THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

Introduction

Tracking exciting developments at the intersection of libraries, scholarship and technology. Read more

18 October 2017

Databeers Descends on Digital Scholarship!

Last week over 150 data enthusiasts descended on the British Library as the Digital Scholarship Team played host to Databeers – London, a global data-oriented networking group started in Spain and now in over twenty cities around the world. There is frankly nothing more fun for us than downing some beers, listening to great data talks, and introducing the British Library to a whole new audience---particularly those who may not have considered the Library as anything other than a staid place with a whole lot of old books, let alone ventured through the front doors

DMAcIGwXcAEb4mm
DataDrunkards. Image courtesy of @DatabeersLDN

Home to the UK Web Archive, Turing Institute and a staggering amount of digital collections and data, the British Library is a thriving place for data-centric research and our team is here to support that  innovative use of the Library’s digital content.

To get a sense of the many ways in which we do this, pop along to our upcoming 5th Annual BL Labs Symposium on Monday 30 October 2017, our annual networking and awards event showcasing interesting projects which have used the British Library's digital content over the past year.

 

 

 This post is by Digital Curator Nora McGregor, on twitter as @ndalyrose

17 October 2017

Imaginary Cities – Collaborations with Technologists

Posted by Mahendra Mahey (Manager of BL Labs) on behalf of Michael Takeo Magruder (BL Labs Artist/Researcher in Residence).

In developing the Imaginary Cities project, I enlisted two long-standing colleagues to help collaboratively design the creative-technical infrastructures required to realise my artistic vision.

The first area of work sought to address my desire to create an automated system that could take a single map image from the British Library’s 1 Million Images from Scanned Books Flickr Commons collection and from it generate an endless series of everchanging aesthetic iterations. This initiative was undertaken by the software architect and engineer David Steele who developed a server-side program to realise this concept.

David’s server application links to a curated set of British Library maps through their unique Flickr URLs. The high-resolution maps are captured and stored by the server, and through a pre-defined algorithmic process are transformed into ultra-high-resolution images that appear as mandala-esque ‘city plans’. This process of aesthetic transformation is executed once per day, and is affected by two variables. The first is simply the passage of time, while the second is based on external human or network interaction with the original source maps in the digital collection (such as changes to meta data tags, view counts, etc.).


Time-lapse of algorithmically generated images (showing days 1, 7, 32 and 152) constructed from a 19th-century map of Paris

The second challenge involved transforming the algorithmically created 2D assets into real-time 3D environments that could be experienced through leading-edge visualisation systems, including VR headsets. This work was led by the researcher and visualisation expert Drew Baker, and was done using the 3D game development platform Unity. Drew produced a working prototype application that accessed the static image ‘city plans’ generated by David’s server-side infrastructure, and translated them into immersive virtual ‘cityscapes’.

The process begins with the application analysing an image bitmap and converting each pixel into a 3D geometry that is reminiscent of a building. These structures are then textured and aligned in a square grid that matches the original bitmap. Afterwards, the camera viewpoint descends into the newly rezzed city and can be controlled by the user.

Takeo_DS-Blog3-2_Unity1
Analysis and transformation of the source image bitmap
Takeo_DS-Blog3-3_Unity2
View of the procedurally created 3D cityscape

At present I am still working with David and Drew to refine and expand these amazing systems that they have created. Moving forward, our next major task will be to successfully use the infrastructures as the foundation for a new body of artwork.

You can see a presentation from me at the British Library Labs Symposium 2017 at the British Library Conference Centre Auditorium in London, on Monday 30th of October, 2017. For more information and to book (registration is FREE), please visit the event page.

About the collaborators:

Takeo_DS-Blog3-4_D-Steele
David Steele

David Steele is a computer scientist based in Arlington, Virginia, USA specialising in progressive web programming and database architecture. He has been working with a wide range of web technologies since the mid-nineties and was a pioneer in pairing cutting-edge clients to existing corporate infrastructures. His work has enabled a variety of advanced applications from global text messaging frameworks to re-entry systems for the space shuttle. He is currently Principal Architect at Crunchy Data Solutions, Inc., and is involved in developing massively parallel backup solutions to protect the world's ever-growing data stores.

Takeo_DS-Blog3-5_D-Baker
Drew Baker

Drew Baker is an independent researcher based in Melbourne Australia. Over the past 20 years he has worked in visualisation of archaeology and cultural history. His explorations in 3D digital representation of spaces and artefacts as a research tool for both virtual archaeology and broader humanities applications laid the foundations for the London Charter, establishing internationally-recognised principles for the use of computer-based visualisation by researchers, educators and cultural heritage organisations. He is currently working with a remote community of Indigenous Australian elders from the Warlpiri nation in the Northern Territory’s Tanami Desert, digitising their intangible cultural heritage assets for use within the Kurdiji project â€“ an initiative that seeks to improve mental health and resilience in the nation’s young people through the use mobile technologies.

27 September 2017

In the Spotlight: Application design

Alex Mendes, Research Software Engineer with the British Library's Digital Scholarship team, provides some insight into our adaptation of an existing crowdsourcing platform to meet our varied needs.

Earlier this month, we announced a preview of a new crowdsourcing project we're working on. In the Spotlight aims to make the library’s collection of historic playbills easier to find. This post will explore some of the factors involved in our initial project design and the technologies used within the core application.

In_the_spotlight_homepage

The In the Spotlight homepage

During the early stages of development we talked to people working on various projects that deal with similar material, such as Ensemble @ Yale, which is an experiment into crowdsourcing transcriptions of digitised programs for Yale dramatic productions. While these conversations were incredibly useful, and the projects inspiring, after some deliberation we decided that the overhead of modifying such an application to fit our particular needs was too large.

Such projects have often been built for, and become increasingly tightly coupled with, a particular institutional purpose. By starting with such an application and modifying it heavily with our own institution-specific code we would likely be assuming sole responsibility for future maintenance of that application. Being unable to merge our code back into the original, we would be left managing our own modified version; one with limited usefulness outside an increasingly specific purpose. We wanted to avoid creating a significant maintenance issue, and sought a more generic, yet customisable platform.

Accordingly, we turned to our  existing crowdsourcing platform, LibCrowds, which was launched in June 2015 to host the Convert-a-Card projects and help turn printed card catalogues into a searchable online database. The platform is based on PyBossa, a Python library for building crowdsourcing projects that is still very much in active development.

We hoped that it would be relatively quick to generate a new set of projects for collecting the crowdsourced playbills data. In fact, our first prototypes were ready back in April. However, as more detailed requirements were established we soon began to come up against some of the limits of the platform’s existing architecture.

Old theme

The projects page from the old LibCrowds theme

For instance, we needed to present the appearance of a self-contained website designed around the playbills, with additional pages and features not present in the core PyBossa model. We previously navigated some of these issues by developing custom plugins, but as the need for these grew the approach was becoming unwieldy.

Not long before we encountered these issues, PyBossa had released an update allowing for it to be run as a headless backend server. 'Headless' means that it can be run as a stand-alone piece of software, separate from any graphical user interface, and be interacted with purely via an API. This differs from the ‘traditional’ website, in which the front and backend communicate directly, causing the functionality and architecture of one to be heavily dependent on the other.

We took the plunge and decided to drop some of the work that had gone into the redesign up to that point, opting to run a headless PyBossa instance as our backend and rewriting our frontend as a separate single-page application (SPA), using the Vue.js framework. This approach gives us the freedom to structure the website as required, without having to modify large amounts of backend code. Backend plugins still have a place but the majority of custom functionality can be handled within the browser.

New theme

The new LibCrowds homepage.

