Digital scholarship blog

4 posts from March 2018

21 March 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Vittoria's World of Stories, Learning & Teaching Award Winner

Vittoria’s 'World of Stories' - the BL Labs Learning and Teaching Award Winner 2017 - is a project led by parents at Vittoria Primary School through the PTA, with the support of school staff. The aim of the project is to collect and share traditional tales from around the world and creative work by current pupils through workshops, the production of a book, school assemblies, readings and performances, and via the creation of audio, text and images for the school website during the current academic year. The illustrations for the project are drawn from the British Library’s Flickr collection which are displayed alongside pupils’ artwork.

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The front cover of Vittoria primary school's 'World of Stories'

Our school is a diverse community of learners: pupils’ families come from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Languages spoken by pupils at home include Arabic, Bengali, Vietnamese, Russian, Chechen, Turkish and Somali. One of the pedagogical goals of the project was to make visible the similarities between well-loved traditional tales and explore how different cultures use the same cast of characters - heroes and heroines, tricksters and magicians, villains and monsters – in order to speak across generations about what it means to be human. We wanted to promote and celebrate the diversity of the multi-cultural community which makes up our school, and show parents and children that the characters and stories they love are shared by others from different cultures.   

 The stories in the book include original works by pupils, gathered through a story-writing competition with winning entries selected by the PTA committee. We also asked parents to nominate traditional tales for inclusion in the collection, and held a bi-lingual (English and Arabic) story-sharing workshop for parents organised by the PTA. During the workshop, parents spoke about well-known traditional tales which they remembered from childhood and discussed the contrasts and similarities between characters and narratives from different cultures. For example, the section of the book which presents ‘bogeyman’ type monsters was developed from discussions in the workshop. We discovered that the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is called ‘Al-Ba’ati’ in Sudan, where the story is known as ‘Jamila wal Ba’ati’. Sudanese parents discussed how ‘Al-Ba’ati’ is used to encourage good behaviour in children, which prompted another parent to share her family’s stories of ‘The Boogerman’ who plays a similar role in persuading children to stay in bed at bedtime.

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One of the British Library's Flickr images, used as an illustration

The project also links with our work within the classroom to develop children’s reading skills, through promoting a love of reading and books at home. By showing that we value and celebrate the oral culture of storytelling between parents and children, and by collecting and translating tales from languages other than English, we aim to encourage parents to read with their children and support their learning at home.

The project has had a positive effect within the school community, by promoting dialogue and interaction between parents from different cultures through the parents’ workshop, and provided a vehicle to celebrate pupils’ achievements to the school community. Parents have also bought copies of the book to share with family and friends. One of our parent contributors took copies of the book to share with older generations of her family in Sudan during a recent visit, and we hope that other parents will do the same.

During the next phase of the project we will be organising a series of readings and performances using the book with different year groups and making audio recordings which we will publish on the school website for parents to download and listen to with their children at home.

If this blog post has stimulated your interest in working with the British Library's digital collections, start a project and enter it for one of the BL Labs 2018 Awards! Join us on 12 November 2018 for the BL Labs annual Symposium at the British Library.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Vittoria Primary school

14 March 2018

Working with BL Labs in search of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose

The 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database offers a rich mine of material to be sourced for a comprehensive view of British life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The online archive comprises 101 full-text titles of local, regional, and national newspapers across the UK and Ireland, and thanks to optical character recognition, they are all fully searchable. This allows for extensive data mining across several millions worth of newspaper pages. It’s like going through the proverbial haystack looking for the equally proverbial needle, but with a magnet in hand.

For my current research project on the role of the radio during the British Raj, I wanted to find out more about Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937), whose contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy were hardly acknowledged during his lifetime and all but forgotten during the twentieth century.

Jagadish Chandra Bose in Royal Institution, London
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The person who is generally credited with having invented the radio is Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937). In 1909, he and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850–1918) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. What is generally not known is that almost ten years before that, Bose invented a coherer that would prove to be crucial for Marconi’s successful attempt at wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic in 1901. Bose never patented his invention, and Marconi reaped all the glory.

In his book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western Science, Subrata Dasgupta gives us four reasons as to why Bose’s contributions to radiotelegraphy have been largely forgotten in the West throughout the twentieth century. The first reason, according to Dasgupta, is that Bose changed research interest around 1900. Instead of continuing and focusing his work on wireless telegraphy, Bose became interested in the physiology of plants and the similarities between inorganic and living matter in their responses to external stimuli. Bose’s name thus lost currency in his former field of study.

A second reason that contributed to the erasure of Bose’s name is that he did not leave a legacy in the form of students. He did not, as Dasgupta puts it, “found a school of radio research” that could promote his name despite his personal absence from the field. Also, and thirdly, Bose sought no monetary gain from his inventions and only patented one of his several inventions. Had he done so, chances are that his name would have echoed loudly through the century, just as Marconi’s has done.

“Finally”, Dasgupta writes, “one cannot ignore the ‘Indian factor’”. Dasgupta wonders how seriously the scientific western elite really took Bose, who was the “outsider”, the “marginal man”, the “lone Indian in the hurly-burly of western scientific technology”. And he wonders how this affected “the seriousness with which others who came later would judge his significance in the annals of wireless telegraphy”.

And this is where the BL’s online archive of nineteenth-century newspapers comes in. Looking at newspaper coverage about Bose in the British press at the time suggests that Bose’s contributions to wireless telegraphy were soon to be all but forgotten during his lifetime. When Bose died in 1937, Reuters Calcutta put out a press release that was reprinted in several British newspapers. As an example, the following notice was published in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937, on Bose’s death:

Newspaper clipping announcing death of JC Bose
Notice in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937

This notice is as short as it is telling in what it says and does not say about Bose and his achievements: he is remembered as the man “who discovered a heart beat in trees”. He is not remembered as the man who almost invented the radio. He is remembered for the Western honours that are bestowed upon him (the Knighthood and his Fellowship of the Royal Society), and he is remembered as the founder of the Bose Research Institute. He is not remembered for his career as a researcher and inventor; a career that span five decades and saw him travel extensively in India, Europe and the United States.

The Derby Evening Telegraph is not alone in this act of partial remembrance. Similar articles appeared in Dundee’s Evening Telegraph and Post and The Gloucestershire Echo on the same day. The Aberdeen Press and Journal published a slightly extended version of the Reuters press release on November 24th that includes a brief account of a lecture by Bose in Whitehall in 1929, during which Bose demonstrated “that plants shudder when struck, writhe in the agonies of death, get drunk, and are revived by medicine”. However, there is again no mention of Bose’s work as a physicist or of his contributions to wireless telegraphy. The same is true for obituaries published in The Nottingham Evening Post on November 23rd, The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror on November 24th, another article published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on November 26th, and two articles published in The Manchester Guardian on November 24th.

The exception to the rule is the obituary published in The Times on November 24th. Granted, with a total of 1116 words it is significantly longer than the Reuters press release, but this is also partly the point, as it allows for a much more comprehensive account of Bose’s life and achievements. But even if we only take the first two sentences of The Times obituary, which roughly add up to the word count of the Reuters press release, we are already presented with a different account altogether:

“Our Calcutta Correspondent telegraphs that Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, F.R.S., died at Giridih, Bengal, yesterday, having nearly reached the age of 79. The reputation he won by persistent investigation and experiment as a physicist was extended to the general public in the Western world, which he frequently visited, by his remarkable gifts as a lecturer, and by the popular appeal of many of his demonstrations.”

We know that he was a physicist; the focus is on his skills as a researcher and on his talents as a lecturer rather than on his Western titles and honours, which are mentioned in passing as titles to his name; and we immediately get a sense of the significance of his work within the scientific community and for the general public. And later on in the article, it is finally acknowledged that Bose “designed an instrument identical in principle with the 'coherer' subsequently used in all systems of wireless communication. Another early invention was an instrument for verifying the laws of refraction, reflection, and polarization of electric waves. These instruments were demonstrated on the occasion of his first appearance before the British Association at the 1896 meeting at Liverpool”.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Dr Christin Hoene, a BL Labs Researcher in Residence at the British Library. Dr Hoene is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent. 

If you are interested in working with the British Library's digital collections, why not come along to one of our events that we are holding at universities around the UK this year? We will be holding a roadshow at the University of Kent on 25 April 2018. You can see a programme for the day and book your place through this Eventbrite page. 

12 March 2018

The Ground Truth: Transcribing historical Arabic Scientific Manuscripts for OCR research

Announcing a collaborative transcription project to support state-of-the-art research in automatic handwritten text recognition for historical Arabic texts

Cultural heritage institutions around the world are digitising hundreds of thousands of pages of historical Arabic manuscript and archive collections. Making these fully text searchable has the potential to truly transform scholarship, opening up this rich content for discovery and enabling large-scale analysis.

Computer scientists and scholars are working on this challenge, building systems which can automatically transcribe images of handwritten text, but for historical Arabic script a solution remains just out of reach.

Our aim is to contribute to continued research in this area by building an open image and ground truth dataset of historical handwritten Arabic texts, ensuring historical Arabic collections benefit from state-of-the-art developments in handwritten text recognition.

What is Ground Truth?

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems essentially turn a picture of text into text itself—in other words, producing something like a .TXT or .DOC file from a scanned .JPG of a printed or handwritten page. Most OCR systems require ground truth, a set of files which represent the truthful record of elements of an image, for training and evaluation purposes.

The ground truth of an image’s text content, for instance, is the complete and accurate record of every character and word in the image.

By knowing what the system is supposed to recognise on a page of handwritten text, researchers can both train their system to recognise the characters as well as test how well the system does once trained.


View more transcriptions in progress from this manuscript (Or 3366) on the platform 

A collaborative approach

This project is a proof of concept exploring whether the creation of such a dataset can be done collaboratively at scale, using the collective expertise of volunteers around the world. At the heart of this approach is the Library’s enduring commitment to creating new and interesting ways to connect diverse communities of interest and expertise, be it scholars, the general public, computer scientists, students, and curators, around our collections. For this we are utilising a free and open-source platform, From the Page, which allows anyone with an interest in historical Arabic manuscripts to experience them up close, many for the first time, to discuss, learn and share expertise in their transcription.

Helping transform research

The Digital Scholarship Department was able to fund the development of this open source platform to support Right-to-Left transcription, a feature which will benefit any scholar wishing to use the software for their own transcription needs. Any transcriptions produced in this pilot will be transformed into ground truth resources, hosted by the British Library and made freely available, without rights restriction, for anyone wishing to advance the state-of-the-art in optical character recognition technology. Specifically, resources created will be contributed to ground-breaking projects already underway such as Transkribus, the Open Islamic Texts Initiative, the IMPACT Centre of Competence Image and Ground Truth Resources and more!

Visit the new Arabic Scientific Manuscripts of the British Library transcription platform and download our Getting Started Guide for more detail (an Arabic version will be available shortly). 


Posted by Nora McGregor, Digital Curator, British Library


07 March 2018

Breathe, A Digital Ghost Story

Recently I posted about The Cartographer's Confession an immersive digital story based in London, where readers interact with the app on location. However, then the ‘beast from the east’ arrived in the UK and made walking in London rather a bracing and slippy experience last week!

So if during the cold weather you prefer seeking chills of a different kind, you may like to read Breathe, a digital ghost story, from the comfort and warmth of your sofa or bed. The story takes about fifteen minutes to read, is designed for mobile devices and it is available for free. To start reading, go to


Written by Kate Pullinger, the work is collaboration with Editions at Play, which is itself collaboration between Google Creative Labs Sydney and London-based publisher Visual Editions. The result is a literary experience delivered using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and context recognition technology. The app uses place, time, context and environment to place the reader in the story, making the experience individual and personal to each reader.  Kate has blogged about creating Breathe on The Writing Platform.

As with the other two Ambient Literature commissioned literary works, the research project team are looking for participants to try out Breathe and talk to them about their reading experience. If you are interested in assisting, please fill out this form and one of the researchers will be in touch via email to arrange a time to talk. If you have any questions about this process, please contact Dr Michael Marcinkowski.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom, on twitter as @miss_wisdom and member of the Ambient Literature Advisory Board.