THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

03 May 2017

How can a turtle and the BBC connect learners with literature?

Illustration of a youth on a turtle
Image from 'When Life is Young: a collection of verse for boys and girls'. This turtle is ace but we used a different kind of turtle for our project.

Digital Curator Mia Ridge explains how and why we used linked open data to help more people find British Library content.

Despite the picture, it's not a real turtle (sorry to disappoint you). We've used a file format called 'Turtle' (.ttl) to help make articles and collections in Library's Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians easier for teachers to find.

We did this to make content available to the BBC's Research and Education Space (RES) Project. RES helps make public archives easier to find and use in education and teaching. It collects and organises the digital collections of libraries, museums, broadcasters and galleries so that developers can create educational products to connect learners to information and collections.

We were keen to join the RES project and help learners discover our collections and knowledge, but first we had to find the right content and figure out some technical issues. This post gives an overview of how we did it.

Finding the right content

Our collections are vast. Knowing where to start can be daunting. Which section of our website would be most immediately useful for the RES project's goals and audiences?

After looking over our online material, the Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians site seemed like a perfect match. Discovering Literature is a free educational resource that puts manuscript and printed collection items in historical, cultural and political context. The Romantics and Victorians site includes thousands of collection items, hundreds of articles, films, teachers’ notes and more to help make collection items more accessible, so it was a great place to start.

Using linked open data to make information easier to find

Created with support from Jisc and Learning on Screen, the RES platform collects data published as linked open data, which at its simplest means data that is structured and linked to vocabularies that help define the meaning of terms used.

For example, we might include a bit of technical information to unambiguously identify Elizabeth Barrett Browning as the author of the published volumes of poetry or as the writer of a letter. Applying a shared identifier helps connect our resources to information about Barrett Browning in other collections. A teacher preparing a lesson plan can be sure that the RES resources they include are accurate and authoritative articles that'll help their students understand Barrett Browning and other writers.

How did we do it?

There were three main stages in creating linked open data for the RES project, involving staff across the Library, at an external agency and at the BBC. Short, weekly conference calls kept things moving by making us accountable for progress between calls.

First, we had to work out which vocabularies to apply to describe people, the works they created, the collection items used to illustrate articles, the articles themselves, etc. Some terms, like the names of published authors, already exist in other vocabularies so we could just link to them. Others, like the 'genre' or 'literary period' used to describe a work, were particular to the Library. We posted work in progress online so that other people could review and comment on our work.

Once the mappings were agreed, the technical work of updating code used in the content management system so that special pages containing the data could be published as 'Turtle'-formatted files was carried out.  Licence information was included to meet the RES Project requirements.

Finally, the work was tested on a staging server, then checked again by the RES team once the changes had gone live on our website. If you're curious about the underlying linked data technologies, the BBC's guide to the Research & Education Space for contributors and developers has all the details.

Looking to the future

We learned a lot of practical and technical lessons that we hope to apply to future projects. For a start, there are more Discovering Literature sites, and others using a similar web architecture. If you're interested in other perspectives, the RES Project have collected different experiences on their platform, process and progress on their blog. I'm looking forward to seeing how the linked open data we created is used to connect learners to our collections and knowledge.