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16 July 2024

'AI and the Digital Humanities' session at CILIP's 2024 conference

Digital Curator Mia Ridge writes... I was invited to chair a session on 'AI and the digital humanities' at CILIP's 2024 conference with Ciaran Talbot (Associate Director AI & Ideas Adoption, University of Manchester Library) and Glen Robson (IIIF Technical Co-ordinator, International Image Interoperability Framework Consortium). Here's a quick post with some reflections on themes in the presentations and the audience Q&A.

A woman stands on stage in front of slides; two men sit at a panel table on the stage
CILIP's photo of our session

I presented a brief overview of some of the natural language processing (NLP) and computer vision methods in the Living with Machines project. That project and other work at the British Library showed that researchers can create innovative Digital Humanities methods and improve collections data with current AI / machine learning tools. But is there a gap between 'utilities' and 'cutting edge research' that AI can't (yet) fill for libraries?

AI (machine learning) makes library, museum and archive collections more accessible in two key ways. Firstly, more and better metadata and links across collections can make individual items more discoverable (e.g. identifying places mentioned in text; visual search to find similar images). Secondly, thinking of 'collections as data' and sharing datasets for research lets others find insights and inspiration.

Some of the value in AI might lie in the marketing power of the term - we've had the technical ability to view collections across silos for some time, but the institutional will might have lagged behind. Identifying the real gaps that AI can meet is hard, cross-institutional work - you need to understand what time-consuming work could be automated with ML/AI. Ciaran's talk gave a sense of the collaborative, co-creative effort required to understand actual processes and real problems and devise ways to optimise them. An 'anarchy' phase might be part of that process, and a roadmap can help set a shared vision as you work out where AI tools will actually save time or just create more but different work.

Glen gave some great examples of how IIIF can help organisations and researchers, and how AI tools might work with IIIF collections. He highlighted the intellectual property questions that 'open access' collections being mined for AI models raises, and pointed people to HaveIBeenTrained to see if their collections have been scraped.

I was struck by the delicate balance between maintaining trust and secure provenance while also supporting creative and playful uses of AI in collections. Labelling generative AI images and texts is vital. Detecting subtle errors and structural biases requires effort and expertise. As a sector, we need to keep learning, talking and collaborating to understand what generative AI means for users and collection holders.

The first question from the audience was about the environmental impact of AI. I was able to say that our work-in-progress principles for AI at the British Library ask people to consider the environmental impact of AI (not just its carbon footprint, but also water usage and rare minerals mining) in balance with other questions of public value for proposed experiments and projects. Ciaran said that Manchester have appointed a sustainability manager, which is probably something we'll see more of in future. There was a question about what employers are looking for in library and informatics students; about where to go for information and inspiration about AI in libraries (AI4LAM is a good start); and about how to update people's perceptions of libraries and the skills of library professionals.

Thanks to everyone at CILIP for all the work they put into the conference, and the fantastic AV team working in the keynote room at the Birmingham Hilton Metropole.


08 July 2024

Embracing Sustainability at the British Library: Insights from the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition Workshop

This blog post is by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, British Library. She's on Mastodon as @[email protected]. 


Sustainability has become a core value at the British Library, driven by our staff-led Sustainability Group and bolstered by the addition of a dedicated Sustainability Manager nearly a year ago. As part of our ongoing commitment to environmental responsibility, we have been exploring various initiatives to reduce our environmental footprint. One such initiative is our engagement with the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition (DHCC), a collaborative and cross-institutional effort focused on understanding and minimising the environmental impact of digital humanities research.

Screenshot from the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition website
Screenshot from the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition website

Discovering the DHCC and its toolkit

The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition (DHCC) has been on my radar for some time, primarily due to their exemplary work in promoting sustainable digital practices. The DHCC toolkit, in particular, has proven to be an invaluable resource. Designed to help individuals and organisations make more environmentally conscious digital choices, the toolkit offers practical guidance for building sustainable digital humanities projects. It encourages researchers to adopt climate-responsible practices and supports those who may lack the practical knowledge to devise greener initiatives.

The toolkit is comprehensive, providing tips on the planning and management of research infrastructure and data. It aims to empower researchers to make climate-friendly technological decisions, thereby fostering a culture of sustainability within the digital humanities community.

My primary goal in leveraging the DHCC toolkit is to raise awareness about the environmental impact of digital work and technology use. By doing so, I hope to empower Library staff to make informed decisions that contribute to our sustainability goals. The toolkit’s insights are crucial for anyone involved in digital research, offering both strategic guidance and practical tips for minimising ecological footprints.

Planning a workshop at the British Library

With the support of our Research Development team, I organised a one-day workshop at the British Library, inviting Professor James Baker, Director of Digital Humanities at the University of Southampton and a member of the DHCC, to lead the event. The workshop was designed to introduce the DHCC toolkit and provide guidance on implementing best practices in research projects. The in-person, full-day workshop was held on 5 February 2024.

Workshop highlights

The workshop featured four key sessions:

Session 1: Introductions and Framing: We began with an overview of the DHCC and its work within the GLAM sector, followed by an introduction to sustainability at the British Library, the roles that libraries play in reducing carbon footprint and awareness raising, the Green Libraries Campaign (of which the British Library was a founding partner), and perspectives on digital humanities and the use of computational methods.

CILIP’s Green Libraries Campaign banner
CILIP’s Green Libraries Campaign banner

Session 2: Toolkit Overview: Prof Baker introduced the DHCC toolkit, highlighting its main components and practical applications, focusing on grant writing (e.g. recommendations on designing research projects, including Data Management Plans), and working practices (guidance on reducing energy consumption in day-to-day working life, e.g. communication and shared working, travel, and publishing and preserving data). The session included responses from relevant Library teams, on topics such as research project design, data management and our shared research repository.

DHCC publication cover: A Reseacher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan
DHCC Information, Measurement and Practice Action Group. (2022). A Researcher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan (v0.6). Zenodo.

Session 3: Advocacy and Influencing: This session focused on strategies for advocating for sustainable practices within one's organisation and influencing others to adopt these practices. We covered the Library’s staff-led Sustainability Group and its activities, after which participants were then asked to consider the actions that could be taken at the Library and beyond, taking into account the types of people that might be influenced (senior leaders, colleagues, peers in wider networks/community).

Session 4: Feedback and Next Steps: Participants discussed their takeaways from the workshop and identified actionable steps they could implement in their work. This session included conversations on ways to translate workshop learnings into concrete next steps, and generated light ‘commitments’ for the next week, month and year. One fun way to set oneself a yearly reminder is to schedule an eco-friendly e-card to send to yourself in a year!

Post-workshop follow-up

Three months after the workshop had taken place, we conducted a follow-up survey to gauge its impact. The survey included a mix of agree/disagree statements (see chart below) and optional long-form questions to capture more detailed feedback. While we had only a few responses, survey results were constructive and positive. Participants appreciated the practical insights and reported better awareness of sustainable practices in their digital work.

Participants’ agree/disagree ratings for a series of statements about the DHCC workshop’s impact
Participants’ agree/disagree ratings for a series of statements about the DHCC workshop’s impact

Judging from responses to the set of statements above, at least several participants have embedded toolkit recommendations, made specific changes in their work, shared knowledge and influenced their wider networks. We got additional details on these actions in responses to the open-ended questions that followed.

What did staff members say?

Here are some comments made in relation to making changes and embedding the DHCC toolkit’s recommendation:

“Changes made to working policy and practice to order vegetarian options as standard for events.”

“I have referenced the toolkit in a chapter submitted for a monograph, in relation to my BL/university research.”

“I have discussed the toolkit's recommendations with colleagues re the projects I am currently working on. We agreed which parts of the projects were most carbon intensive and discussed ways to mitigate that.”

“I recommended a workshop on the toolkit to my [research] funding body.”

“Have engaged more with small impacts - less email traffic, fewer attachments, fewer images.”

A couple of comments were made with regard to challenges or barriers to change making. One was about colleagues being reluctant to decrease flying, or travel in general, as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. The second point referred to an uncertainty on how to influence internal discussions on software development infrastructure – highlighting the challenge of finding the right path to the right people.

An interesting comment was made in relation to raising environmental concerns and advocating the Toolkit:

“Shared the toolkit with wider professional network at an event at which environmentally conscious and sustainable practices were raised without prompting. Toolkit was well received with expressions of relief that others are thinking along these lines and taking practical steps to help progress the agenda.”

And finally, an excellent point about the energy-intensive use of ChatGPT (or other LLMs), which was covered at the workshop:

“The thing that has stayed with me is what was said about water consumption needed to cool the supercomputers - how every time you run one of those Chat GPT (or equivalent) queries it is the equivalent of throwing a litre of water out the window, and that Microsoft's water use has gone up 30%. I've now been saying this every time someone tells me to use one of these GPT searches. To be honest it has put me off using them completely.”

In summary

The DHCC workshop at the British Library was a great success, underscoring the importance of sustainability in digital humanities, digital projects and digital working. By leveraging the DHCC toolkit, we have taken important steps toward making our digital practices more environmentally responsible, and spreading the word across internal and external networks. Moving forward, we will continue to build on this momentum, fostering a culture of sustainability and empowering our staff to make informed, climate-friendly decisions.

Thank you to workshop contributors, organisers and helpers:

James Baker, Joely Fake, Maja Maricevic, Catherine Ross, Andy Rackley, Jez Cope, Jenny Basford, Graeme Bentley, Stephen White, Bianca Miranda Cardoso, Sarah Kirk-Browne, Andrea Deri, and Deirdre Sullivan.


04 July 2024

DHBN 2024 - Digital Humanities in the Nordic and Baltic Countries Conference Report

This is a joint blog post by Helena Byrne, Curator of Web Archives, Harry Lloyd, Research Software Engineer, and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curator.

Conference banner showing Icelandic landscape with mountains
This year’s Digital Humanities in the Nordic and Baltic countries conference took place at the University of Iceland School of Education in Reykjavik. It was the eight conference which was established in 2016, but the first time it was held in Iceland. The theme for the conference was “From Experimentation to Experience: Lessons Learned from the Intersections between Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage”. There were pre-conference workshops from May 27-29 with the main conference starting on the afternoon of May 29 and finishing on May 31. In her excellent opening keynote Sally Chambers, Head of Research Infrastructure Services at the British Library, discussed the complex research and innovation data space for cultural heritage. Three British Library colleagues report highlights of their conference experience in this blog post.

Helena Byrne, Curator of Web Archives, Contemporary British & Irish Publications.

I presented in the Born Digital session held on May 28. There were four presentations in this session and three were related to web archiving and one related to Twitter (X) data. I co-presented ‘Understanding the Challenges for the Use of Web Archives in Academic Research’. This presentation examined the challenges for the use of web archives in academic research through a synthesis of the findings from two research studies that were published through the WARCnet research network. There was lots of discussion after the presentation on how web archives could be used as a research data management tool to help manage online citations in academic publications.

Helena presenting to an audience during the conference session on born-digital archives
Helena presenting in the born-digital archives session

The conference programme was very strong and there were many takeaways that relate to my role. One strong theme was ‘collections as data’. At the UK Web Archive we have just started to publish some of our inactive curated collections as data. So these discussions were very useful. One highlight was thePanel: Publication and reuse of digital collections: A GLAM Labs approach’. What stood out for me in this session was the checklist for publishing collections as data. It was very reassuring to see that we had pretty much everything covered for the release of the UK Web Archive datasets.

Rossitza and I were kindly offered a tour of the National and University Library of Iceland by Kristinn Sigurðsson, Head of Digital Projects and Development. We enjoyed meeting curatorial staff from the Special Collections who showed us some of the historical maps of Iceland that have been digitised. We also visited the digitisation studio to see how they process periodicals, and spoke to staff involved with web archiving. Thank you to Kristinn and his colleagues for this opportunity to learn about the library’s collections and digital services.

Rossitza and Helena standing by the moat outside the National Library of Iceland building
Rossitza and Helena outside the National and University Library of Iceland


Inscription in Icelandic reading National and University Library of Iceland outside the Library building
The National and University Library of Iceland

Harry Lloyd, Research Software Engineer, Digital Research.

DHNB2024 was a rich conference from my perspective as a research software engineer. Sally Chambers’ opening keynote on Wednesday afternoon demonstrated an extraordinary grasp of the landscape of digital cultural heritage across the EU. By this point there had already been a day and a half of workshops, including a session Rossitza and I presented on Catalogues as Data

I spent the first half using a Jupyter notebook to explain how we extracted entries from an OCR’d version of the catalogue of the British Library’s collection of 15th century books. We used an explainable algorithm rather than a ‘black-box’ machine learning one, so we walked through the steps involved and discussed where it worked well and where it could be improved. You can follow along by clicking the ‘launch notebook’ button in the ReadMe here

Harry pointing to an image from the catalogue of printed books on a screen for the workshop audience
Harry explaining text recognition results during the workshop

Handing over to Rossitza in the second half to discuss her corpus linguistic analysis worked really well by giving attendees a feel for the complete workflow. This really showed in some great conversations we had with attendees over the following days about tricky problems like where to store the ‘true’ results of OCR. 

A few highlights from the rest of the conference were Clelia LaMonica’s work using Latin large language model to analyse kinship in texts from Medieval Burgundy. Large language models trained on historic texts are important as the majority are trained on modern material and struggle with historical language. Jørgen Burchardt presented some refreshingly quantitative work on bias across a digitised newspaper collection, very reminiscent of work by Kaspar Beelen. Overall it was a productive few days, and I very much enjoyed my time in Reykjavik.

Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curator, Digital Research.

This was my second DHNB conference and I was looking forward to reconnecting with the community of researchers and cultural heritage practitioners, some of whom I had met at DHNB2019 in Copenhagen. Apart from the informal discussions with attendees, I contributed to DHNB2024 in two main ways.

As already mentioned, Harry and I delivered a pre-conference workshop showcasing some processes and methodology we use for working with printed catalogues as data. In the session we used the corpus tool AntConc to perform computational analysis of the descriptions for the British Library’s collection of books published in the 15th century. You can find out more about the project here and reuse the workshop materials published on Zenodo here.

I also joined the pre-conference meeting of the international GLAM Labs Community held at the National and University Library of Iceland. This was the first in-person meeting of the community in five years and was a productive session during which we brainstormed ‘100 ideas for the GLAM Labs Community’. Afterwards we had a sneak peak of the archive of the National Theatre of Iceland which is being catalogued and digitised.

The main hall of the Library with a chessboard on a table with two chairs, a statue of a man, holding spectacles and a stained glass screen.
The main hall of the Library.

The DHNB community is so welcoming and supportive, and attracts many early career digital humanists. I was particularly interested to hear from doctoral students researching the use of AI with digitised archives, and using NLP methods with historical collections. One of the projects that stood out for me was Johannes Widegren’s PhD research into the ethical use of AI to enable access and discovery of Sami cultural heritage, and to develop library and archival practice. 

I was also interested in presentations that discussed workflows for creating Named Entity Recognition resources for historical archives and I plan to try out the open-source Label Studio tool that I learned about. And of course, the poster session is always a highlight and I enjoyed finding out about a range of projects, including computational analysis of Scandinavian runic-texts, digital reconstruction of Gothenburg’s 1923 Jubilee exhibition, and training large language models to track semantic variation in climate change vocabulary in Danish news articles.

A line up of people standing in front of a screen advertising the venue for DHNB25 in Estonia
The poster presentations session chaired by Olga Holownia

We are grateful to all DHNB24 organisers for the warm welcome and a great conference experience, with special thanks to the inspirational and indefatigable Olga Holownia