Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


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

25 September 2020

Making Data Into Sound

This is a guest post by Anne Courtney, Gulf History Cataloguer with the Qatar Digital Library, 


Over the summer, I’ve been investigating the sonification of data. On the Qatar Project (QDL), we generate a large amount of data, and I wanted to experiment with different methods of representing it. Sonification was a new technique for me, which I learnt about through this article:


What is sonification?

Sonification is the method of representing data in an aural format, rather than visual format, such as a graph. It is particularly useful for showing changes in data over time. Different trends are highlighted depending on the choices made during the process, in the same way as they would be when drawing a graph.


How does it work?

First, all the data must be put in the right format:

An example of data in Excel showing listed longitude points of
Figure 1: Excel data of longitude points where the Palsgrave anchored

Then, the data is used to generate a midi file. The Programming Historian provides an example python script for this, and by changing parts of it, it is possible to change the tempo, note length, scale, and other features.

Python script ready to output a midi file of occurrences of Anjouan over time
Figure 2: Python script ready to output a midi file of occurrences of Anjouan over time

Finally, to overlay the different midi files, edit them, and change the instruments, I used MuseScore, freely-downloadable music notation software. Other alternatives include LMMS and Garageband:

A music score with name labels of where the Discovery, Palsgrave, and Mary anchored on their journeys, showing different pitches and musical notations.
Figure 3: The score of the voyages of the Discovery, Palsgrave, and Mary, labelled to show the different places where they anchored.


The sound of authorities

Each item which the Qatar project catalogues has authority terms linked to it, which list the main subjects and places connected to the item. As each item is dated, it is possible to trace trends in subjects and places over time by assigning the dates of the items to the authority terms. Each authority term ends up with a list of dates when it was mentioned. By assigning different instruments to the different authorities, it is possible to hear how they are connected to each other.

This sound file contains the sounds of places connected with the trade in enslaved people, and how they intersect with the authority term ‘slave trade’. The file begins in 1700 and finishes in 1900. One of the advantages of sonification is that the silence is as eloquent as the data. The authority terms are mentioned more at the end of the time period than the start, and so the piece becomes noisier as the British increasingly concern themselves with these areas. The pitch of the instruments is determined, in this instance, by the months of the records in which they are mentioned.


The authority terms are represented by these instruments:

Anjouan: piccolo

Madagascar: cello

Zanzibar: horn

Mauritius: piano

Slave Trade: tubular bell


Listening for ships


This piece follows the journeys of three ships from March 1633 to January 1637. In this example, the pitch is important because it represents longitude; the further east the ships travel, the higher the pitch. The Discovery and the Palsgrave mostly travelled together from Gravesend to India, and they both made frequent trips between the Gulf and India. The Mary set out from England in April 1636 to begin her own journey to India. The notes represent the time the ships spent in harbour, and the silence is the time spent at sea. The Discovery is represented by the flute, the Palsgrave by the violin, and the Mary by the horn.

23 September 2020

Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts

For many people, our personal understanding of time has been challenged during the covid-19 pandemic, with minutes, hours and days of the week seeming to all merge together into "blursday", without our previous pre covid-19 routines to help us mark points in time.

Talking of time, the AHRC-funded Chronotopic Cartographies research project has spent the last few years investigating how we might use digital tools to analyse, map, and visualise the spaces, places and time within literary texts. It draws on the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the 'chronotope': a way of describing how time and place are linked and represented in different literary genres.

To showcase research from this project, next Tuesday (29th September 2020) we are co-hosting with them an online interdisciplinary conference: "Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts". 

Many blue dots connected with purple lines, behind text saying Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts

The "Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts" registration page is here. Once you have signed up, you will receive an email with links to recorded keynotes and webinar sessions. You will also received an email with links to the Flickr wall of virtual research posters and hangout spaces, on the morning of the conference.

The conference will go live from 09.00 BST, all webinars and live Q&A sessions will be held in Microsoft Teams. If you don't have Teams installed, you can do so before the event here. We appreciate that many participants will be joining from different time zones and that attendees may want to dip in and out of sessions; so please join at whatever pace suits you.

Our keynote speakers: James Kneale, Anders Engberg-Pederson and Robert T. Tally Jr have provided recordings of their presentations and will be joining the event for live Q&A sessions over the course of the day. You can watch the keynote recordings at any time, but if you want to have the conference experience, then log in to the webinars at the times below so you can participate "live" across the day. Q&A sessions will be held after each keynote at the times below. 


9.00 BST: Conference goes live, keynotes and posters available online, urls sent via email.

9.30: Short introduction and welcome from Sally Bushell

10.00-11.00: First Keynote: James Kneale

11.00-11.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Rebecca Hutcheon)

2.00-3.00: Second Keynote: Anders Engberg-Pedersen

3.00-3.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Duncan Hay)

5.00-6.00: Third Keynote: Robert T. Tally Jr

6.00-6.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Sally Bushell)

In the breaks between sessions, please do browse the online Flickr wall of research posters and hang out in conference virtual chat room.

We very much look forward to seeing you on-screen, on the day (remember it is Tuesday, not Blursday!).

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

18 September 2020

Hiring a new Wikimedian in Residence

Are you passionate about helping people and organisations build and preserve open knowledge to share and use freely? Have you got experience organising online events, workshops and training sessions? Then you may be interested in applying to be our new Wikimedian in Residence.

In collaboration with Wikimedia UK, the British Library is working on contributing and improving content, data, and metadata, across the Wikimedia family of platforms.

I recently ran a “World of Wikimedia” series of remote guest lectures for Library staff, to inspire my colleagues, and to further assist with this work, the Library is hiring a Wikimedian in Residence to join the Digital Scholarship team, on a part-time basis (18 hours per week) for 12 months.

8 people standing outside the entrance of the British Library
A Wikipedians in Residence group photo, taken at GLAMcamp London, 15-16 September 2012 (photo by Rock drum, Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Since hosting a successful Wikipedian in Residence in 2012 (this was Andrew Gray, who is standing second in from the right in the above photo, you can read about his residency here), many staff across the British Library have engaged with Wikimedia projects, holding edit-a-thons, and adding digital collections to Wikimedia Commons.

Now, with generous funding from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, we are looking for a proactive and self-motivated individual who can coordinate and support these activities. Furthermore, we are hoping for someone who can really help the Library to actively engage with the Wikidata, Wikibase and Wikisource platforms and communities. Increasing the visibility and enrichment of data, collections, and research materials, which the Library holds about underrepresented populations.

If this sounds like something you can do, then please do apply. The vacancy ref is 03423, closing date is 8th October 2020 and the interview date is 23rd October 2020. The post is part time 2.5 days per week, for 12 months, and initially work will be done remotely, in light of the current COVID 19 situation. However, longer term, it is likely that there will be a mix of remote and on site working.

During my time working in the Library, we have hosted a number of wonderful residencies, including Christopher Green, Rob Sherman and Sarah Cole, who each brought fresh skills, knowledge and enthusiasm, into the Library. So I very much hope that this new residency will do the same.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom