Digital scholarship blog

5 posts from December 2014

16 December 2014

British Library Labs Symposium 2014 – The Winners

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs

After Tim Hitchcock's keynote, which opened the British Library Labs' second annual symposium, Roly Keating, the Library’s Chief Executive, presented awards to the 2014 Labs competition winners Bob Nicholson and Desmond Schmidt.

BL Labs Awards 2014_095
Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library

See Roly Keating's brief speech here:

Roly Keating's brief speech at the Labs Symposium.

Roly thanked the members of the British Library Labs team, advisory and project boards, workplacement students and volunteers. He then formally congratulated the winners of the 2014 Labs competition; Desmond Schmidt and Anna Gerber's 'TILT' and Bob Nicholson's Victorian Meme Machine.

Roly Keating presenting Bob Nicholson with his prizeRoly Keating presenting Bob Nicholson with his prize.

Roly_DesmondRoly Keating presenting Desmond Schmidt with his prize.

Desmond and Bob then gave presentations on their work.

Desmond presented TILT, a tool he and his colleague Anna Gerber have been developing with cooperation with the Labs. Historical printed and manuscript material is often difficult to read and understand. Once digitised, researchers create detailed transcriptions, but making links between page images and the transcribed text is difficult and time-consuming. TILT is a tool that uses semi-automated techniques to build these links, to verify them, and to capture information that goes beyond text to include differences in lineation, type-size and line-spacing.

Desmond SchmidtResearch Scientist, University of Queensland, talking about 'TILT' 

Read more about the project.

Bob presented the work he has been doing with Labs on the Victorian Meme Machine. What would it take to make a Victorian joke funny again? While the great works of Victorian art and literature have been preserved and celebrated by successive generations, even the period’s most popular jokes have now been lost or forgotten. Fortunately, thousands of these endangered jests have been preserved within the British Library’s digital collections. This project has begun to find these forgotten jokes and bring them back to life.

Bob NicholsonLecturer, Edge Hill University talking about the Victorian Meme Machine


Read more about the project.

@bl_labs #bl_labs #britishlibrary

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15 December 2014

British Library Labs Symposium 2014 – Keynote

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs

The second annual British Library Labs Symposium on Monday 3rd November, 2014, opened with Professor Tim Hitchcock giving a keynote speech focusing on 'Big and small data in the humanities'.

Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex, giving a keynote at the British Library Labs Symposium 2014

Please note that full subtitles are available on YouTube and the transcript for the Tim's talk is available here.

Tim began with a quick reflection on the British Library Labs project:

In my experience Labs is unique. With a budget the size of a tuppenny bit, the BL, through the Labs, is both intervening in a space few others have had the confidence to inhabit; and as importantly, gently interrogating the role of a ‘library’ – in this case THE library – in a changing world of information and discovery.

By reaching out to both humanist scholars in need of technical support and expertise, and as importantly, developers keen to pursue an idea with an academic or humanist twist, the Lab is working in a space that neither the academy and higher education, nor the private sector are particularly good at. The Lab creates a space in which the intellectual capital of the Library, is made available to its users, in an entirely new way.

There are any number of research council initiatives, European funding calls, and twitchy private sector start-ups out there, ragging at the edge of established practise. We are advised to seek ‘disruption’, and to pursue the shiny. But it is important to remember that the institutions we have inherited – libraries and museums in particular - were created in service of a deeper purpose. It is not simply that we value them because they are ancient and august. Instead, we value them as a means of preserving memory, and acknowledging worth. And as importantly, we value them as part of a complex ecology of knowledge discovery, dissemination, and reflexion. So while disruption and the shiny, are all good; it remains important that libraries, continue to serve the fundamental purposes for which they were created. And the Lab, seems to me to answer this need.

In other words, as much as being a space in which new projects and approaches can be bench-tested; the Lab is important as a fragment of an ongoing negotiation about the role of the institutions of memory and knowing. And getting that role right, is imperative.

By acknowledging the existence of the library’s own great technical expertise; and essentially inviting people from across the piste to partner with it, the Lab is effectively re-thinking what it is to be a ‘reference’ librarian, an information professional, an engineer, servicing a technology of knowing.

Over the course of the rest of the day, wild and fun initiatives will roll before your eyes, but as they do, I think it is worthwhile keeping in mind that larger project and aspiration, of turning this inherited institution, the British Library, in to something that can continue to deliver on the unchanging principals it was created to serve.

Tim the went on to talk about how while 'big data' has grabbed the headlines in recent years, the creation of new digital tools has also changed how we undertake forms of 'close reading'. This talk explored how 'big data' and 'close reading' can be more effectively integrated into a single research strategy that acknowledges the importance of seeing inherited culture both in detail - close up; and in context - at scale. It also considered these methodological developments in light of the continuing importance of more traditional humanist theory.

BL Labs Awards 2014_058
Tim Hitchcock answering a question from the audience at the Labs' Symposium.

@bl_labs #bl_labs #britishlibrary #bldigital @timhitchcock

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12 December 2014

Curious Roads to Cross - 21st Century Curatorship Talk by David Normal

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs

On the 17th of October 2014, artist David Normal gave a presentation to a group of British Library staff, as a part of the 21st Century Curatorship series about his work 'Crossroads of Curiosity'. David has previously blogged about his work here.

David Normal giving his talk to British Library staff.

He talked about 4 pieces of collage art he created for the 2014 Burning Man Festival, entitled the 'Crossroads of Curiosity' which were based on images from the British Library 1 Million images release. As part of this talk, David was interviewed and was able to give a brief summary of how the work came about (see the 5 minute video below):

A 5 minute interview with David Normal about his work 'Crossroads of Curiosity'

The lecture David gave to staff covered his background as an artist and his various interests and influences which included; collage, computer graphics and use of illustration in his work especially from the 1940s and the 19th Century. He then talked about how his four paintings entitled 'Crossroads of Curiosity' came about and how he used images from the British Library's Flickr Commons 1 million release to make them. David then explained how these paintings (each created originally at a size of 3 foot by 8 foot (0.9m by 2.4m)) were made into an 'epic suite' of 4 illuminated light boxes at a size of 8 feet by 20 feet (2.4m by 6.1m) for the Burning Man Festival that took place between 25th of August and 1 September, in Nevada, USA this year.

The full lecture (just under 20 minutes) can be viewed below for those that missed it:

David Normal's lecture given to staff at the British Library about his work.

David then spent just over 20 minutes (about 5 minutes for each painting) giving his interpretation of what the paintings actually meant to him, see the video below:

An interpretation of the meaning of each of the four paintings, collectively called, 'Crossroads of Curiosity', created for Burning Man

For those of you that are interested, David will be speaking at the Curious Images event on 18 December, 2014 at the British Library.

@bl_labs #bl_labs #britishlibrary #BLDigital

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05 December 2014

Two 'Off the Map' games available as free downloads

A couple of months ago I blogged about the 2014 Off the Map competition winners announcement at GameCity9 Festival. Well, since then two of the winning teams have demonstrated their games at the British Library for International Games Day at Your Library. Seeing the Oculus Rift set up in the Library was brilliant!

Furthermore, I'm pleased that these two teams have now made their games available as free downloads.

The  2014 first place game Nix was created by Jackson Rolls-Gray, Sebastian Filby and Faye Allen from the University of South Wales. Using a virtual reality Oculus Rift headset, the game challenges players to reconstruct Fonthill Abbey via collecting hidden and moving glowing orbs in a spooky underwater world.

You can follow instructions to download Nix here (note: you will need your own Oculus Rift headset to play it). If you don't have an Oculus Rift, then you can see a flythrough of their game on YouTube:


The second game is from one of the 2014 runners up, team Shady Agents, also from the University of South Wales, who have released their Edgar Allan Poe-inspired game Beneath the Crimson Moon here


Image from Beneath The Crimson Moon

After the delights of the 2014 competition connected to our exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The  2015 Off the Map competition is linked to the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is fittingly called 'Alice's Adventures Off the Map'. Curators have selected an amazing range of maps, photographs, texts, sounds and illustrations, which we are keen to share with Off the Map participants.  

'Alice's Adventures Off the Map' will be launched at the British Library on Monday 8 December 2014, at one of the Digital Research team's free evening Digital Conversation events. If you would like to come along to find out more, please book here.


Stella Wisdom
Curator, Digital Research


Software Sustainability Institute Fellowship

Researchers today are reliant on software and the Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) is a national facility for cultivating world-class research through software. The work of the SSI is focussed around four themes fundamental to doing research in the digital age, these are:

  • enabling access to Skills and Training that creates a capable research software community and teaches them methods to advance their research
  • advocating for systems of credit that Recognise and Reward good software development and reuse practice
  • championing the varied job roles and Career Paths associated with research software
  • promoting the fundamental place of software in enabling Reproducible Research that supports confidence in the research process and its results

A major activity the SSI undertakes is a fellowship programme that funds researchers in exchange for their expertise and advice. I am delighted to have been selected as a 2015 Fellow.


With the British Library increasingly a place full of data as much as physical stuff, and with the announcement yesterday that the British Library has been selected by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as the location for the headquarters of the Alan Turing Institute, this award of a SSI Fellowship could not be more timely. And with these developments in mind, I plan to use the Fellowship to deepen my knowledge of and engagement with the the nascent systems of credit giving and evaluation for software produced during humanities research and (taking Software Carpentry as a model) to broaden the remit, lessons learned, and capacity in the GLAM sector to reproduce in their own institutions the research software specific elements of our internal Digital Scholarship Training Programme. But above all, I look forward to working with the other fellows, to sharing experiences, and to advocating for a scholarly landscape - agnostic of subject domains - that recognises software as, for, and by research.

James Baker

Curator, Digital Research