Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

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

04 August 2020

Having a Hoot for International Owl Awareness Day

Who doesn’t love owls? Here at the British Library we certainly do.

Often used as a symbol of knowledge, they are the perfect library bird. A little owl is associated and frequently depicted with the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena. The University of Bath even awarded Professor Yoda the European eagle owl a library card in recognition of his valuable service deterring seagulls from nesting on their campus.

The British Library may not have issued a reader pass to an owl (as far as I am aware!), but we do have a wealth of owl sound recordings in our wildlife and environmental sounds collection, you can read about and listen to some of these here.

Little Owl calls recorded by Nigel Tucker in Somerset, England (BL ref 124857)

Owls can also be discovered in our UK Web Archive. Our UK Web Archivists recently examined the Shine dataset to explore which UK owl species is the most popular on the archived .uk domain. Read here to find out which owl is the winner.

They also curate an Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK collection, which features bird watching and some owl related websites in the Animal related hobbies subsection. If you know of websites that you think should be included in this collection, then please fill in their online nomination form.

Here in Digital Scholarship I recently found many fabulous illustrations of owls in our Mechanical Curator Flickr image collection of over a million Public Domain images. So to honour owls on International Owl Awareness Day, I put together an owl album.

These owl illustrations are freely available, without copyright restrictions, for all types of creative projects, including digital collages. My colleague Hannah Nagle blogged about making collages recently and provided this handy guide. For finding more general images of nature for your collages, you may find it useful to browse other Mechanical Curator themed albums, such as Flora & Fauna, as these are rich resources for finding illustrations of trees, plants, animals and birds.

If you creatively use our Mechanical Curator Flickr images, please do share them with us on twitter, using the hashtag #BLdigital, we always love to see what people have done with them. Plus if you use any of our owls today, remember to include the #InternationalOwlAwarenessDay hashtag too!

We also urge you to be eagle-eyed (sorry wrong bird!) and look out for some special animated owls during the 4th August, like this one below, which uses both sounds and images taken from our collections. These have been created by Carlos Rarugal, our arty Assistant Web Archivist and will shared from the WildlifeWeb Archive and Digital Scholarship Twitter accounts. 


Video created by Carlos Rarugal,  using Tawny Owl hoots recorded by Richard Margoschis in Gloucestershire, England (BL ref 09647) and British Library digitised image from page 79 of "Woodland Wild: a selection of descriptive poetry. From various authors. With ... illustrations on steel and wood, after R. Bonheur, J. Bonheur, C. Jacque, Veyrassat, Yan Dargent, and other artists"

One of the benefits of making digital art, is that there is no risks of spilling paint or glue on your furniture! As noted in this tweet from Damyanti Patel "Thanks for the instructions, my kids were entertained & I had no mess to clean up after their art so a clear win win, they really enjoyed looking through the albums". I honestly did not ask them to do this, but it is really cool that her children included this fantastic owl in the centre of one of their digital collages:

I quite enjoy it when my library life and goth life connect! During the covid-19 lockdown I have attended several online club nights. A few months ago I was delighted to see that one of these; How Did I Get Here? Alternative 80s Night! regularly uses the British Library Flickr images to create their event flyers, using illustrations of people in strange predicaments to complement the name of their club; like this sad lady sitting inside a bird cage, in the flyer below.

Their next online event is Saturday 22nd August and you can tune in here. If you are a night owl, you could even make some digital collages, while listening to some great tunes. Sounds like a great night in to me!

Illustration of a woman sitting in a bird cage with a book on the floor just outside the cage
Flyer image for How Did I Get Here? Alternative 80s Night!

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

24 July 2020

Ira Aldridge In the Spotlight

In this post, Dr Mia Ridge gives a sense of why sightings of Ira Aldridge in our historical playbills collection resonate...

Ira Aldridge is one of the most popular 'celebrity spottings' shared by volunteers working with historical playbills on our In the Spotlight project. Born on this day in New York in 1807, Aldridge was the first Black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain.

Portrait of Aldridge by James Northcote
Portrait of Aldridge by James Northcote

Educated at the African Free School and with some experience at the African Grove Theatre in New York, the teenaged Aldridge emigrated to Britain from the US in 1824 and quickly had an impact. In 1826 painter James Northcote captured him as Othello, a portrait which became the first acquisition by the Manchester Art Gallery. (If you're reading this before August 15th, you can attend an online tour exploring his work.)

