Digital scholarship blog

5 posts from February 2014

27 February 2014

The Strawberry Thief and Off the Map 2014

Yesterday I had the pleasure to visit Sophia George’s studio at the V&A. Sophia is currently their first videogame designer in residence and she is working on a game based on the Strawberry Thief textile pattern (V&A:T.586-1919) designed by William Morris in 1883. Sophia demonstrated a demo version of the game; the basic premise is that the player guides a moving bird to eat the red strawberries and avoid the green ones. It has been inspired by popular games such as Candy Crush Saga, which are enjoyed by all different age groups.  


Her open studio sessions are listed here, but be quick, as her residency finishes in March. Then Sophia will return to Abertay University in Dundee to work with a team of developers to create a fully playable game, which will be available on Apple and Android mobile devices later this year. I can’t wait to play it!

Making the most of my time in the museum, I had tea in the delightful green room, designed by William Morris with the assistance of Philip Webb and Edward Burne Jones for the V&A. I also ventured into the British Galleries to see the Strawberry Thief fabric and other William Morris designs on display. Next to several of his wallpaper designs is a screen showing a fascinating video, which demonstrates how the wallpapers are still made; by hand, block printing each colour of the pattern in many separate layers. I thought that this is an excellent inclusion of multimedia in a gallery space, to enhance interpretation of the objects on display.

Back at the British Library, I’m very pleased that we are also working to promote the talents of young videogame designers, with the return of the successful Off the Map competition, in partnership with games company Crytek and GameCity Festival. If you haven’t yet watched the YouTube clip of last year’s winning entry by students from De Montfort University in Leicester, then I urge you to check it out now:


 This year’s competition has a Gothic theme, to tie-in with the Library's Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (3 October 2014 - 27 January 2015) exhibition. My curator colleagues in English and Drama, Maps and Sounds have selected a great range of items from the collections to inform and inspire this year’s Off the Map participants, who can choose from three sub themes:

The competition is open to students in further and higher education, so if you are interested in taking part please visit the competition website:

We will also be hosting a “show & tell” event on the 2nd April, where Off the Map participants can look at the physical collection items and speak to the Library’s curators about them. If you want to come along book now.


Stella Wisdom - Curator, Digital Research, miss_wisdom

25 February 2014

Lessons from science: Digital Humanities, History of Science and Technology, and juking the stats

One of the joys of being both part of the Digital Humanities community and an early riser is brushing one’s teeth at 6.30 am, checking one’s email, and seeing the days Humanist Discussion Group messages dribble into one’s inbox. Humanist was established by Willard McCarty in 1987 and each morning Willard compiles and arranges the previous day’s correspondence and pushes them out to the group. On more than one occasion, such is the usual punctuality of his efforts, have I glanced at a Humanist-free inbox and considered, albeit briefly, Willard's health or safety, only to realise that he is probably just in another time zone...

At Digital Humanities 2013 Willard was bestowed with the sobriquet the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Digital Humanities - the 'Father' accolade having already been granted to the person whose name was on the lifetime achievement award Willard was receiving, Roberto Busa. Last summer, as part of their ‘Being|Human’ festival, King's College London gave Willard a forum to repeat his address. In it, and among (many) other things, Willard dwelt at length on the relationship(s) between information technology and computation and society and culture, the co-evolution of man and machine, and how humanities scholars have used machines in their research.

Many humanities scholars will be forgiven for not identifying with this aspect of DH, that DH is the study of humanistic phenomena using digital technologies and the of the role of digital technologies within humanistic phenomena; or as Kathleen Fitzpatrick once put it, DH is:

A nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or […] ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies.

The intersections between this latter category of work and the History of Science and Technology (hereafter HST) are obvious; indeed, during a brief discussion after Willard's lecture I was delighted to find him most enthusiastic toward the then still relatively recent move to King’s from Imperial College of the renowned Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

Which brings me to my point: how can the other side of DH, the DH as using digital research methods to explore phenomena in the humanities, benefit from close(r) dialogue with HST? Franco Moretti's most recent paper – ‘Operationalizing’ – uses the work of another path finding Obi Wan Kenobi of scholarship, Thomas Kuhn, to frame its argument. So like Moretti I went back to HST, back to Kuhn, and in particular back to his 1961 essay ‘The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science.’ Here Kuhn makes three important claims whose relevance to digital research, especially quantitative work, should be clear:

First, quantitative work comes from qualitative work. As Kuhn writes: ‘qualitative research, both empirical and theoretical, is normally prerequisite to fruitful quantification of a given [scientific] research field.’ (185) Quantitative methods are not inherent to scientific research but rather were introduced into sciences ‘that had previously proceeded without major assistance from them.’ (162) In this light ‘quantitative facts cease to seem simply “the given.” They must be fought for and with.’ (171) Quantification then is a human act. ‘Numbers,’ Kuhn writes, ‘gathered without some knowledge of the regularity to be expected almost never speak for themselves. Almost certainly they remain just numbers.’ (175) Or as Louis Pasteur once put it: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” (179)

Second, data is always approximate. Why? Because measurement is never ideal, regularly insecure, and often at limits of what is possible. As a consequence, scientists rely on “reasonable agreement” (165-166) about data to move forward, agreement that accepts measurement, at least in early experimentation, as often deriving from investigations of an instrument as much as investigations with it. (188)

Third, scientists adapt measurement to fit theory. Although ‘overly close agreement [in numerical results] is usually taken as presumptive evidence of data manipulation,’ (165) at the same time ‘in scientific practice, as seen through the journal literature, the scientist often seems,’ writes Kuhn, ‘to be struggling with facts, trying to force them into conformity with a theory he does not doubt.’ (171) This goes back to measurement, for Kuhn continues: ‘one of the tests for reliability of existing instruments and manipulative techniques must inevitably be their ability to give results that compare favourably with existing theory. In some parts of natural science, the adequacy of experimental technique can be judged only in this way.’ (172) Here Kuhn goes on to describe Dalton’s Law and how as a consequence of extant data not conforming to the law, experimentation with and improvement of instrumentation followed so that data was brought in line with the law; a fascinating example of the interrelation between data, experimentation, theory and research. (173)

There is much here for humanists – digital or otherwise – to chew on, though perhaps it is at this last claim that we humanities scholars reach a crucial point of departure: for a qualitative-led approach to measurement and data collection, which accepts adapting instrumentation to get the data the theory requires, relies on there being reasonable agreement over theory or the possible theoretical options. And whilst in the case of science there are, it would appear, a discrete number of options, at glance at the humanities reveals a seemingly infinite number of possible nuance laden scenarios and explanations for any one given field of research. There does not, in short, appear in the humanities to be a stable or discrete set of qualitatives from which quantitative measurement can fruitfully develop (and if so, they may be too broad to be of use); and if a humanist adapted their measurement of data to fit their qualitative work, either empirical or theoretical, they would likely – quite rightly – be accused of juking the stats.

Or would such criticism be unfair? Could it not be that as quantitative work in the humanities can take the appearance of representing certainty by virtue of numbers and stats being somehow ‘scientific’ (a relationship between numbers, truth and science Kuhn shows to be false), interpretation of measured, derived, quantified data highlights – somewhat uncomfortably – the extent to which humanities scholars fit their choice of sources and their interpretations of them to their theories and assumptions? Whilst research published in the humanities, and in particular research based on quantitative work, is expected to describe what sources were used, why they were chosen, and how they were used (certainly for historians, this is week one undergraduate stuff…), few examples of qualitative research in the humanities are, from personal experience, as open and honest about their approach to sources as Rens Bod’s recent A New History of the Humanities. In a frank and somehow liberating passage of his introduction, Bod writes:

My decision to focus on principles and patterns will, however, often lead to surprising choices. Many a famous humanist, historian, or philologist will be mentioned only briefly – if at all – while other scholars are dealt with at length. More than once I will describe a well-known work with a single sentence, not because I consider it unimportant or not influential, but because it did not contribute much to the quest for principles and patterns (10)

Or, in other words, based on his theory that the history of the humanities could be characterized by a quest for principles and patterns, Bod chose to focus on humanities research that sought principles and patterns. And this he admits.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is that the HST, with the example here being research into the role of measurement and quantification in the sciences, can offer something to DH, to those humanities scholars using digital methods and data to do research: it can offer a critical apparatus for thinking through the relationship between quantitative work and established patterns of qualitative research; having considered the role of experimentation and the investigation of instrumentation in the sciences, it offers a parallel to the ‘productive play’ that by necessity surrounds much research that uses data and digital methods to explore humanistic questions; and it offers a narrative digital humanists can bounce off to erode the lingering fiction – if not in our minds, then in the minds of others – of ‘data driven’ research being a category of humanistic enquiry: for HST reminds us that in both scientific and humanistic research sources do not speak for themselves, they are always approached with qualitative baggage in mind, and the combination to varying degrees of theory and source material, be those sources data or archival material, is what defines scholarship.

I am guilty of cherry-picking Kuhn. And there is of course a rich tradition of debate, and disagreement, that followed both ‘The Function of Measurement’ and his later, more well known The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that I have ignored. Nonetheless ‘The Function of Measurement’ suggests, to me at least, that HST has spent enough time researching the use of technology for digital humanists who use technology – and indeed those digital humanists who research the use of technology – to take note. With this in mind having Bruno Latour, author Science in Action – an enormously influential text in HST –, open Digital Humanities 2014 seems to me a very shrewd move and will hopefully prove an ideal compliment to Willard's soon to be published Busa Prize lecture.

And if you want to see some science in action this Spring – hopefully with no juking of the stats in evidence! – the exhibition 'Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight' is open in the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library until 26 May 2014.


24 February 2014

#bldigital British Library Collaborative PhD studentship

Come September there will be a new member of the Digital Research team, a doctoral candidate who will work with us and the Department of History at the University of Sheffield on a project entitled ‘A History of the Printed Image 1750-1850: Applying Data Science Techniques to Printed Book Illustration’. Funded by a British Library and University of Sheffield Collaborative PhD Studentship, the project will rethink why, how, and in what ways technology shaped the nature and meaning of book illustration between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. It is envisaged that in their research the successful applicant will use both established art and cultural history approaches and emerging, digitally-driven approaches to examine this period of enormous stylistic, modal and technological innovation in book illustration. And along the way they will explore, critique and compare these approaches, evaluating the utility of such methods of enquiry.


The starting point for their research, supervised by Karen Harvey and I, will be a collection of 1 million images extracted from 17th, 18th and 19th century digitised books. Since early December, when we released these images into the public domain via Flickr, over 120 million image views have been recorded, over 30,000 tags added, and a AHRC-funded project popped up.


This is a rich collection, the scale and breadth of which presents both opportunities and challenges to researchers. By having a research project of this kind embedded within the Digital Research team we hope to find out more about the collection, to continue learning about both the potential and the limitations of this category of work, and to develop our capability for supporting digitally-driven research in the arts and humanities as such practices establish themselves within the profession at large.

The closing data for applications is 2 May 2014 at 5pm and interviews will take place in the week commencing 2 June 2014. Prospective applicants can find further details on the University of Sheffield PhD Projects Directory and are encouraged to direct academic enquiries to Dr Karen Harvey or Dr James Baker


07 February 2014

The Metadata Quest

Posted on behalf of Sara Wingate Gray, originally posted here:

Recently, we've been involved in an exciting new project, which comes out of some exploratory work we produced during the British Library Labs May 2013 hack event as part of their inaugural 2013 digital collections competition. Here at artefacto, we were particularly excited when BL Labs launched, in March last year, not least because we'd been following the pioneering digital and creative libraryings of Harvard Library Lab for several years, alongside the more recent developments of the Digital Public Library of America and the wonderful work that the New York Public Library has been getting up to (check out their historical menu's project for a start). What's exciting about all these developments (and there's so many we could list in this vein: Europeana ... in fact, have a list, courtesy of The Open Knowledge Foundation) is the opening up of public access to this "digital reserve of knowledge", and the potential it brings, in the case of BL Labs, for instance, "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."1

For us, what's also intriguing, in this new world collision and collection of objects, and people, in digital space, is how we might go about piecing together, jigsaw-like, the underlying narratives which sit within: how do we help reveal and "unlock" each object's own story?

The May 2013 hackday event at BL Labs gave us the opportunity (and the excuse) to explore this question: with access to their 68,000 digitised volumes of text (from the 19th Books collection), sounds (e.g. the archive of Resonance FM, Survey of English Dialects), Ordance survey maps, and much much more, it promised a veritable feast of digital content, and importantly, metadata to get our hands on.

That metadata is finally a hot topic of discussion worldwide is not only music to the ears of all librarians out there (well, ok, not all of you guys, but you're the groundswell folks!) but it also means we don't have to give you a definition. Except we probably do, since all this consorting with the NSA is frankly giving metadata a bad rep right now (and no, Guardian newspaper, metadata is not just "information generated as you use technology"). Wikipedia provides the very vaguely straightforward term "data about data" as a definition, while Zeng and Qin (2008, p.7) note that "[b]roadly speaking, metadata encapsulates the information that describes any document or object in both digital and traditional formats."2 In the context of any of the British Library's digital content, for instance, this could mean information about a painting's date and artist, a map's geographic range, or a sound's physical placing (to name just a few instances or rather, metadata elements: take a look at The Library of Congress's sample of metadata for an 1864 letter from Alexander Melville Bell to Alexander Graham Bell if you really want to explore metadata in more detail).

Essentially, what excites us about metadata, is that by harnessing it in different ways, new surfaces and territories can suddenly open up in a digital object's narrative; by making explicit, textually and visually, an object's creation space, or time, new threads of connections are discovered and yarns newly spun.

The result of our brief two days at the BL Labs event was a quick build of an experimental version of our imagined platform, where digital content could sit waiting to be explored in these ways, through people navigating and thinking about these facets, and although not ultimately winning the Labs competition, we got some great feedback which suggested we should continue with our project and idea. We named it Curatorial and went on our merry way, content in our imaginings. It was great, therefore, to (some months later) find ourselves participating in the Data Tales project, which gave us the opportunity to further develop the platform: under the AHRC's Digital Transformations Network Data – Asset – Method: Harnessing the Infinite Archive network, we've been able to spend time re-building and imagining further what is possible, and what stories can be told, when metadata, objects and people digitally collide. Partnering with the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute based at the University of Nottingham, Loughborough University, and the British Library for the Data Tales project has meant a great team experiment, and we presented the first results of our work together at a workshop at the British Library (January 24th, 2014).

One of the first ports of call when approaching this project was: how can we get our hands on the metadata we want? What types of collections (and their 'owners' or 'content holders'?) are out there? Our previous BL Labs experience grappling with the vast range of data types available from the British Library was really helpful, not least for priming us for detective work (what format is that geolocation data in exactly?), and so our sleuthing, and structuring, commenced.

"Why does a man need to tell stories to others and himself? It is a way by which the mind uses fantasy to structure the chaos of the original experience. Complex and unpredictable, the vivid experience always lacks what fiction can provide: a closed time, a hierarchy of events, the value of people, effects and causes, the connections under the actions."3

This is where the quest for metadata begins.

Why not come and see us speak at Making the Most of Metadata, on Wednesday 12 February, 2014 at the British Library.



2. Zeng, M. L. and Qin, J. 2008. Metadata. New York: Neal Schuman Publishers.

3. Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. The Truth of Lies. In Making Waves. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

06 February 2014

Valentine’s Day the 19th Century Way!

Our bold explorers of the British Library Flickr Commons 1 Million Public Domain have been uncovering some classic 19th century depictions of love just in time for crafting your own valentines!

Have a look at the full set and share your new creations* over on #bldigital or by commenting here.

Warning: May not be appropriate viewing for the weak of stomach.
















*For tips on working with the images see this short tutorial created by one of the collection's original explorers, Chris Stocker: