Digital scholarship blog

5 posts from July 2015

28 July 2015

Update on Political Meetings Mapper - BL Labs Competition Winner 2015

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Katrina Navickas.
Katrina Navickas, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hertfordshire, and one of the winners of the 2015 British Library Labs competition, describes the current progress of her project, ‘Political Meetings Mapper’.

Political Meetings Mapper is a project to build a database, website and interactive map of 19th century political meetings, using the Nineteenth Century Newspapers collection and the Maps collection. The meetings will be plotted on a geo-referenced historic map to show the spatial and temporal patterns of the movement.

You may have noticed the copies of a historic poster outside the entrance to the British Library, advertising a Chartist meeting. What was Chartism and why is it still relevant to us today?


Chartism was the first mass movement campaigning for the vote in the United Kingdom. They presented three major petitions to parliament calling for the ‘six points’, which included the vote for all men, ensuring we can vote anonymously without bribery, and annual parliaments, so that the people can remove corrupt governments quickly. The Chartists campaigned for the constitutional freedoms that we now hold (and perhaps take for granted) in Britain, and remind us that these rights were hard-fought for.

We’re focusing on extracting records of meetings advertised in the Northern Star newspaper from 1838 to 1844 for two reasons:

  1. it was the main Chartist newspaper with a national reach;
  2. it had a regular column each week titled ‘forthcoming Chartist meetings’, which is easy to identify.

The British Library Labs team is working on building in the capability to identify and automatically geo-code the places and parse the dates mentioned in the text.

Current progress

We have redone and checked the Optical Character Recognition for the newspaper columns for 1841 to 1843 – we still need volunteers for checking the OCR for the other years in the sample are so let us know if you’re interested in participating.

We have extracted about 4000 meetings and other events so far, and are on track to reach the 5000 mark soon!

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on Chartists in London. I’ve learned lots about the history of the capital (I’m a historian of the North of England by trade). I was astounded to find well over 50 different sites in London used regularly for Chartist and trade union meetings. I also expected that the venues would concentrate in the East End and docks, where many of the skilled workers who were most attracted to the Chartist movement lived and work. Yet having plotted the locations, I’ve found that the Chartists met all over London, including in the centre and in places near to the British Library.

Another surprise was that, regardless of all the urban change that has happened in the capital over the last two hundred years, many of the original pubs still exist, with the same names.

Follow the Chartists around London on 21 September 2015!

Join us for a mystery tour and reenactment of a Chartist meeting around some of the venues to bring the BL 19th century newspaper reports to life! ‘Follow the Chartists round London’ takes place on Monday 21 September, and is free and open to the public.

Participants will learn about the history of Chartism and the London venues, and participate in a re-enactment of a Chartist meeting in the actual pub where it took place nearly two hundred years ago. If you fancy dressing up in costume and pretending to be your democratic ancestor, do let us know. Volunteers welcome!


Monday 21 September 2015:

1230 - 1300
Foyle Suite, Centre of Conservation, British Library

1300 - 1400

1400 – 1530


Dr Katrina Navickas, University of Hertfordshire, ‘the Political Meetings Mapper and the history of Chartism’

Dr Matthew Sangster, University of Birmingham, ‘Romantic London’

British Library, ‘Digital collections at the British Library’

1530 - 1730
A 3km walking tour of Chartist sites in the Kings Cross/St Pancras/Somerstown/Camden area, with readings of reports from the Northern Star newspaper at each site. Sites may include:

  • Prince of Wales Feathers, 8 Warren Street, W1T 5LD
  • Archery Rooms*, 26 Bath Place
  • Tillman's Coffee House*, 59 Tottenham Court Road
  • Two Chairmen, 31-32 Dean Street, W1D 3SB
  • Three Crowns*, Richmond Street
  • Three Doves**, 24 Berwick Street, W1V 3RF
  • Red Lion Pub, 14 Kingly Street, W1B 5PR

*doesn't exist anymore
**now an art stationery shop 

1730 - 1830
The walking tour will end at a Pub where our group will get a drink. The room will be prepared for a renactment of a Chartist meeting that occurred in the pub, beginning at 1800. The meeting will end with the audience voting on various resolutions and some food.

Participants are welcome to continue their discussions into the evening.

Click here for more information about booking.

24 July 2015

British Library Labs Project Awards (2015): Call for entries!

Posted by Hana Lewis, BL Labs Project Officer @BL_Labs

The British Library Labs Awards (2015) recognises and promotes work that uses the British Library digital collections / data.

The Awards acknowledge exceptional work within three categories: Research, Creativity and Entrepreneurship.


This category is for work produced within the context of a research project or activity. These entries will demonstrate the development of new knowledge related to content, research methods, or research tools.


This category is for work that uses the British Library's digital content in the context of artistic or creative endeavours. Such entries will inspire, stimulate, amaze and provoke.


The final category is for work that delivers or develops commercial value. These entries are likely to be in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the British Library's digital content to produce commercial value.

Entries can be submitted until Monday 14th September 2015 (midnight BST).

The submission process is simple and further information can be found through the following link:

About the awards and how to apply.

Each proposal will be assessed by an independent panel of experienced researchers, experts and British Library staff.

Shortlisted entrants will be contacted via email by Monday 12th of October 2015, and invited to participate in our annual Symposium on Monday November 2nd 2015, where the winners will be awarded. At the Symposium, each of the three category winners will receive a £500 prize and an opportunity to promote their work!

Some really fantastic work has already been produced using our digital content, so please spread the word and let’s keep those entries rolling in!

22 July 2015

Women in Food Wikithon with the Oxford Food Symposium at the British Library

This BL Labs guest post comes from Dr Bee Wilson. Bee is the chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

‘By a curious schizophrenia, our culture trumpets that we are what we eat, yet devalues women’s work and inventiveness in food preparation’.  This thought, from Autumn Stanley’s 1993 history of female inventors (Mothers and Daughters of Invention) was the impulse behind two recent ‘wikithons’ at the British Library. Wikipedia is now our default way of getting knowledge. Yet when it comes to female food experts, there are huge and puzzling gaps, reflecting the fact that most wiki editors are men. How could there be an entry on Jack Drummond, nutritionist at the Ministry of Food during the war, but not on Dorothy F. Hollingsworth, his collaborator?

Back in the autumn, a group of us connected with the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery became aware that Wikimedia UK was working to redress the gender imbalance. The Symposium includes the kind of food scholars who are driven crazy by Wikipedia: the lacunae, the myths, the inaccuracies. But very few of us had ever taken the leap to editing it. We heard on Twitter that there had been an editathon for ‘Women and Classics’. Why not ‘Women and Food’

It would never have happened without the energetic collaboration of Polly Russell at the British Library, who provided us with a room to work in, coffee, cake and sandwiches (consumed away from the books) but, most importantly, the intellectual resources of the library, ranging from books and articles to the oral history archive. The thought was to transfer a little of the combined knowledge of the Library and the Symposium about women and food onto Wikipedia.

The shock of the first wikithon day, in November 2014, was just how little we managed. Wikipedia editing is slow: the endless strange syntax (those pesky double brackets!) and the feeling that you are working in a topsy-turvy world where secondary sources count for more than primary. Participants – including Elisabeth Luard, Jill Norman, Ursula Heinzelmann, Jake Tilson and Catherine Brown– created a group list of over 200 women living and dead that we felt deserved entries, or better entries. Yet that first day, after being trained in the ways of Wikipedia by Roberta Wedge of Wikimedia UK, we created only 10 new pages and improved a further 10.

It was a start. We created entries, among others, on Judy Rodgers, the influential Californian chef of the Zuni café; and Mrs Dubois, an eighteenth-century inventor of ‘portable soup’. We wrote about Caroline Walker, the brave British food campaigner, who died of cancer aged 38; and the dinner lady Jeanette Orrey.  And the work continued after the day ended. Jane Levi completed a superb entry on Sophie Coe, the late anthropologist and expert on the history of chocolate. Gastronomica founder Darra Goldstein who had been participating via Skype from the States, completed an entry so good it was ‘featured’ on the Wikipedia main page. Look it up: it’s on Phyllis C. Richman, a food critic once known as ‘the most feared woman in Washington’.

Phyllis Richman_wiki
Wikipedia page for Phyllis C. Richman

By the time of our second recent British Library ‘wikithon’ on July 6th, we got wiser to some of the frustrations of wiki-editing. Experienced Wiki editors David Palfrey and Andrew Dalby guided us on how to launch an entry that won’t be instantly taken down. ‘As the very first reference, put a secondary source’, Palfrey advised.

Women in Food Wikithon at the British Library

Bit by bit, the entries grew. Marcia Zoladz from Brazil found exactly the book she was looking for – Culinary Sparklets by Beatrice A.Vieyra, an Anglo-Indian cookery writer; now on Wikipedia. New participants Bel Castro, Sejal Sukadhwala and Jeanne JK Kim wrote about women from the Philippines, India and Korea. Carolin Young worked on food myths associated with Catherine de’Medici: a huge subject. Malcolm Thick completed an entry on Countess Morphy, the 1930s writer famed for her recipe for iguana fricassee. The room cheered. A sign of how engrossed we were in the work: the news that cake had arrived next door was greeted with sighs of reluctance to leave our screens. Meanwhile, we are trying to create an Oxford Symposium community of wiki editors to share ideas and support via email, and keep the project alive.

Oh, and Dorothy F. Hollingwsorth?  Now on Wikipedia.

20 July 2015

Welcome to Sarah Cole the British Library’s New Creative Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Sarah Cole 2015
Sarah Cole, Creative Entrepreneur-in-Residence

I’m delighted to announce that Sarah Cole from TIME/IMAGE is the British Library’s new Creative Entrepreneur-in-Residence, having secured funding from CreativeWorks London to work on a project called Poetic Places.

This initiative will explore relationships between literary geographies, cultural heritage collections, and real world environments, via the creation of a smartphone geolocation user experience that shares British Library digital content in relevant real-world locations; enabling participants to experience meaningful “poetic” connections between location, history and literature.

CreativeWorks London enables entrepreneurs to collaborate with 38 London-based universities, colleges, museums, libraries and archives on innovative projects. This is the second time that the British Library has worked with and hosted a resident entrepreneur; as last year CreativeWorks London funded Rob Sherman to be the British Library’s Interactive-Writer-in-Residence attached to the Lines In The Ice exhibition, where he created an immersive transmedia narrative work called On My Wife’s Back.

The final CreativeWorks London funding round supports nine new Creative Entrepreneur-in-Residences, including Sarah Cole; you can find a list of all the new projects here.

Watch this blog for future posts as the Poetic Places project progresses.

Stella Wisdom

Curator, Digital Research


03 July 2015

Turning research questions into computational queries: outputs from the 'Enabling Complex Analysis of Large Scale Digital Collections' project

'Enabling Complex Analysis of Large Scale Digital Collections', a project funded by the Jisc Research Data Spring, empowers researchers to turn their research questions into computational queries and gathers social and technical requirements for infrastructures and services that allow computational exploration of big humanities data. Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Humanities at UCL and Principal Investigator for the project, blogged in May about initial work to align our data - ALTO XML for 60k+ 17th, 18, and 19th century books - with the performance characteristics of UCL's High Performance Computing Facilities. We have been learning a huge amount about the complexities associated with redeploying architectures designed to work with scientific data (massive yet structured) to the processing of humanities data (not massive instead unstructured). As part of this learning, in June we ran two workshops to which we invited a small, hand-picked group of researchers (from doctoral candidates to mid-career scholars) with queries they wanted to ask of the data that couldn't be satisfied by the sort of search and discovery orientated graphical user interfaces typically served up them.

The researchers were clustered into three groups by their interests, with one group looking for words/strings over time, a second for words/strings in context, and a third for patterns relating to non-textual elements. Each group rotated between three workstations. At one workstation James Hetherington worked with them realise their questions as queries that returned useful derived data. At a second they collaborated with Martin Zaltz Austwick to explore and experiment with ways in which they could represent the data visually. And at a third workstation David Beavan captured their thoughts on the process (such as, does the time taken to wait for results to return impact on your interpretation of those results?), their sense of how computational queries could enrich their research, and their learning outcomes in terms of next steps.

Librarian books and occurrencesSome very sensible best practices emerged from this work: the need to build multiple datasets (counts of books per year, words per year, pages per book, words per book) to normalise results against in different ways; the necessity of explaining and clearly documenting the decisions taken when processing the data (for example taking the earliest year found in the metadata for a given book as the publication year, even if we know that to be incorrect); and the value of having a fixed, definable chunk of data for researchers to work with and explain their results in relation to (and in turn for us, the risks associated with adding more data to the pot at a later date).

Pointmap_largeMoreover, we have outputs on our Github repos that you can work with. We have queries (written in Python) that provide a framework from which you might search for words, phrases, or non-textual elements in this or comparable collections of digital text. We have data from searches across the whole collection on occurrences of disease related words, on the contexts in which librarians appear, and on the location and relative size in the page of every non-textual element (ergo, in most cases, illustration). And we have visualisations, with associated code and iPython Notebooks, of these results. These include a graph of disease references over time per 1000 words (an interactive version is available if you download this html and open it in your browser); a point map charting the size over time of circa 1 million figures (as a percentage of the size of the page the appear in); and, moving our macroscope closer, graphs that show the size of images across the length of single books, that map the illustrative 'heartbeat' of those books, alongside hacky workflow for getting to that point.

Diseases (WEB)The next step is to package these outputs up as 'recipe books' demonstrative of the steps needed to work with large and complex digital collections. We hope that the community - Systems Architects designing services, Research Software Engineers collaborating in humanities research, Humanists dabbling with data and code - can learn from these, build them into their workflows, and push forward our collective ability to make the best of these digital collections.

James Baker -- Curator, Digital Research -- @j_w_baker