like lines or curves in the shallower layers to detect objects like cars and planes in the deeper layers. The CNN could then combine these “high-level” features to make very accurate predictions on the contents of the image.

Team photo: SherlockNet presenting their initial work at Stanford University, California

In this project, we plan to develop and optimize CNN algorithms to accomplish two important tasks: tagging and captioning. In the first step, we will classify all images with general categorical tags (e.g. decorations, architecture, animals etc.). This will serve as the basis for us to develop new ways to facilitate rapid online tagging with user-defined sets of tags, including a tag suggestions interface that would continuously reward user input by doing on-the-fly online learning to improve model accuracy. In the second, we will build off recent results in Deep Learning research and automatically generate descriptive natural-language captions for all images (e.g. “A man in a meadow on a horse”). These natural-language captions will expand the richness of the images and provide more intuitive ways for researchers to discover and use these images.

We intend to make our tags and captions accessible and searchable by the public through a web-based interface. We also plan to provide supplementary visualisation tools to give researchers greater insight and access into the technical assumptions behind our work. Finally, we will use our text annotations to globally analyse trends in the British Library Flickr collection over time. Together, we hope our project will establish CNNs as a novel tool for image annotation and analysis, as well as encourage widespread adoption of neural networks in bibliology.

Image1Luda Zhao is currently a Masters student studying Computer Science at Stanford University, living in Palo Alto, California. He is interested in using machine learning and data mining to tackle tough problems in a variety of real-life contexts, and he's excited to work with the British Library to make art more discoverable for people everywhere. In his spare time, Luda enjoys beaches, swimming, all-you-can-eat BBQs, reading, and collecting subway maps.

Image1Brian Do grew up in sunny California and is a first-year MD/PhD student at Harvard Medical School. Previously he studied Computer Science and biology at Stanford. Brian loves using data visualisation and cutting edge tools to reveal unexpected things about sports, finance and even his own text message history. In his free time he enjoys cooking, running in the hot sun, and playing frisbee on the beach.

 Image1Karen Wang is currently a senior studying Computer Science at Stanford University, California. She also has an Art Practice minor. Karen is very interested in the intersection of computer science and humanities research, so this project is near and dear to her heart! She will be continuing her studies next year at Stanford in CS, Artificial Intelligence track.

BL Labs and the finalists are looking forward to working together on these exciting projects and we will be posting regular updates as these works progress.




20 June 2016

Digital Humanities in the Chinese Context: Project Kick Off

Annabella Massey is a first-year DPhil student in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, where she researches representations of the city in contemporary Chinese literary and visual culture. Over the next six months, she will be working with both the Digital Research Team and Asian & African Collections at the British Library on a research project titled Profiling the Digital Humanities Landscape in China’. This project aims to map and investigate the Digital Humanities in the Chinese context. She Tweets @annabellamassey, and she can also be contacted by email at

We kicked off the first week of my PhD Placement at the British Library with inductions and introductions, a tour of the St. Pancras site, a quick peek around the wonderful Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition – and the Digital Humanities for Asian and African Texts workshop at SOAS, where (among many exciting ideas and projects) we learned about, an online education platform for the Manchu script; Zoroastrian ritual texts and the Multimedia Yasna Project (MUYA); and the Bridge to China Mandarin learning wiki. This was a fantastic introduction to what should be a very fruitful research stint, and hopefully my investigation into the Chinese realm of the Digital Humanities will help the British Library in terms of their future digital plans for the Chinese collection here! This first blog post is a brief self-introduction and outline of my placement project, ‘Profiling the Digital Humanities Landscape in China’.

My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Creative Writing, taken at the University of Warwick. Following my BA, I then spent two years working in Yamanashi prefecture, Japan, on the JET Programme, and afterwards, I came to Oxford to study for an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies. My thesis was an analysis of the blood-selling motif in Chinese literature from 1931 – 2006. I enjoyed my MPhil so much that I subsequently stayed on at Oxford for a PhD. My doctoral research now explores new artistic representations of the contemporary city across a variety of creative media from the Greater China region, including literature, film, visual art, and photography.

The aim over the course of my six months here at the British Library is to understand the extent to which Digital Humanities activities in the context of China are being undertaken, and to ultimately present these findings in a research report. The Digital Humanities are known as shuzi renwen (数字人文) in mainland China, and shuwei renwen (數位人文) in Taiwan. As Dr. Lik Hang Tsui outlines in a recent piece, the Digital Humanities have received a huge amount of attention in China-based academic circles over the past decade, from Wechat groups which focus on the Digital Humanities and the sharing of electronic resources, to Peking University’s first Digital Humanities forum that launched in May this year.

I’ll be writing up my Digital-Humanities-and-China-related findings here in a series of regular blog posts, so watch this space! I will be in on-site Mondays and Tuesdays each week, and supervised by Digital Curator Nora McGregor. Please feel very free to get in touch if you have any questions, useful leads, or even just general thoughts – this promises to be a really fascinating six months.