THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

3 posts from December 2016

21 December 2016

Mobius programme – on the beach of learning

This guest post is by Virve Miettinen, who spent four months with various teams at the British Library.

Every morning there’s a 100 meter queue in front of the British Library. It seems to say a lot about an unashamed nerdiness and love for learning in this city. Usually all the queuers have already put the things they might need in the Reading Room in a clear plastic bag, so they can head straight down to the lockers, stow away their coats, handbags and laptop cases and secure a place on the beach of learning.

Virve
Virve Miettinen

The Mobius fellowship programme, organised by the Finnish Institute in London, enables mobility for visual arts, museum, library and archives professionals, and customised working periods as part of the host organisation’s staff, in my case the British Library. The programme is a great opportunity to break away from daily routines, to think about one’s professional identity, find fresh ideas, compare the practices and methods between two countries, share knowledge and build meaningful networks.

Learn, relearn and unlearn from each other

Learning isn’t a destination, it’s a never-ending road of discovery, challenge, inspiration and wonder. Each learning moment builds character, shapes thoughts, guides futures. But what makes us learn? For me the answer is other people, and during the Mobius Fellowship I’ve been blessed with the chance to work with talented people willing to share their knowledge at the British Library.

I’ve familiarised myself with British Library Learning Team which is responsible for the library’s engagement with all kinds of learners. The Learning Team offers workshops, activities and resources for schools, teachers and learners of all ages.

I’ve been following the work of the Digital Scholarship team and BL Labs project to learn more about the incredible digital collections the library has to offer, and how to open them up for the public through various activities such as competitions, events and projects.

I’ve worked with the Knowledge Quarter, which is a network of now 76 partners within a one mile radius of Kings Cross and who actively create and disseminate knowledge. Partners include over 49 academic, cultural, research, scientific and media organisations large and small: from the British Library and University of the Arts London to the School of Life, Connected Digital Economy Catapult, Francis Crick Institute and Google.

I’ve assisted the Library’s Community Engagement Manager Emma Morgan. She has been working as a community engagement manager for six months now and the aim of her work is to create meaningful, long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with the surrounding community, i.e. residents, networks and organisations.

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/98739f1160a9458db215cec49fb033ee/2016-12-21/8bd92af45559431385823ecce6782cb7.png
Inside the British Library

I’ve observed the library’s marketing and communications unit in action, and learned for example how they measure and research the customer experience, i.e. who visits and uses the BL, what they think of their experience and how the BL might improve it.

 

I’ve got many 'mental souvenirs' to take back home with me - if they interest you, read more from my Mobius blog: http://itssupercalafragilistic.tumblr.com/. 

100 digital stories about Finnish-British relations

As part of the Mobius programme I’ve been working on a co-operative project between the British Library, the National Library in Finland, the Finnish National Archives, The Finnish Institute in London and the Finnish Embassy. In the last three decades, contacts between Finland and UK, the two relatively distant nations have multiplied. At the same time, the network of cultural relationships has tightened into a seamless 'love-story' – something that would not have been easy to predict just 50 years ago. In the coming year of 2017 the Finnish Institute celebrates the centennial anniversary of Finland’s independence by telling the story of two nations – the aim is to make the history, the interaction and the links between these two countries tangible and visible.

We are collaborating to create a digital gallery open to all, which offers its visitors carefully curated pieces of the shared history of the two countries and their political, cultural and economic relations. It will offer new information on the relations and influences between the two countries. It consists of digitised historical materials, like letters, news, cards, photographs, tickets and maps. The British Library and other partners will select 100 digitised items to create the basis of the gallery.

The gallery will be expanded further through co-creation. In the spirit of the theme of Finland’s centenary 'together', the gallery is open to all and easily accessible. With the call 'Wanted – make your own heritage' we invite people to share their own stories and interpretations, and record history through them. The gallery feeds curiosity, creates interaction and engages users to share their own memories relating to Finnish-British experiences. The users are invited to interpret recent history from a personal point of view.

The work continues after my Mobius-period and the gallery will open in September 2017. Join us and share your memories. Be frank, withdrawn, furious, imaginative, witty or sad. Through your story you create history.

P.S. The British Library Reading Room is actually far from The Beach of Learning, it’s more like The Coolest Place To Be, I found myself freezing in the air-conditioned Rare Books Reading Room despite wearing my leather jacket and extra pair of leggings

Virve Miettinen is working at Helsinki City Library/ Central Library as a participation planner. Her job is to engage citizens and partners to design the library of the future. For Helsinki City Library co-operative planning and service design means designing the premises and services together with the library users while taking advantage of user centric methods. Her interests involve co-design, service design, community engagement and community-led city development. At the moment she is also working with her PhD under the title 'Co-creative practices in library services'.

16 December 2016

Re-imagining a catalogue of illuminated manuscripts - from search to browse

In this guest post, Thomas Evans discusses his work with Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge to re-imagine the interface to the British Library's popular Online Catalogue of Illuminated manuscripts.

The original Catalogue was built using an Access 2003 database, and allows users to create detailed searches from amongst 20 fields (such as date, title, origin, and decoration) or follow 'virtual exhibitions' to view manuscripts. Search-based interfaces can be ideal for specialists who already know what they're looking for, but the need to think of a search term likely to yield interesting results can be an issue for people unfamiliar with a catalogue. 'Generous interfaces' are designed as rich, browsable experiences that highlight the scope and composition of a particular collection by loading the page with images linked to specific items or further categories. Mia asked Thomas to apply faceted browsing and 'generous' styles to help first-time visitors discover digitised illuminated manuscripts. In this post Thomas explains the steps he took to turn the catalogue data supplied into a more 'generous' browsing interface. An archived version of his interface is available on the Internet Archive.

With over 4,300 manuscripts, written in a variety of languages and created in countries across Europe over a period of about a thousand years, the British Library's collection of illuminated manuscripts contains a diverse treasure trove of information and imagery for both the keen enthusiast and the total novice.

As the final project for my Masters in Computer Science at UCL, I worked with the British Library to design and start to implement alternative ways of exploring the collection. This project had some constraints in time, knowledge and resources. The final deadline for submission was only four months after receiving the project outline and the success of the project rested on the knowledge, experience and research of a fresh-faced rookie (me) using whatever tools I had the wherewithal to cobble together (open source software running on a virtual machine server hosted by UCL).

Rather than showing visitors an empty search box when they first arrive, a generous interface will show them everything available. However, taken literally, displaying 'everything' means details for over 4,300 manuscripts and around 40,000 images would have to be displayed on one page. While this approach would offer visitors a way to explore the entire catalogue, it could be quite unwieldy.

One way to reduce the number of manuscripts loaded onto the screen is to allow visitors to filter out some items, for example limiting the 'date' field to between 519 and 927 or the 'region' field to England. This is 'faceted' browsing, and it makes exploration more manageable. Presenting the list of available values for region or language, etc., also gives you a sense of the collection's diversity. It also means that 'quirky' members of the collection are less likely to be overlooked.

Screenshot of filters in Thomas CIM interface II
An example of 'date' facets providing an instant overview of the temporal range of the Catalogue

For example, if you were to examine 30 random manuscripts from the British Library's collection, you might find 20 written in Latin, three each in French and English, and perhaps one each in Greek, Hebrew or Italian. You would almost certainly miss that the Catalogue contains a manuscript written in Cornish, another in Portuguese and another in Icelandic. These languages might be of interest precisely because they are hard to come by in the British Library's catalogue. Listing all the available languages (as well as their frequencies) exposes the exceptional parts of the collection where an unfaceted generous interface would hide them in plain sight.

Once I understood the project's goals and completed some high-level planning and design sketches, it was time to get to grips with implementation. Being fairly inexperienced, I found some tasks took much longer than expected. A few examples which stick in the mind are properly configuring the web server, debugging errant server-side scripts (which have a habit of failing either silently or with an unhelpful error message) and transforming Library's database into a form which I could use.

Being the work of many hands over the years, the database inevitably contained some tiny differences in the way entries were recorded, which Mia informs me is not uncommon for a long-standing database in a collecting institution. These small inconsistencies - for example, the use of an en-dash in some cases and a hyphen in others - look fine to us, but confuse a computer. I worked around these where I could, 'cleaning' the records only when I was certain of my correction.

Being new to web design, I built the interface iteratively, component by component, consulting periodically with Mia for feedback. Thankfully, frameworks exist for responsive web design and page templating. Nevertheless, there was a small learning curve and some thought was required to properly separate application logic from presentation logic.

There were some ambitions for the project which were ultimately not pursued due to time (and knowledge!) constraints, but this iterative process made other improvements possible over the course of my project. To make exploration of the catalogue easier, the page listing a manuscript's details also contained links to related manuscripts. For instance, Ioannes Rhosos is attributed as the scribe of Harley 5699, so, on that manuscript's page, users could click on his name to see a list of all manuscripts by him. They could then apply further filters if desired. This made links between manuscripts much more clear than the old interface, but it is limited to direct links which were explicitly recorded in the database.

An example of a relevant feature not explicitly recorded in the database is genre - only by reading manuscript descriptions can you determine whether it is religious, historical, medical etc. in its subject matter. Two possible techniques for revealing such features were considered: applying natural language processing to manuscript descriptions in order to classify them, or analysing data about which manuscripts were viewed by which users to build a recommendation system. Both of these turned out to require more in-depth knowledge than I was able to acquire within the time limit of the project.

I enjoyed working out how to transform all the possible inputs to the webpage into queries which could be run against the database, dealing with missing/invalid inputs by providing appropriate defaults etc. There was a quiet satisfaction to be had when tests of the interface went well - seeing something work and thinking 'I made that!'. It was also a pleasure to work with data about such an engaging topic.

Hopefully, this project will have proved that exploration of British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has the potential to become a richer experience. Relationships between manuscripts which are currently not widely known could be revealed to more visitors and, if the machine learning techniques were to be implemented, perhaps new relationships would be revealed and related manuscripts could be recommended. My project showed the potential for applying new computational methods to better reveal the character of collections and connections between their elements. Although the interface I delivered has some way to go before it can achieve this goal, I earnestly hope that it is a first step in that direction.

Thomas' Catalogue interface
Thomas' Catalogue interface

07 December 2016

There's a new viewer for digitised items in the British Library's collections

This post is by Digital Curator Mia Ridge, who was a member of the new viewer project team. 

Users of the British Library's online catalogue may have noticed that some digitised collection items are now displayed in a new viewer. The new viewer, built with the 'Universal Viewer' software and community and using the IIIF standard for image interoperability, makes several new features available to readers.

New features include full-text search within collection items (where automatically transcribed text is available), navigation by thumbnail images, the ability to copy the direct link to share or bookmark an item. Usage terms are included in an expanded 'About this item' panel, and you can download selected items as images or PDFs. Some items can also be embedded in web pages, such as blog posts, teaching resources or news articles. Better zoom and rotate functions improve the experience of large-format items, and the viewer will soon provide a better 'responsive' experience for mobile and tablet users.

More collection items will appear in the new viewer over the next year, and it will eventually replace the many legacy viewers currently used across the Library's website. The project has involved dozens of people across the whole Library, working with external agencies and the wider open source community of Universal Viewer and IIIF contributors. Our thanks to them all!

We conducted usability reviews and testing as we developed the interface, which helped us prioritise improvements as we worked. Development work on the next version of the viewer will resume next year. In the meantime, launching the viewer now gives us a chance to see how it's used in the real world as readers take advantage of the new features.

Screenshot of the new viewer
Screenshot of the new viewer

 

Sample screenshot of an older item viewer
Sample screenshot of an older item viewer for comparison