While his initial reviews were mixed, he took The Times' mocking reference to him as the 'African Roscius' and used both the references to the famous Roman actor and his African ancestry in promotional playbills. Caught up in debates about the abolition of slavery and facing racism in reviews from critics about his performances in London's theatres, Aldridge toured the regions, particularly British cities with anti-slavery sympathies. He performed a range of roles, and his Shakespearean roles eventually including Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III.

From 1852, he toured Europe, particularly Germany, Poland and Russia. This 'List showing the theatres and plays in various European cities where Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius, acted during the years 1827-1867, compiled by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, shows how widely he travelled and the roles he performed.

As the 1841 playbill from Doncaster's Theatre Royal (below) shows, the tale of his African ancestry grew more creative over time. The playbill also advertises a lecture and memoirs from Aldridge on various topics. In the years around the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, he spoke powerfully and directly to audiences about the injustices of slavery and racism. Playbills like this demonstrate how Aldridge managed to both pander to and play with perceptions of 'the African'.

This is necessarily a very brief overview of Aldridge's life and impact but I hope it's given you a sense of why it's so exciting to catch a glimpse of Aldridge in our collections.

Screenshot of historical playbill

Sources used and further reading include:

My thanks to everyone who suggested references for this post, in particular: Christian Algar, Naomi Billingsley, Nora McGregor, Susan Reed from the British Library; Dorothy Berry from the Houghton Library at Harvard and In the Spotlight participants including beccabooks10, Nosnibor3, Elizabeth Danskin (who shared a link to this video about his daughter, Amanda Aldridge), Nicola Hayes, and Sylvia Morris (who has written extensively about Aldridge on her blog).

Post by Mia Ridge, Digital Curator, Western Heritage Collections.

22 July 2020

World of Wikimedia

During recent months of working from home, the Wikimedia family of platforms, including Wikidata and Wikisource, have enabled many librarians and archivists to do meaningful work, to enhance and amplify access to the collections that they curate.

I’ve been very encouraged to learn from other institutions and initiatives who have been working with these platforms. So I recently invited some wonderful speakers to give a “World of Wikimedia” series of remote guest lectures for staff, to inspire my colleagues in the British Library.

Circle of logos from the Wikimedia family of platforms
Logos of the Wikimedia Family of platforms

Stuart Prior from Wikimedia UK kicked off this season with an introduction to Wikimedia and the projects within it, and how it works with galleries, libraries, archives and museums. He was followed by Dr Martin Poulter, who had been the Bodleian Library’s Wikimedian In Residence. Martin shared his knowledge of how books, authors and topics are represented in Wikidata, how Wikidata is used to drive other sites, including Wikipedia, and how Wikipedia combines data and narrative to tell the world about notable books and authors.

Continuing with the theme of books, Gavin Willshaw spoke about the benefits of using Wikisource for optical character recognition (OCR) correction and staff engagement. Giving an overview of the National Library of Scotland’s fantastic project to upload 3,000 digitised Scottish Chapbooks to Wikisource during the Covid-19 lockdown. Focusing on how the project came about, its impact, and how the Library plans to take activity in this area forward in the future.

Illustration of two 18th century men fighting with swords
Tippet is the dandy---o. The toper's advice. Picking lilies. The dying swan, shelfmark L.C.2835(14), from the National Library of Scotland's Scottish Chapbooks collection

Closing the World of Wikimedia season, Adele Vrana and Anasuya Sengupta gave an extremely thought provoking talk about Whose Knowledge? This is a global multilingual campaign, which they co-founded, to centre the knowledges of marginalised communities (the majority of the world) online. Their work includes the annual #VisibleWikiWomen campaign to make women more visible on Wikipedia, which I blogged about recently.

One of the silver linings of the covid-19 lockdown has been that I’ve been able to attend a number of virtual events, which I would not have been able to travel to, if they had been physical events. These have included LD4 Wikidata Affinity Group online meetings; which is a biweekly zoom call on Tuesdays at 9am PDT (5pm BST).

