Digital scholarship blog

22 February 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Picturing Canada and Interactive Map (Staff Award Runner Up)

Putting collection metadata on the map: Picturing Canada

The Picturing Canada project began in 2012 as a British Library, Eccles Centre and Wikimedia UK collaboration to digitise a collection and experiment with releasing high quality reproductions of collection items into the public domain. At its heart the project sought to open up an under-used collection of photographs, connecting them with new audiences and uses outside of the walls of the British Library. It also provided a template for the Library’s subsequent public domain releases and has been provided many around with an insight into the depth of the Library’s Canadian collections.

Before the collection could be released it needed to be digitised and robust metadata created. Fortunately the Library had a good working batch of metadata created off the back of work done by researchers from Dalhousie University in the 1980s. The initial use of this to the project was clear but in digitising the images and putting them and the metadata online something became apparent; most images had some sort of information (be it a title or a photographer’s studio address) that could be used to determine a geographical location for the images.

At the time, this realisation was parked for future investigation but the 2015 exhibition, ‘Canada Through the Lens’, drawing off the same digitised collection, opened up an opportunity to try and use this information to map the collection and generate new insights into its contents. Much of the coordinate determination and mapping was done by Joan Francis, co-awardee of the BL Labs runner-up prize, who worked to find and add coordinates for the photographs. This was a relatively simple but time-consuming process involving finding locations in the metadata image title or, in the case of a photographer’s studio address, on the photograph itself. These text-based locations were then converted into co-ordinates compatible with Google Fusion Tables (there’s an excellent tutorial here) and added to records for each image.


The result of this is the map that you see above, a series of points which can be clicked on to see a partial metadata record for the item as well as a link to the photograph itself on Wikipedia Commons. As the work is time-consuming and fraught with potential error we have still only worked to a robust mapping of about four fifths of the collection and this is the work you see here. Interestingly, map is not just a useful finding aid – although it performs this function very well.

Mapping the collection also provides insight into the geography of photographic production in Canada during the period this collection was created (1895 – 1923). It is clear, for instance, how significant the eastern metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal and Quebec are to Canada’s photographic production in this period. Similarly, the corridors of production seen running close to the Canada-US border and occasionally spurring north also suggest the significance of the railroad to Canada’s photographic economy. So the map helps users to find images but also offers more questions; an exciting prospect for continued work.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Philip Hatfield and Joan Francis

Submit a project for one of the BL Labs 2018 Awards! Join us on 12 November 2018 for the BL Labs annual Symposium at the British Library.