Digital scholarship blog

11 posts from March 2013

27 March 2013

Digital Scholarship, Resources and Research Workshop

Last week the CPD25 group, resposible for providing training for library staff in association with the M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries, organised a very estimulating workshop at the British Library focussing on various aspects of Digital Scholarship. Dr. Ernesto Priego from City University London opened the event with a presentation on the principles underlying the growing field of Digital Scholarship. According to Dr. Priego, Digital Scholarship cannot be defined as a specific research subject carried out by an identifiable group of academics using pre-established research methods, but emerges exactly by the rich confluence of various research areas and through the interaction between professionals from various fields ranging from content experts to information professionals to software developers. By applying existing IT tools to extract, compare and analyse information from large and different datasets, Digital Scholars are now able to pose new research questions and draw innovative conclusions to traditional academic hypothesis. What is more, by relying on the sharing and integration of digital content, Digital Scholarship enables wider collaboration and contribution between researchers, fostering a more open environment that moves beyond geographic and institutional boundaries.

In the second session Stella Wisdom and myself talked about some projects lead or supported by the BL Digital Research and Curator Team. Stella offered an overview of the Non-Print Legal Deposit (NPLD) legislation discussing the challenges and impact that this new law will have on the BL and other UK deposit libraries services and collections. Stella also spoke about the BL Labs competition which was officially launched this week as one of the main activities supported by the BL to promote Digital Scholarship: the goal of this project is to find new ways of exploring the Library’s vast digital resources through engagement with researchers and software developers. My own presentation was focussed on other activities and programmes lead by the our team, especially our successful Digital Scholarship Training Programme  aimed to bring BL curatorial staff up to speed with emerging digital technologies and to inform how the electronic environment is transforming the way users conduct research using library collections.

In the third session, Peter Webster gave an overview of the activities carried out by the UK Web Archive team, explaining the importance of the NLPD legislation in support of the UK Web Archive mission to harvest, archive and preserve websites published in the UK, ensuring that our national digital heritage is captured and made accessible for future generations.  

The last session was led by Jessica Mezei who gave a presentation on Mendeley showing how the platform differs from other reference management tools by offering new ways of connecting researchers and supporting collaborative work between them.

In sum, the main message conveyed across the different presentations was that Digital Scholarship goes beyond the mere adoption of electronic resources and tools by researchers. The most important (and essential, I would say) aspect of Digital Scholarship is to foster effective collaboration between researchers and developers for discovering, sharing and promoting the adoption of new ideas. 


Aquiles Alencar-Brayner

26 March 2013

Europeana Collections 1914-1918 Digitisation Project


Europeana Collections 1914-1918 will create by 2014 – the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – a substantial digital collection of material from national library collections of ten libraries and other partners in eight countries that found themselves on different sides of the historic conflict.

The First World War was a conflict on an unprecedented scale that affected the every-day lives of virtually all Europeans and many people living in other parts of the world. The memory of the war, its events and consequences, its victims and victors, remains very much alive today. It has become part of the individual and collective memory of Europe.

The letter from Daya Ram of the 2nd Lancers dated 5 July 1916, describes the conditions the Indian troops lived in. BL Ref: IOR/L/MIL/5/826/6 f.876
Free Access

The project will make over 400,000 WWI sources publicly and freely available online for the first time – content that is often rare and highly fragile because of the deteriorating quality of the paper it was produced on and generally only accessible in reading rooms.

The digital collection will span the full range of national library collections including books, newspapers, trench journals, maps, music sheets, children’s literature, photographs, posters, pamphlets, propaganda leaflets, original art, religious works, medals and coins.

The material will highlight the importance of the First World War for a common European identity and be reflective of the different experiences of individuals and groups on all sides of the conflict including different ethnic, linguistic, political, social and religious communities and those opposed to the war. It will permit new interpretations of history that go far beyond traditional military history and include artistic and cultural reinterpretation of the experiences of 1914-1918.

The Dome Hospital [Brighton], 1915 showing some of the 689 beds in the whole hospital. These beautiful seaside palaces have been converted into hospitals for Indian troops, and are fitted with every modern convenience. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. BL Ref: Photo 24(1)

The British Library will digitise 10,000 items (up to 250,000 digital images) of a wide range of material related to the First World War. Digitised content will be retrievable via the Europeana portal, as well as via the BL website, and this will form the BL’s contribution to the Europeana Collections 1914-1918. As a result of the project 10,000 BL’s catalogue records will be enhanced with rich descriptive metadata. The BL has made available so far at the Europeana portal 10,000 images from the three following collections: India Office Records, the Girdwood Collection and the Canadian Copyright Act Photographs.

For more information follow the project’s blog or visit the website

Foteini Aravani, Digitisation Project Manager for Europeana 1914-18

20 March 2013

BL Labs Launch Event

Picture of Mahendra Mahey manager of British Library Labs

I would like to introduce myself as the newest member of the British Library’s Digital Scholarship team. My name is Mahendra Mahey and I will be working as the project manager of British Library Labs, building on the work of Stella Wisdom and Nora McGregor who have been helping get things started.

Previously, I was at UKOLN at the University of Bath, where I worked on several projects. The most recent one being the Jisc funded Developer Community Supporting Innovation (DevCSI) initiative which worked with software developers and researchers in UK Further and Higher Education to help create a 'community' to facilitate the sharing of their experience, ideas and expertise in software development, through events such as Dev8D.  The project stimulated technical innovation in the sector by getting developers / researchers working with stakeholders such as librarians and academics to work on ideas, data and tools to develop prototypes, new tools and services through activities such as hack days, competitions and national / international developer challenges. Research was also carried into the value and impact that software development brings to UK Further and Higher Education. Previous projects I have worked on include; one which focussed on how UK academic institutions could manage their research information using a common European metadata standard and another supporting research in digital repositories of scholarly outputs.

Before working at the university, I was an adviser for the Jisc Regional Support Centres in the West Midlands and Scotland encouraging academics and librarians in Further and Higher education to use electronic learning resources and make effective use of e-learning technologies and techniques in their practice. For over 10 years, I worked as a lecturer of Social Sciences, Computing, Multimedia and English for Speakers of Other Languages in Further and Higher Education colleges in the UK and in Poland.

I am really excited to be involved in the British Library Labs project, which for me is about getting researchers to use their ideas, skills, experience and techniques to create new narratives from the British Library’s vast incredible digital collections from 19th Century books to archived websites and wildlife sounds to manuscripts to name but a few examples. This project will help the Library to understand the tools and services that researchers need to unlock these fascinating and diverse digital collections.

"Every book tells a story, but what can 68,000 books tell you?"

We are holding a launch event at the Library on Monday the 25th of March 2013, between 1045-1500 to promote the project. Invited speakers include:

If you are interested in coming (there are only a few places left), want to know more about the project, attend future events, have a fantastic idea, or just want to be involved, please email Also, please check out our new website, where we will be adding more information over the next few weeks. This will include details of our competitions, events and other activities where we will be encouraging you to submit ideas and to start a discussion on working in new and exciting ways to analyse and experiment with British Library collections (the website is wiki based).  Watch out for the first opportunity to participate, where you could win a £3,000 cash prize and a residency to develop your idea / research project further at the British Library in London and work with our world renowned experts.

Follow us at and this blog

twitter @BL_Labs (hash tag #BL_Labs)

or me on twitter @mahendra_mahey

19 March 2013

THATcamp and GLAM-Wiki at the British Library

On Friday 12 and Saturday 13 April, the British Library will be hosting the GLAM-Wiki conference, with two days of talks and workshops on collaboration between cultural institutions and Wikimedia, drawing on a range of worldwide perspectives. This builds on the Wikipedian in Residence program here at the Library, which we've written about here before.

On Sunday 14th, following the conference, we'll also be hosting THATcamp London, an unconference and hackathon exploring the humanities and technology.

What's a THATcamp? Here's an outline of the last event held in London, THATcamp 2010:

THATCamp London was a user-generated “unconference” that was held on *6-7 July, 2010*, just before Digital Humanities 2010. At DH2010, the world’s premiere academic conference on the Digital Humanities, one heard papers and saw presentations and perhaps gave a single talk yourself. At THATCamp, by contrast, we discussed, built, argued, shared, compared, created and hacked: every session you attended was a session in which attendees participated fully. Attending DH2010 might be compared to attending a series of fascinating formal lectures, whereas attending THATCamp London might be compared to attending a series of engaging relaxed seminars.
THATCamp Prime 6/3-6

A session at THATCamp Prime 2011, George Mason University

Some of the Library's digital curator team will be attending, along with some of the material we're pulling together for the upcoming British Library Labs project. The London area has a thriving digital-humanities community, and we'd love to see a good range of attendees there - please do think about coming along! There are still plenty of spaces, and tickets to THATcamp are free of charge.

Registration for GLAM-Wiki is open here, and the seperate registration for THATcamp is here.

18 March 2013

TreeCurator, and 3D Visualisation of Computer Directories

(or, the case of the monotomous nodes)



A screenshot of the file tree of a hard drive of John Maynard Smith using Walrus with Phylo3D

As mentioned in a blog on 1 March 2013 about the use of phylogenetic software for visualising the arrangement of directories and folders in computer media, the Newick file format is used by tree viewers to construct and present the tree. Usually phylogeneticists obtain their Newick file directly from the software that undertakes the phylogenetic analysis. In order to use phylogenetic tree viewers in another context it is necessary to create the Newick file independently.

The eMSS Lab at the British Library has been writing programs in Python for creating the necessary files in Newick format, and they may be seen as an initial component of a tool to be known as TreeCurator. In the first instance code has been directed at depicting the arrangement of computer files and folders but the same approach can also be used to show the arrangement trees of analogue objects notably the papers in a personal archive of letters, diaries and notebooks. This delivery and presentation may facilitate the integration of analogue and digital entities in a hybrid personal archive, for example.

Although Newick may be seen as a kind of standard, there is in reality quite a bit of diversity in interpretation by software and there are a number of variants such as NHX (New Hampshire Extended) and NEXUS, with their XML derivatives phyloXML and NeXML. (It is worth bearing in mind too that digital curators and preservation practitioners working with scientific archives can expect to encounter these variants in personal archives.)

There are, moreover, some important differences between file trees and phylogenetic trees. For example, computer file trees commonly have folders which contain just one folder, whereas phylogenetic trees typically have bifurcating or multifurcating nodes (a single parent with 2 or more descendants)

Some software such as FigTree seems to be able to handle monotomes (monotomous nodes with not only a single parent but also a single descendant) but other software such as Phylo3D is not able to do so, and it is necessary to adapt the Newick tree file data accordingly. 

One of the approaches towards visualising trees of objects not mentioned in the blog entry for 1 March 2013 is the use of 3D visualisation.

It is still early days in the case of phylogenetic trees and so far the emerging possibilities have had an ambivalent reception but there have been some important efforts. Among the most notable are Paloverde and Phylo3D (which makes it possible to use Walrus).




Three screenshots of the visualisations of a hard drive created using Paloverde: circle, cone, spiral

Walrus requires a special (some might say, esoteric) version of graph file format known as LibSea. (It is possible to create directory trees directly from a hard drive using the utility called dirgraph which produces LibSea files but the aim of Tree Curator and this brief exploration of 3D is to be able to maximise usability by working directly with Newick and its variants.) The tool Phylo3D was developed by Dr Timothy Hughes for converting Newick (and its relatives) to the format necessary for Walrus, and I thank him for confirming that monotomy was the issue that I needed to address in order to use his program.

Although limited in their functionality pioneering 3D tree visualisation software do illustrate the potential benefit of interactive 3D trees. In occupying the third dimension the leaf tips of the tree may be presented more compactly and in a way that suits the viewer. Indeed this is manifested in the way in which living trees occupy space in order to maximise access to sunlight and meet the gaze of the sun as it moves across the sky.

The following pictures show the file tree of a hard drive of John Maynard Smith at a number of angles and proximities using Walrus. These are static images. Active use of Walrus, allows the viewer to move the 3D image around for viewing from various directions as well as zooming in and out.



3d phylo jms cu2

3d jms cu1

Three screenshots of the file tree of a hard drive using Walrus: the lower two images are close ups

Annotation is possible but currently limited. No doubt if phylogenetic trees had always been prepared in 3D, an enterprising researcher would have invented 2D trees. In truth both have advantages and disadvantages. (For an example of discussion see the article "Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life" in a New York Times article.) Future Digital Scholarship blogs will continue the examination of potentially useful phylogenetic software in the context of computer media and digital curation.

Jeremy Leighton John, @emsscurator




15 March 2013

The demise of Google Reader: On the path to driverless information retrieval

On Wednesday, Google announced that a range of their services are to be shut down. Google Reader – once the best and easiest-to-use RSS reader (Rich Site Summary (or Really Simple Syndication)) on the Web – is to be retired on the 1st of July. On the official Google Reader Blog, Alan Green, Software Engineer, cites declining usage and how “as a company [Google are] pouring all of our energy into fewer products.”

The demise of Reader is part of a larger trend in digital content management that has wider implications for our personal collecting of digital content. We all deal with more digital information than ever before – cultivating our own personal digital collections now – and with such vast quantities of data hurled at us, we need to apply more filters to ensure that we’re not overwhelmed. RSS – retrieving all the content produced by a selected website – is a style of filtering that worked a few years ago but is increasingly less viable. Rather than filtering to selected sources, now we filter down to individual content pieces: Pocket saves individual articles for us; Twitter and Facebook provide us with links to content deemed worthy by our friends and colleagues; Digg and Reddit ensure that only content selected collectively by the wisdom of the crowd gets pushed at us. Whether this increase in filtering is good or ill is a matter of debate.

Google Reader is emblematic of Google’s old style of ‘search’; retrieving and presenting the content that its users requested. Google’s new strategy is to give you information before you have to ask. In a 2010 interview, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions… They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” This is the future for Google’s information retrieval: presenting selected and filtered content before your eyes with augmented reality Glasses; driving you to where you don’t know you need to be with robot cars; providing a smart digital assistant in the shape of Google Now (currently for Android Jelly Bean only but possibly to be extended to Google Chrome on the desktop). Google wants to help us deal with information deluge by filtering our information to a more granular extent than Google Reader ever allowed.

In an essay on information overload and the filters of modern society, David Foster Wallace wrote “…to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” Google Reader once provided that help. And now we need more help, Google will have to provide it in a different way.

Some Alternatives

In the meantime, there are alternative RSS readers available for Google Reader’s devoted user-base. First, you can rescue your data from Google Reader using the Data Liberation Front’s Google Takeout service. Then you can choose one of the following:

For the original RSS reading experience, Bloglines is still around and offers a simple dashboard interface for RSS and Atom feeds. Simple, straightforward, a classic.

Netvibes is a feature-rich Web dashboard which can aggregate all your Web content: email, Twitter, bookmarks, favourites, and RSS. It offers the reading features of Google Reader and the customisable homepage features of iGoogle (another soon-to-be-euthanized Google product).

Feedly is a Web-based interface with some slick iOS and Android apps for mobile devices. It aggregates RSS feeds in a smooth, personalisable interface. However the ‘newspaper-like’ interface may be a little too different from Reader for fans of the old interface. Plus you need to download a browser extension for either Chrome or Firefox in order to use it.

For desktop or app solutions, Reeder for iOS systems works well, Flipboard is a very image-heavy app that creates a magazine-like reading experience, and Zite on Android and iOS offers a nice simple feed view.

The best option for Google Reader acolytes might be The Old Reader. As the name suggests, this is basically the old version of Google Reader – the classic pre-2011 vintage – maintained by non-Google developers. It makes it easy to import data from Google Reader and looks pleasingly similar.

Other alternatives have been collected in this collaboratively-editable Google Docs spreadsheet and CILIP President, Phil Bradley, has collected 20 good alternatives on his blog.

Simon Barron, Business Analyst, British Library Qatar Foundation Project, @SimonXIX


12 March 2013

HUMlab at the British Library

Yesterday the British Library's Digital Research and Curator Team welcomed a group of scholars from Umeå University, Sweden. The visit was arranged by Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, who recently spoke at HUMlab, a digital research centre which is part of the humanities faculty at Umeå. During the course of their stay in the UK the Umeå group are also visiting the Digital Humanities department at KCL, the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. Sadly their time at the BL was limited to an afternoon, nonetheless before heading off on the obligatory building tour, Jeremy John, our Curator e-Manuscripts, showed the group around his eMSS lab. Housed here is the equipment used (among other things) to preserve digital artefacts, to create digital tours of the spaces artists and scientists worked in, and to access software and files on long discarded personal computers through virtual machines. For more on Jeremy’s work with digital personal manuscripts, see his recent post on ‘Phylogenetic Tree Visualisation and Annotation’.

Jeremy explaining his work to the HUMlab team.
Whilst his colleagues were looking around our St. Pancras site, Patrik Svensson, professor in the Humanities and information technology and director of HUMlab, gave a staff talk as part of our C21st Curatorship series. The talk was billed as giving an introduction to the work of HUMlab, but in addition to this covered topics as broad as using Lego to engage artists with physical computing, the materiality of the digital humanities, the installation of a huge touch-screen within floor of HUMlab, their successful seminar series, and the positive funding situation at present in the Swedish Higher Education system. This breadth is reflected in the philosophy which underpin HUMlab: to facilitate experimentation, to engage museums and cultural heritage, to integrate a variety of perspectives, to embed scholarshipwithin the physicality of the research environment. HUMlab is clearly a forward-thinking initiative and we are grateful to Patrik for offering us an insight into an exciting world of humanities scholarship.

Patrik and the HUMlab
One aspect of the talk that piqued my interest was the aforementioned floor screen. Patrik explained the rationale behind its installation in very ‘what if?’ terms: what if, he argued, projecting to a floor rather than a wall changes how we see something, how we interpret something, how we engage with something? This reminded me of a recent(ish) post by the archaeologist Shawn Graham on ‘Deformative Digital Archaeology’ where he notes that we are often hampered when interpreting GIS by a tendency to put north at the top. Not only is this seemingly natural instinct far from natural - as both the historian Jerry Brotton and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin remind us, this gaze is a western one - it is also unhelpful when analysing spatial information. As Graham writes:

“I once argued (long before I’d ever heard the term digital humanities) that we should stop using GIS displaying North at the top of the map, that this was hindering our ability to see patterns in our data. I turned the map sideways – and it sent a murmur through the conference room as east-west patterns, previously not apparent, became evident."

Chicage population density in 2000, with north at the top becuase that is just what we do... Chicago Population Density Map courtesy of Flickr user Census Block / Creative Commons Licensed

Putting a GIS visualisation on the floor and allowing a researcher to explore that information from a different perspective - even allowing them to manipulate the information with their feet - is the sort of activity HUMlab seeks to facilitate. Odd as this sounds, any centre which offers such licence to creativity must be celebrated.

James Baker, Digital Curator, @j_w_baker

11 March 2013

New Media – Making or Breaking Connections?

Recently I was given the opportunity to work with the Speakers’ Corner Trust to produce a bibliography for their new debate: 'New Media – Making or Breaking Connections?'.

The British Library's Social Science team provide guides to accompany the Speakers' Corner Trust Forum for Debate series, which promote public discussion on topical issues. Previous topics are kept in the archive section and include: press regulation; the right to die; legalising the drugs trade; animal experimentation, GM foods; and the economics of football.

However, as this current debate is about the effects of technology, the Internet and social media on human health and behaviour; my colleagues in Social Sciences invited the Digital Scholarship team to work with them on this specific resource pack.

In 'New Media – Making or Breaking Connections?'; Professor Susan Greenfield and Professor Stephen Coleman debate issues relating to how the Internet, video games and social networking have changed the way we learn, communicate and interact. For many, these technologies have enriched and empowered us, but others worry that they undermine our capacity to engage with the real world and diminish our sense of community. I'm not going to reveal which side of the argument I side with, but I will say that I did enjoy researching the topic, discovering titles and preparing the bibliography. Many thanks go to my colleagues, especially Simon Barron and Faye Fornasier, who suggested several items to include and made the bibliography a more comprehensive resource.

Photo Credit: wharman via Compfight cc

The debate has certainly caught the public's attention and was featured on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme at 8:55 this morning. Don't worry if you missed it, it is available to listen online for the next seven days due to the wonders of the Internet :-)

Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator, @miss_wisdom