This new frontend application comprises a set of core LibCrowds pages, including a homepage and an administration interface where staff can manage the projects. Sitting beneath these, each project has its own set of themed pages, giving the appearance of bespoke websites for each project. Crucially, the new architecture managed this without requiring us to maintain multiple application instances, or the handling of user authentication between those instances.

In hindsight, we should have spent more time on requirements gathering at the start of the process, as we iterated through a number of possible system designs before settling on our current architecture. However, we seem to be moving towards quite a clean solution and one that will hopefully provide a satisfying user experience.

The application is still in the beta phase and all suggestions are welcome via the GitHub issues page or the project forum.

26 September 2017

BL Labs Symposium (2017), Mon 30 Oct: book your place now!

Bl_labs_logo

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, BL Labs Manager

The BL Labs team are pleased to announce that the fifth annual British Library Labs Symposium will be held on Monday 30 October, from 9:30 - 17:30 in the British Library Conference Centre, St Pancras. The event is FREE, although you must book a ticket in advance. Don't miss out!

The Symposium showcases innovative projects which use the British Library’s digital content, and provides a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field.

Josie-Fraser
Josie Fraser will be giving the keynote at this year's Symposium

This year, Dr Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, will launch the Symposium and Josie Fraser, Senior Technology Adviser on the National Technology Team, based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK Government, will be presenting the keynote. 

There will be presentations from BL Labs Competition (2016) runners up, artist/researcher Michael Takeo Magruder about his 'Imaginary Cities' project and lecturer/researcher Jennifer Batt about her 'Datamining verse in Eighteenth Century Newspapers' project.

After lunch, the winners of the BL Labs Awards (2017) will be announced followed by presentations of their work. The Awards celebrates researchers, artists, educators and entrepreneurs from around the world who have made use of the British Library's digital content and data, in each of the Awards’ categories:

  • BL Labs Research Award. Recognising a project or activity which shows the development of new knowledge, research methods or tools.
  • BL Labs Artistic Award. Celebrating a creative or artistic endeavour which inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • BL Labs Commercial Award. Recognising work that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools or services that build on, incorporate or enhance the British Library's digital content.
  • BL Labs Teaching / Learning Award. Celebrating quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the British Library's digital content.
  • BL Labs Staff Award. Recognising an outstanding individual or team who have played a key role in innovative work with the British Library's digital collections.  

The Symposium's endnote will be followed by a networking reception which will conclude the event, at which delegates and staff can mingle and network over a drink.  

Tickets are going fast, so book your place for the Symposium today!

For any further information please contact labs@bl.uk

07 September 2017

Introducing... Playbills In the Spotlight

Mia Ridge, Alex Mendes and Christian Algar from the Library's Digital Scholarship and Printed Heritage teams introduce a new project...

Playbills were sheets of paper handed out or posted up (as in the picture of a Portsmouth theatre, below) to advertise entertainments at theatres, fairs, pleasure gardens and other such venues. The British Library has a fantastic collection of playbills dating back to the 1730s. Looking through them is a lovely way to get a glimpse at how Britons entertained themselves over the past 300 years.

Access_bl_uk_item_viewer_ark__81055_vdc_100022589190_0x000002
Passers-by read playbills outside a theatre in Portsmouth. From: A collection of portraits of celebrated actors and actresses, views of theatres and playbills,([1750?-1821?])<http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100022589190.0x000002#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=164&z=-53.6544%2C795.6187%2C2422.3453%2C1335.8411>

 

Why do playbills matter?

The playbills are a great resource for academic and community researchers interested in theatre and cultural history or seeking to understand their local or family history. They're full of personal names, including actors, playwrights, composers, theatre managers and ticket sellers. The playbills list performances of plays we know and love now alongside less well-known, even forgotten plays and songs. But individual playbills are hard to find in the British Library's catalogues, because they are only listed as a group (in the past they were bound into volumes of frequently miscellaneous sheets) with a brief summary of dates and location/theatre names. The rich details captured on each historical page - from personal names to popular songs and plays to lost moments in theatrical history - aren't yet available to search online.

What is In the Spotlight?

We're launching a project called In the Spotlight soon to make these late 18th - late 19th century digitised playbills more findable online, and to give people a chance to see past entertainments as represented in this collection. In this new crowdsourcing project, members of the public can help transcribe titles, names and locations to make the playbills easier to find.

Detail from a playbill
Detail from a playbill


We're starting with a very simple but fun task: mark out the titles of plays by drawing around them. The screenshot shows how varied the text on playbills can be - it's easy enough for people to spot the title of upcoming plays on the page, but it's not the kind of task we can automate (yet). You'll notice the playbills used different typefaces, sizes and weights with apparent abandon, which makes it tricky for a computer to work out what's a title and what's not. That's why we need your help! 

How you can help

We've chosen two volumes from the Theatre-Royal, Plymouth and one from the Theatre Royal, Margate to begin with. You can find out more about the project and the playbills, or you can just dive in and play a role: https://playbills.libcrowds.com

This project is an 'alpha', work-in-progress that we think is almost but not quite ready for its moment in the spotlight. In theatrical terms, we’re still in rehearsal. Behind-the-scenes, we're preparing the transcription tasks for you, but in the meantime we're excited about giving people a chance to explore the playbills while marking up titles.

Your efforts will help uncover the level of detail important to researchers: titles; names of actors, dramatis personae; dates of performance, and the details of songs performed. Who knows what researchers will discover when the collection is more easily searchable? Key information from individual playbills will be added to the Library's main catalogue to permanently enhance the way these playbills can be found and reviewed for the benefit of all. The website also automatically makes the raw data available for re-use as tasks are completed.

What happens next?

We're taking an iterative approach and releasing a few volumes to test the approach and make sure the tasks we're asking for help with are sufficiently entertaining. Once we have sets of marked up titles for each volume of playbills, they're ready for the transcription task. Your comments and feedback now will make a big difference in making sure the version we formally launch is as entertaining as possible.

Please have a go and do let us know what you think: do the instructions make sense? Do the tasks work as you expected? Is there too much to mark and transcribe, or too little? Are you comfortable using the project forum to discuss the playbills? Are there other types of tasks you'd like to suggest for the pages you've seen? You can help by posting feedback on the project forum, emailing us digitalresearch@bl.uk or tweeting @LibCrowds.

Please consider this your official invitation to our dress rehearsal - we hope you'll find it entertaining! Join us and help us put playbills back in the spotlight at https://playbills.libcrowds.com.


25 August 2017

Announcing the new British Library Research Data Strategy

With the support of a Research Data Strategy since 2010, the Library has been active in services for research data for a number of years. This work has included European-funded projects such as ODE, ODIN and THOR; Providing the DataCite UK service and involvement in other activities such as data discovery and unlocking thesis data.

Since 2010 a lot has changed. Due to activities like DataCite or the FAIR Data Principles, data are now considered a first class research output. This has led to more researchers and organisations sharing their data and getting credit for it. As data become more widely available and better integrated into research workflows, services around data are key to the way the British Library needs to support research and business. This is already recognised in Living Knowledge, with data a priority to achieving the Library’s Research Purpose. With this changing landscape, we have re-evaluated our research data strategy in order to move forward with new services for research data.

British Library Research Data Strategy Outline Cover

Click the image to download the summary of the British Library Research Data Strategy 2017 (PDF, 13.4MB)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

In the new Research Data Strategy, some things remain the same. We take a very broad definition of ‘research data’, based on the Open Data Concordat. We still exclude day-to-day management and administrative data. But some activities that the Library had previously excluded will now be considered as we move forward.

