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

26 October 2021

On Digital Technologies, Our Cultural Heritage and Global Warming. How do they come together in Venice?

Global warming does not affect only the environment, it affects the entire system we live in. We can’t think of it as detached from gender, social and racial inequalities. Neither as something separated from our cultural heritage. For this reason, when we think about actions we shouldn’t focus only on emissions reductions, but also think about how to preserve our cultural and artistic production and learn how this, with the aid of new technologies, can help us find new ways to shape our future.

Last year, during my spare time, with the help of Marco Magini (writer and environmental policy adviser), Paolo Nelli (writer) and Maddalena Vatti (producer) I started investigating what role digital technologies play in a city like Venice, which is notoriously under the threat of rising waters, and even more so with the increased global warming.

On the 13th of November 2019 an exceptional acqua alta (a high tide) hit the city bringing one of the worst devastation of the last century. Various archives, buildings, commercial activities, homes and cultural venues were damaged. This prompted a question: what can we understand from an event like this? Is the case of Venice an isolated one or is it a cautionary tale for humanity? After all Venice is not the only city which is sinking and where rising tides threaten to unravel the urban fabric. We should not simply mourn the devastation and start to repair the damage, we should consider the event as an opportunity to think about the direct impact of global warming on our cultural heritage and what we can do to reduce it.

While conducting interviews with scholars, experts, professionals and citizens with the aim of producing a podcast, we slowly came to understand the role and potential of digital technologies in the study of the evolution of a city in respect to changing climate and urban conditions, as well as the role these play in its preservation.

Digital preservation, 3D rendering and water sensors

A fantastic example of digital preservation  is the one carried out  between the 6th and 17th of July 2020 by a team from the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation in collaboration with the Cini Foundation, EPFL and Iconem (https://www.factumfoundation.org/pag/1640/recording-the-island-of-san-giorgio-maggiore). They spent twelve days in Venice recording the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore in its entirety. The result was a virtual rendering of the island made using a mix of LID long-range LIDAR scanning to capture the overall shape of the buildings, external and internal views and high resolution photogrammetry to add the surface detail to that. The island was recorded from more than 600 different recording spots, from which a massive 60.000 million-point cloud was generated. The data acquired through photogrammetry is currently being merged with the point-clouds with the aim of creating a 3D model of the whole island.

two images of the same statue side by side, the one on the right uses high resolution photogrammetry
First (right) and final (right) data processing of the render of one the statues on the façade © Factum Foundation for ARCHiVe

This massive work enabled researchers to study the sculptures and the inscriptions that are high up on the facade of San Giorgio but also to analyse the way that the plaster covering the walls was being affected by salt and peeling off.

Thanks to these data it is now possible to carry out really detailed recording of the breakdown of a surface and also monitor the speed at which the cobalt coverings are being blown off by the salt, the speed of decay, to really look and create data to discuss how best to preserve the material heritage on the island.

Camera obscura, painting and digital image analysis: what can the past tell us about the present and the future

It is also possible to use paintings and buildings to look at the past to learn our present. In fact, these artifacts can unconsciously record events and phenomena that postdate their own creation, carrying them into the future.

The researcher in atmospheric physics and cultural heritage Dario Camuffo has conducted a scientific analysis of the works of Venetian painters, Canaletto in particular, depicting buildings and compared them with the state of the very same buildings today in an attempt to calculate the impact of land subsidence in Venice.

Painting of The Grand Canal in Venice
Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768) - The Grand Canal looking East from the Carità towards the Bacino

As professor Camuffo has written, “in general paintings provide a qualitative image, but in Venice’s case, a quantitative evaluation of the apparent sea level rise is possible, thanks to accurate paintings by Canaletto and Bellotto, drawn with the aid of the camera obscura. The paintings accurately reproduce all of the details with a high degree of precision, including the algae belt. […] By analysing these paintings, and comparing them with the algae level we see today, we can extend our knowledge of Venice’s submersion, reaching back in time almost as far back as three centuries.”

How many stories and information are buried in the archives? Deep learning image analysis can help to reveal them, we just need to think creatively.

Maps and algorithms, space syntax, literature and architecture

Maps and literature can also reveal more stories about a city than we think.

UCL/Bartlett Institute Professor Sophia Psarra, drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Le Corbusier’s discarded project for the Venice Hospital, has studied the urban evolution of Venice computing the distribution and distances between bridges, calli (=tiny alleys), squares and wells over time. The analysis, which is based on the approaches developed within the world of space syntax, has shown that Venice has and still evolves as a system that resembles a highly probabilistic ‘algorithm’.

What seems a chaotic evolution is in fact the result of the interaction between space and social activity. Maps and data analysis can reveal the modularity of a city and the traces of how social activities have interacted and forged the space. These can help see new connections between literary imagination and the evolution of our society but also help us understand how we can imagine a future which is affected by growing uncertainties.

Digital technologies applied to our cultural heritage as these three examples have shown are an aid to study the past and imagine the future. They can help understand how we as a society can evolve, but also how all our cultural productions are sources of incredible information if we know how to look at them. We can measure the impact of global warming on our cultural artifacts and try to imagine a better future.

To know more on the role of Venice as a vantage point from where to look at the growing emergencies surrounding us –– environmental, cultural, social, and technological –– you can listen to the podcast The Fifth Siren (thefifthsiren.com) and join us for a British Library free online event on Monday 8th November with Professor Sophia Psarra and architectural artists Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine. More info here: https://www.bl.uk/events/venice-tales-of-a-sinking-city.

This post is by Dr Giorgia Tolfo (@giorgiatolfo), Data and Content Manager for the Living with Machines project.

22 October 2021

Thought Bubble 2021 Wikithon

We are so excited to be working with Thought Bubble and our friends at Leeds Libraries to run our first in-person Wikithon since this residency started. Thought Bubble is an amazing comics festival spread across Yorkshire, culminating in a two day convention in Harrogate, where the British Library will be having a stall and curating a panel discussion, more details about these can be found here.

Thought Bubble Comic Convention Banner

The Thought Bubble website sums it up best when it says: ‘[w]e use our festival week to promote the power of comics! We believe they can inspire, educate and bring people together like no other medium [...]’. We at the library quite agree.

On Thursday November 11, from 1.30pm to 4.30pm, we’ll be taking up residence in the Sanderson Room of Leeds Central Library to demonstrate how to update, create and improve Wikipedia articles, and we'll even dabble in a bit of basic Wikidata editing for those who are interested. The Comics Wikithon event is free, but please book here.

Photograph of Leeds Central Library on a clear sunny day
Leeds Central Library by Lad 2011, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We’ll be focusing on underrepresented and marginalised voices in graphic novels and comics. We’re particularly interested in exploring the way Black, Asian and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBTQ+ creators and characters, and want to amplify representation at all levels!

As with all our Wikithons, no previous experience of editing Wikipedia is required. If you can write an email, you can edit Wikipedia! Whether it’s Widdershins, The Walking Dead or Wolverine that you like best, come along and learn some new skills and expand your comic horizons.

For those of you keen to get started, we’ll be following up next week with a blog post on how to get set up for the event. In the meantime you can freely register for the Comics Wikithon event here. 

This post is by Wikimedian in Residence Lucy Hinnie (@BL_Wikimedian).

07 October 2021

You Can Now Make Your Own Online British Library Exhibit with IIIF

The Digital Scholarship Training Programme is an internal, bespoke staff training programme that provides colleagues with the space and opportunity to delve into and explore all that digital content and new technologies have to offer in the research domain today. One of the events that occurs monthly is our Hack & Yack -  a casual, hands-on session to work through an online tutorial at everyone's own pace but with support of colleagues.

In April 2021, our Hack & Yack was based around the topic of ‘Making interactive online exhibits and teaching resources with IIIF Manifests!’ by exploring the tool Exhibit. This tool was created during the COVID-19 pandemic by the University of St Andrews, and allows people to build online exhibits using objects in the Universal Viewer. We realized that with the vast amounts of digitised collections here at the BL, this tool allowed a real opportunity to continue engaging with our audiences through this online, so we gathered to chat and learn.

There was some trial and error at the start of the session - how do you find IIIF manifests, how do you link to a specific page instead of a collection, and what’s the best practice for highlighting and annotating specific details? As we worked our way through these questions, one thing was abundantly clear, the Exhibit tool was intuitive and easy to use once you could work your way around IIIF. 

 

So, what is IIIF?

IIIF stands for the International Image Interoperability Framework. The IIIF website further defines it as:

  • A set of open standards that help archives, libraries, and museums make the most of their digitized collections with deep zoom, annotation capabilities, and more, and
  • The community of users and developers who work everyday to enrich the IIIF ecosystem and advocate for its adoption.

This framework ‘enables better, faster and cheaper image delivery’, and ‘gives users a rich set of baseline functionality for viewing, zooming, and assembling the best mix of resources and tools to view, compare, manipulate and work with images on the Web, an experience made portable–shareable, citable, and embeddable (https://iiif.io/community/faq/#what-is-iiif).’ It’s this exact functionality that allows Exhibit to work so flawlessly. Once an image with a IIIF manifest has been uploaded into Exhibit.so, the creator of the exhibit can zoom in on details, and add annotations for the viewer like in the following gif.

An animated gif showing how Exhibit zooms in on details like a signature and provides annotations about the detail, like ‘a verified Austen signature sold for £23,750 at auction in 2014’.
Click on the image to play an animated gif displaying the first few details of the Jane Austen Exhibit on Exhibit.so

 

How to find & use IIIF Manifests

The British Library has just launched a brand new IIIF Collection Guide which is an excellent starting point when looking for images within our main catalogue and our archives and manuscript collections with IIIF standards. More discovery searches from other institutions can be found on IIIF’s GitHub Awesome IIIF

Staff from the Library's Heritage Made Digital programme, which is digitising parts of our collection that have never been made available online before or are underrepresented in our online collections, have created the following video that shows how you can find and copy the IIIF manifest from the British Library’s Universal Viewer. 

Once you have found the IIIF manifest URL, you can paste it into various tools to view the content, for example the Exhibit tool.

 

How does IIIF work with Exhibit.so?

Exhibit works with digitised photos and objects with IIIF standards to enable the creator to tell a story while displaying the digitised collection. The service is free to use and doesn’t require a login, all you have to do is find your material and get started! Exhibit has created a whole help section, including how to get started and how to create an Exhibit. The creator of the exhibit can have the watcher flip through a book with added annotations describing what they’re looking at, before switching over to photographs, or even highlighting 3D digitised objects. 

For example, in the Jane Austen: Books and Bibliography exhibit, we flip through manuscripts and books by Austen, see paintings and photographs related to her life, and are shown a 3D model of Austen’s writing desk that is held here at the BL. All of this helps the creator to tell the story of who Jane Austen was and why these objects and images are important. 

Several members of the Heritage Made Digital team came along to our Hack & Yack on Exhibit.so and quickly realised the power it could have in making some of their digitised collections more accessible. Curators can share their favourite items and collections with interesting facts for the public. And that’s exactly what four members of the team have done. 

 

Creating Exhibits: Catherine Cronin, Eyob Derillo, Kate Thomas, and Sara Hale

The Heritage Made Digital Portfolio is transforming digital access to the British Library’s renowned collections of rare books, manuscripts, early newspapers, sound recordings and other heritage materials, in keeping with the Library’s Living Knowledge vision.

Part of this Portfolio is The Heritage Made Digital Digitisation and Ingest Programme which is tasked with making available 20 years worth of digitised content in IIIF; digitising and making available new content in IIIF, and streamlining current digitisation workflows across the Library. We are excited by the tool Exhibit’s ability to showcase the Library’s digital items; to educate and inspire users about what is available, to encourage the reuse of our collection items worldwide, to aid research, teaching and for pleasure. 

 

Exhibit on The Miracles of Mary

One of the biggest additions to our digital collections are the 300 Ethiopian Manuscripts digitised as part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital programme and made available in 2019. These rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts date mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are predominantly written in the classical Ethiopian language Ge'ez. The digitised collection is currently available on a legacy viewer called Digitised Manuscripts (search Ethiopian). There are 18 Ethiopian manuscripts available now in IIIF here, and we will be making the rest of the collection available in IIIF over the coming year.

Click to view on Exhibit.so

Eyob Derillo, Curator Ethiopian Collections, has created the above Exhibit focusing on a few of the stories from The Miracles of Mary, Or 641. The original Ethiopian title of this manuscript is ታምረ ማርያም; it contains forty stories, with illustrations of the miracles the Virgin Mary performed. 

To date, the British Library's Heritage Made Digital programme has digitised about 23 Miracles of Mary, Maqdala manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church holds the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in a unique position; Mary is regarded as the highest saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Mary is commemorated every month and there are more than thirty feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary in one year. The miracles of Mary are read during the Festivals of the Virgin, arranged according to the different days. 

This illuminated manuscript, produced in Gonder, Ethiopia, is a superb example of 17th century Gondarine art, which was a period of artistic blooming. A portion of the manuscript (ff. 30—236) was written in Gonder during the reign of king Fasildas, A.D. 1632—67.  The name of king Fasildas which appeared in the manuscript, was erased and replaced with his successor king John (I., A.D. 1667).

 

Exhibit on The Mirror of the World

Kate Thomas’ Exhibit takes images from our copies of The Mirror of the World, focusing on the diagrams that illustrate Gautier’s text.

Kate’s role at the British Library involves quality control of images for our Digitised Manuscripts and Universal Viewer websites, including the project to digitise incunabula: books from the early years of western print.  This involves the digitisation, from cover to cover, of all our incunabula from England, and of those from other European countries where we hold the only surviving copy.  We have published over 480 items from this project, available through our catalogue here: navigate to the ‘I want this’ tab.  You can find out more about the library’s collection of early printed books in this guide, and by searching the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue.

Click to view on Exhibit.so

Through her work, Kate noticed that we had digitised three English copies of Gautier of Metz's L'Image du monde, known in English as The Mirror of the World, a medieval text on the nature of the earth and the solar system (you can read a twentieth-century edition of Caxton’s printed copy at archive.org).  This text was written in Latin in the mid-thirteenth century but was translated into many languages: the British Library holds an early manuscript version in French prose, Sloane MS 2435The fact that printed copies of the English translation were still being made in the fifteenth century shows the ongoing interest in Gautier's work.  These were of particular interest to Kate as she has an academic background in medieval English literature, including in medieval science and medicine.

L'image du monde is an especially good candidate for digitisation, as it contains a number of diagrams which illustrate medieval conceptions of physics and astronomy.  In these, we can see that people had all kinds of ideas about the nature of the world, some of which later turned out to be incorrect, but others of which were nearer to the truth than might be supposed.  Medieval scholars did not think that the earth was flat!

 

Exhibit on Japanese Design Books

In 2020 the British Library digitised its collection of Japanese Design Books and is currently making them available online in IIIF. Dating from the mid-17th century to the early 20th century, the collection comprises woodblock-printed books and manuscripts ranging from practical manuals and pattern books produced by textile manufacturers and merchants to lavish design books. The books are visually stunning and include textile, toy and sweet designs. Around 80 were digitised and they are still being published online. You can find a list of links to what’s available now in this Japanese Design Books collection guide.

Click to view on Exhibit.so

Sara Hale chose the items for her Exhibit based on this blog about the Library’s ‘Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design’ exhibition in 2020 by the collection curator Hamish Todd. Sara says: ‘The selection really highlights the development of the design books as a genre, from quite basic early pattern books to the lavish kimono designs featured in the early 20th century books. But I also included the books of Japanese confectionery designs because I love them! They are so colourful and interesting. I love how the sweets often masquerade as other things, such as plants, flowers and animals. My personal favourite is the ray fish in ORB.40/1142 volume 2. Browse through yourself to see what else you can find.’

We would love to see what you would choose to showcase in your own online exhibition from our IIIF collections, share your Exhibits with us on Twitter @BL_MadeDigital and @BL_DigiSchool.

This blog post was written by Deirdre Sullivan, Business Support Officer for Digital Scholarship Training Initiatives, Catherine Cronin, Digitisation Workflow Officer for Heritage Made Digital, Eyob Derillo, Curator, Ethiopic & Ethiopian Collection, Kate Thomas, Digitisation Support Officer for Heritage Made Digital, and Sara Hale, Digitisation Workflow Officer for Heritage Made Digital. With special thanks to Nora McGregor, Digital Curator, and Sandra Tuppen, Heritage Made Digital Portfolio Manager, for the support on this post.