Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

02 May 2013

British Library Labs Launch Event Report

The British Library Labs project was officially launched on Monday 25th of March at 1100 (GMT) in the Eliot room, British Library Conference Centre, London. Although we had over 60 invited guests from the UK and Europe, the event was over subscribed, so much so that we had to get extra chairs in to the room.

Introducing British Library Labs

Caroline Brazier, Director of Scholarship and Collections at The British Library officially launched the Labs project, welcoming the audience and setting the context for the day:

Aly Conteh, Digitisation Programme Manager and Head of theDigital Research and Curation Team, at The British Library gave a brief overview of Digital Scholarhsip and set the context and motivation as to why the British Library Labs project came about:

Mahendra Mahey, manager of the Labs' project then gave an introduction, overview and provided a detailed plan for the project. In summary, the project is about engaging researchers and developers with the incredible digital collections that the British Library has access to, through events, competitions and other various activities. This is so that the Library can learn how to support digital scholarship better by building on existing processes and developing new tools and services.

Example Research with Digital Collections

The launch event then moved on to showcasing the kinds of examples of research which exemplify the type of engagement the project is looking for from the research community. Reseachers who presented were given a challenge of delivering their presentations pecha kucha style (20 slides, each 20 seconds, totalling, 6 minutes 40 seconds).

The Irish in the Old Bailey Online, 1801-1820

First up was Adam Crymble, PhD Researcher at King’s College London, who talked about, The Irish in the Old Bailey Online, 1801-1820. Adam outlined his research which investigated how it was possible to identify defendants of Irish origins who were accused of committing crimes between 1801-1820, through machine learning techniques. Adam described various methods to examine online databases, such as nominal record linking and using indicators such as birth place, keywords to infer 'irishness' in names. Adam also presented findings which inferred a seasonality of when crimes were committed that were different for the Irish community compared to other nationalities, with him suggesting possible reasons for this.


Mapping Metaphors and the Historical Thesaurus of English

Next was Marc Alexander, Lecturer of English Language, University of Glasgow who talked about Mapping Metaphors and the Historical Thesaurus of English


Studying the impact of large scale digitised collections

Paul Gooding, PhD Researcher, University College London examined the impact of large-scale digitisation. What was interesting about Paul's work was that he was working directly with the British Library and Gale Cengage to analyse web analytics for digitised collections of newspapers.

Visualising English Print from 1470 to 1800

Now on to Jonathan Hope, Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde, who presented on various ways of visualizing English Print from 1470 to 1800.

The BBC World Service archive prototype - an alternative approach to publishing large archives?

Yves Raimond, Senior R&D Engineer from the BBC, gave a fascinating account of the BBC World Service archive prototype. Yves talked about alternative approaches to publishing large archives of speech, using a combination of speech to text conversion software (machine listening) and crowd sourcing for tagging as well as automated forms for doing the related work. Yves also mentioned how some of the processing for this work took place in the cloud and presented issues around noise and how this might be dealt with. Finally, he talked about how the cloud could be a place for multimedia analysis as this work was demonstrating.

DigiPal, just when you thought it was safe to open your manuscript

Finally, Stewart Brookes, Research Associate, King’s College London gave a presentation on DigiPal,  and his work in Palaeography (the study of ancient writing). Stewart was interested in what Digital Humanities could do for manuscript studies. He mentioned the use of the Chopper tool which was originally developed as part of the International Dunhuang project for chopping individual Chinese characters or Tibetan syllables. Stewart re-purposed this tool for his own research into medieval English.

The day then moved on to showcasing examples of British Library Digital collections and how they could be used with the British Library Labs project.

Examples of British Library Digital Collections

Introducing the UK Web Archive 

Peter Webster, Web Archiving Engagement and Liaison Officer, UK Web Archive at the British Library introduced the UK Web Archive.

19th Century Printed Books Dataset

And then Adrian Edwards, Lead Curator Printed Historical Sources, the British Library, presented on 19th Century Printed Books Dataset.

Tools to use with Digital Collections

The final section of the launch event before lunch included presenters who talked about tools and techniques that could be used for working with digital content / datasets. The purpose of this was to inspire researchers and developers who might want to engage with Labs project with tools they could use with the British Library's digital collections.

OpenGLAM Culture Lab 

Sam Leon, Community Co-ordinator of Open Knowledge Foundation presented on OpenGLAM Culture Lab and provided an overview of useful tools that could be used with British Library Digital Content as part of the Labs project. These included, Crowcrafting (a tool for crowdsourcing tasks, e.g. image classification, transcription, geocoding to name a few) Timeliner (a javascript tool which produces beautiful timelines using various datasources) and Pundit (augmenting web pages with semantically structured annotations), his presentation is below:

Tools and Techniques for working with Datasets

Finally the amazing, Tony Hirst, Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Systems, The Open University gave an overview tools and techniques for working with datasets, presentation below:

Tony gave a whistlestop tour of various tools researchers could use to engage with digital content.

Tony talked about using Open Refine (a free powerful open source tool for working with messy data, with an example from Martin Hawksey).

He then talked about RStudio (software for working with the R statistical package), ggplot2 (a graphical plotting system for R, based on the grammar of graphics), knitr (a flexible and fast dynamic report generation tool used with R), shiny (a tool working with R-Studio which turns R analyses into interactive web applications without knowing HTML or JavaScript, though some experience of working with R is needed). There was also a mention of googleVis an R package providing an interface between R and the Google Chart Tools.

He suggested that researchers need to ask themselves questions about how to use tools with a chosen data set or collection, eg:

  • Can I use this dataset as a playground for learning about a new tool or trick?
  • Can I apply a tool or technique I am already familiar with to this dataset?

He then presented some examples of the use of Google Books Ngram viewer and some work on google maps.

Tony remined us about Schneiderman's 'Visualisation information seeking mantra'

...Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand
(From: The Eyes have It: A Task by Data Type Taxonomy for Information Visualizations)

and then gave a quick overview and provided examples of the Gephi visualisation tool. He reminded us that Wordles are still useful ways of visualising data.

Tony went on to talk about templated data views and the work of Openly Local (making local government more transparent) and suggested that it would be great to combine British Library data with third party linked data.

Tony regularly blogs at and is @psychmedia on twitter. His presentation is available on slideshare.

Presentations finished with a long lunch and plenty of opportunity for networking.

After lunch there was a lively discussion and feedback about the plans for running the first British Library Labs competition. This information was very useful indeed and will be used to help us plan out future activities.


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