Our vision for the British Library is that research data are as integrated into our collections, research and services as text is today. The British Library's users will be able to consume research data online through tools that enable it to be analysed, visualised and understood by non-specialists. Research data will be integrated into our collections and shared storage hubs and we will deliver data from trusted external hosts. All will be easy to discover and linked to related research outputs, be they text, data or multimedia.

The new Research Data Strategy outlines the areas in which the Library's strengths could be applied to develop appropriate data activities and services to support this vision as well as the Living Knowledge ambition to be the most open, creative and innovative institution of its kind by the time of our 50th anniversary in 2023.

The strategy is structured around 4 central themes for the activities we will be taking forward. These themes and rough outlines of their content are given below.

Data Management

This element of the data strategy sets out the creation of a data management plan and process, enabling the British Library to meet its obligations under funding council data management planning requirements.

Data Creation

The British Library will create datasets derived from its collections, and support others as they create their own datasets derived from Library collections. The role of datasets in the development of the Library’s collections will also be considered.

Data Archiving and Preservation

Datasets collected and created by the Library will be archived and preserved in line with its other collections. This will also open up the possibility for the development of providing archiving services to third parties and sharing its lessons learned in dataset preservation.

Data Access, Discovery and Reuse

The Library will ensure appropriate discovery, access and reuse of the datasets it holds, as well as those available from third parties. This will require new models of access to data onsite and online. Access to secure data for BL researchers will also be investigated.

You can download a summary of the British Library’s new Research Data Strategy here: British Library Research Data Strategy Outline

11 August 2017

Last Chance to Book for Game Library Camp Tomorrow

Tomorrow afternoon is Game Library Camp here at the British Library. So if you are in or near London, and are interested in libraries and games (all types of games, including board games, table top roleplaying, live action roleplaying (though please don't bring any foam replica weapons!), videogames, interactive fiction etc.), then please book a free place from https://gamelibcamp.eventbrite.co.uk.

The event is happening on Saturday 12 August, 12:30 to 16:30, at the Knowledge Centre, The British Library, 96 Euston Rd, London, NW1 2DB. For info on how to get here, go to https://www.bl.uk/aboutus/quickinfo/loc/stp. Please note lunch is not provided, but there are cafés on site, or bring your own snacks. We'll be using #GameLibCamp17 to discuss the event on Twitter etc.

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2017-08-11/c9eac854-6ad0-4e23-ab9f-f766f43cf7d1.png

At a library camp the participants lead the agenda – in fact, there isn’t an agenda until attendees pitch (bad tent pun, groan!) and decide what they’d like to talk about at the start of the event.  The only requirement for a session is that it fits within the theme. If you already have an idea for a talk, discussion, game or activity; you can propose your suggestion beforehand on this page http://gamesandglams.blogspot.co.uk/p/game-library-camp-sessions.html. We'll have the use of a number of rooms at the British Library's Knowledge Centre, so will be able to run a few sessions in parallel during the event. Also, please do bring games along if you want to run a game! - this is totally encouraged.

Programme:

  • Registration from 12 noon
  • Introduction and session pitches 12:30pm
  • 1st session 1pm - 1:40pm
  • 2nd session 1:45pm - 2:25pm
  • 3rd session 2:30pm - 3:10pm
  • 4th session 3:15pm - 3:55pm
  • Closing session 4pm
  • Finish by 4:30pm
  • Post-event social meetup at The Somers Town Coffee House

In the words of experienced Library Campers Sue Lawson and Richard Veevers who run the http://www.librarycamp.co.uk website: "there's no cost, there are no keynotes and library camp is open to anyone: public/private/whatever sector and you don't have to work in a library".

This specific library camp is intended as a warm up to International Games Week in the autumn and to inspire librarians and library staff from all sectors to host their own game events. We also totally welcome colleagues from, and people who visit, other cultural heritage organisations, museums, archives etc. who participate in games projects and events, both game making and game playing.  

Furthermore, if you are interested, but you can't attend tomorrow, I recommend joining the online discussion group Games & GLAMS set up by British Library collaborator, Sarah Cole, that focuses on game related activities in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums sector. It's open to anyone with an interest in games in any of these areas. There is also an associated Games & GLAMS Twitter account: @Games_GLAMS.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom, on twitter as @miss_wisdom. Stella is co-organising Game Library Camp with Darren Edwards of Bournemouth Libraries and the lead on International Games Week in the UK, and Gary Green from Surrey Libraries.

04 August 2017

BL Labs Awards (2017): enter before midnight Wednesday 11th October!

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of of British Library Labs.

The BL Labs Awards formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been created using the British Library’s digital collections and data.

The closing date for entering the BL Labs Awards (2017) is midnight BST on Wednesday 11th October. So please submit your entry and/or help us spread the word to all interested and relevant parties over the next few months or so. This will ensure we have another year of fantastic digital-based projects highlighted by the Awards!

This year, the BL Labs Awards is commending work in four key areas:

  • Research - A project or activity which shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Commercial - An activity that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the Library's digital content.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour which inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Teaching / Learning - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.

After the submission deadline of midnight BST on Wednesday 11th October for entering the BL Labs Awards has past, the entries will be shortlisted. Selected shortlisted entrants will be notified via email by midnight BST on Friday 20th October 2017. 

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and Â£100 to the runner up of each Awards category at the BL Labs Symposium on 30th October 2017 at the British Library, St Pancras, London.

The talent of the BL Labs Awards winners and runners ups of 2016 and 2015 has led to the production a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects. In 2016, the Awards commended work in four main categories – Research, Creative/Artistic and Entrepreneurship:

  • Research category Award (2016) winner: 'Scissors and Paste', by M. H. Beals. Scissors and Paste utilises the 1800-1900 digitised British Library Newspapers, collection to explore the possibilities of mining large-scale newspaper databases for reprinted and repurposed news content.
  • Artistic Award (2016) winner: 'Hey There, Young Sailor', written and directed by Ling Low with visual art by Lyn Ong. Hey There, Young Sailor combines live action with animation, hand-drawn artwork and found archive images to tell a love story set at sea. The video draws on late 19th century and early 20th century images from the British Library's Flickr collection for its collages and tableaux and was commissioned by Malaysian indie folk band The Impatient Sisters and independently produced by a Malaysian and Indonesian team.
BL Labs Award Winners 2016
Image: 'Scissors and Paste', by M. H. Beals (Top-left)
'Curating Digital Collections to Go Mobile', by Mitchell Davis; (Top-right)
 'Hey There, Young Sailor',
written and directed by Ling Low with visual art by Lyn Ong; (Bottom-left)
'Library Carpentry', founded by James Baker and involving the international Library Carpentry team;
(Bottom-right) 
  • Commercial Award (2016) winner: 'Curating Digital Collections to Go Mobile', by Mitchell Davis. BiblioBoard, is an award-winning e-Content delivery platform, and online curatorial and multimedia publishing tools to support it to make it simple for subject area experts to create visually stunning multi-media exhibits for the web and mobile devices without any technical expertise, the example used a collection of digitised 19th Century books.
  • Teaching and Learning (2016) winner: 'Library Carpentry', founded by James Baker and involving the international Library Carpentry team. Library Carpentry is software skills training aimed at the needs and requirements of library professionals taking the form of a series of modules that are available online for self-directed study or for adaption and reuse by library professionals in face-to-face workshops using British Library data / collections. Library Carpentry is in the commons and for the commons: it is not tied to any institution or person. For more information, see http://librarycarpentry.github.io/.
  • Jury’s Special Mention Award (2016): 'Top Geo-referencer -Maurice Nicholson' . Maurice leads the effort to Georeference over 50,000 maps that were identified through Flickr Commons, read more about his work here.

For any further information about BL Labs or our Awards, please contact us at labs@bl.uk.