Digital scholarship blog

01 August 2013

A perspective on Digital Scholarship at the British Library

Text from a short talk I gave at 'Future Digital', the closing conference of the CHASE Going Digital programme, held on 31 July 2013 at The Open University, Camden Town campus, London.

My notes from the event can be viewed on Github Gist.


Since March this year I have been working as a Digital Curator at the British Library. By training I am a historian and before arriving at the British Library I spent six years at the University of Kent researching, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate historians and working on various digital projects. So it came as a great pleasure when Dr Nick Hiley from the British Cartoon Archive invited me to contribute to a session on ‘Digitising the Image’ earlier this May.

On one hand it was great to give something back to an institution and an archive which had supported me in my postdoc wilderness, but of course the British Library is not about unthinking benevolence so there were other, ulterior reasons for my enthusiasm. Indeed, one great motivation for getting involved is that the Digital Curator team run a similar training programme for curators, librarians and (to a lesser though no less important extent) administrators who work within the Library.

The Digital Scholarship Training Programme, as it is known, covers many of the same areas as Going Digital and is designed to ‘skill-up’ colleagues in the methods and motivation of digital scholarship: so there are practical sessions on topics as diverse as licensing, crowdsourcing, text encoding, data visualisation, GIS, APIs, social media, managing research archives, digitisation, and metadata (for more details on the project see the abstract of Nora and Adam's talk at DH2013).

Although we hope that colleagues leave these sessions having picked up new skills and knowledge, the purpose is more to prepare colleagues for being able to work with scholars who have embedded their practice in digital scholarship; for being not put off or alienated by a request to text mine or to visualise their collections; and for being equipped to see the value in such endeavours even if they don’t follow them up themselves. It is about helping librarians and curators at the British Library acclimatise to the idea that the Library is becoming a place full of data as much as it is a place full of physical stuff, and that there is a growing community of users who see it that way. It is, in short, about helping those who are not digital scholars engage with digital scholarship. For digital humanities, surely the elephant in the room here, is best served by us helping break it out of its silo, by enabling it – like many other new approaches to humanities scholarship that have come before it – to gradually becoming a natural component of the scholarship it is currently a radical strand of. Think here how scholarship of race, gender and culture first broke away, proclaimed themselves as radical breaks from traditional, before their lessons and provocations becoming part of and were assimilated into the norms of humanities scholarship.

In part, this point of assimilation was achieved when scholars who did not work in those areas became able to critique the work of those areas, and so Going Digital – like our internal Digital Scholarship training programme – is aligned, in my opinion, with one of the core activities the digital curator team at the British Library: to help facilitate that integration of digital methods into the lingua franca of HSS and in so doing show how librarians, curators and research administrators can be key partners in delivering high quality digital projects. Of course we cannot achieve this aim while our training programme is internally focused, and so there are plans to take this external through the delivery of training events – starting with a Digital Scholarship Doctoral Open day on 24 February 2014 –  and the development of training models and materials aimed at all potential participants and partners in digital-driven scholarly research.

Of course another of our core activities as Digital Curators is to support, critique and experiment with innovative approaches to scholarship and historical phenomena that are enabled by the digital transformations taking place around us. To take, for example, the provocations of Franco Moretti – the enfant terrible of textual criticism – and run with them. And when we do, we attempt to use – or encourage others to use and reuse – the rich digital collections at the British Library. These include: maps collections; sound, audio-visual and philatelic collections; and other digitised content. Within the latter exciting initiatives include the International Dunhuang Project, which digitises dispersed documents relating to the Silk Road to tell of life on this great trade route from 100 BC to AD 1400; and the Endangered Archived Programme, an Arcadia funded programme which supports the digitisation in situ of endangered collections around the globe.

These activities sit within the umbrella of the Digital Scholarship department, with digital scholarship defined here as the use of digital content, infrastructure and tools to enable new understanding, new discoveries and new outreach, and predicated on a growth in digital, data and collaborative-driven research.

Case studies for these activities include work by Jeremy John, our curator of e-manuscripts, on personal digital archives: we have after all, moved from paper based communication to digital communication, and it won’t be long until researchers need to trawl digital buckets of emails, digital documents and software the same way they currently do boxes of letters and official documents. We have the digital archive of Wendy Cope, Emory University have the digital archive of Salman Rushdie; this combination of physical and cloud-based digital assets is the direction of travel for estate bequeaths of the future.

Another case study is our work with crowdsourcing and georeferencing. Earlier this year we asked the public to georeference a selection of our digitised map collection. Not only did they do this, thus providing for every researcher of whatever ilk reusable KML data for these maps, but they did it before we even had a chance to formally launch the exercise. The intersections between the various elements that define digital scholarship are obvious but are worth repeating: we have here digitised content, enhanced metadata, new forms of public engagement, open data, collaboration, and a general sense that sharing is better than hoarding colliding to form a perfect – less than 3% error perfect in fact – perfect storm.

These activities are just a flavour of what we do. Within the digital curator team we are regularly collaborating on funding bids, sourcing and distributing historical data, and working directly with our collections to promote their use: I, for example am just beginning to dig through and distance read – to use Moretti’s parlance – metadata for 50 years of journal articles under the Dewey classification of History, circa 500,000 records which I hope will uncover interesting stories about how my own discipline has developed. Combined these activities converge on our 2020 Vision which states that we will – I like the stress on the ‘will’ here – be a ‘leading hub in the global information network’ by holding onto (digital) stuff, enabling access to stuff, and supporting and collaborating in research which uses that stuff.



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