I’ve also remotely attended some excellent online training sessions: “Teaching with Wikipedia: a practical 'how to' workshop” ran by Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence at The University of Edinburgh. Also “Wikimedia and Libraries - Running Online Workshops” organised by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland (CILIPS), presented by Dr Sara Thomas, Scotland Programme Coordinator for Wikimedia UK, and previously the Wikimedian in Residence at the Scottish Library and Information Council. From attending the latter, I learned of an online “How to Add Suffragettes & Women Activists to Wikipedia” half day edit-a-thon event taking place on the 4th July organised by Sara, Dr t s Beall and Clare Thompson from the Protests and Suffragettes project, this is a wonderful project, which recovers and celebrates the histories of women activists in Govan, Glasgow.

We have previously held a number of in person Wikipedia edit-a-thon events at the British Library, but this was the first time that I had attended one remotely, via Zoom, so this was a new experience for me. I was very impressed with how it had been organised, using break out rooms for newbies and more experienced editors, including multiple short comfort breaks into the schedule and having very do-able bite size tasks, which were achievable in the time available. They used a comprehensive, but easy to understand, shared spreadsheet for managing the tasks that attendees were working on. This is definitely an approach and a template that I plan to adopt and adapt for any future edit-a-thons I am involved in planning.

Furthermore, it was a very fun and friendly event, the organisers had created We Can [edit]! Zoom background template images for attendees to use, and I learned how to use twinkles on videocalls! This is when attendees raise both hands and wiggle their fingers pointing upwards, to indicate agreement with what is being said, without causing a soundclash. This hand signal has been borrowed it from the American Sign Language word for applause, it is also used by the Green Party and the Occupy Movement.

With enthusiasm fired up from my recent edit-a-thon attending experience, last Saturday I joined the online Wikimedia UK 2020 AGM. Lucy Crompton-Reid, Chief Executive of Wikimedia UK, gave updates on changes in the global Wikimedia movement, such as implementing the 2030 strategy, rebranding Wikimedia, the Universal Code of Conduct and plans for Wikipedia’s 20th birthday. Lucy also announced that three trustees Kelly Foster, Nick Poole and Doug Taylor, who stood for the board were all elected. Nick and Doug have both been on the board since July 2015 and were re-elected. I was delighted to learn that Kelly is a new trustee joining the board for the first time. As Kelly has previously been a trainer at BL Wikipedia edit-a-thon events, and she coached me to create my first Wikipedia article on Coventry godcakes at a Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women edit-a-thon in 2017.

In addition to these updates, Gavin Willshaw, gave a keynote presentation about the NLS Scottish chapbooks Wikisource project that I mentioned earlier, and there were three lightning talks: Andy Mabbett; 'Wiki Hates Newbies', Clare Thompson, Lesley Mitchell and Dr t s Beall; 'Protests and Suffragettes: Highlighting 100 years of women’s activism in Govan, Glasgow, Scotland' and Jason Evans; 'An update from Wales'.

Before the event ended, there was a 2020 Wikimedia UK annual awards announcement, where libraries and librarians did very well indeed:

  • UK Wikimedian of the Year was awarded to librarian Caroline Ball for education work and advocacy at the University of Derby (do admire her amazing Wikipedia dress in the embedded tweet below!)
  • Honourable Mention to Ian Watt for outreach work, training, and efforts around Scotland's COVID-19 data
  • Partnership of the Year was given to National Library of Scotland for the WikiSource chapbooks project led by Gavin Willshaw
  • Honourable Mention to University of Edinburgh for work in education and Wikidata
  • Up and Coming Wikimedian was a joint win to Emma Carroll for work on the Scottish Witch data project and Laura Wood Rose for work at University of Edinburgh and on the Women in Red initiative
  • Michael Maggs was given an Honorary Membership, in recognition of his very significant contribution to the charity over a number of years.

Big congratulations to all the winners. Their fantastic work, and also in Caroline's case, her fashion sense, is inspirational!

For anyone interested, the next online event that I’m planning to attend is a #WCCWiki Colloquium organised by The Women’s Classical Committee, which aims to increase the representation of women classicists on Wikipedia. Maybe I’ll virtually see you there…

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom