Digital scholarship blog

4 posts from February 2016

26 February 2016

'Why Londoners need not stand in fear of Drought': Depictions of Late Nineteenth Century London in the Pall Mall Gazette

Today we have a guest post from Dr. Tessa Hauswedell. We love hearing from people who've used our digital collections - get in touch if you've got a story to share!

London according to the ‘picture book’: Taken from Paul Villars, London and its Environs. A picturesque survey of the metropolis and the suburbs, p.5, 1888 Taken from the British Library Flickr Images:

This January I had the opportunity to give a talk at the Digital History Seminar Series at the Institute for Higher Research in London on ‘European or Imperial Metropolis: Depictions of London in British Newspapers, 1870-1900’. The talk was based on research I undertook with some material from the British Newspaper Archive, the nineteenth London-based newspaper Pall Mall Gazette, to which the British Library kindly granted full-text access.[1] This work is part of a larger research project which I am involved in, entitled ‘Asymmetrical Encounters’, which traces cultural and historical references and themes in European newspaper corpora from the nineteenth and twentieth century.

I am interested in how meanings of terms change over times in public usage, because tracking changing meanings allows us insights into certain preferences, mentalities and world views which are unique to a specific culture and epoch. Some terms lend themselves quite readily to such a historical semantic analysis – think of broad terms such as ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’, all of which may mean many different things in 18th century France and 21st century China (to take one obvious example). The ‘metropolis’ is another such capacious and evocative term. Often, the metropolis is applied to the European cities of the nineteenth century, with London at the forefront in commercial, financial and political terms.

But to what degree was London implicated in a pan-European discourse with the other ‘metropoles’ of its age, and what role did comparisons with these European cities play in public discourse? I sought to answer this question by looking at the Pall Mall Gazette’s digital archive in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century.

An advertisement from the Illustrated London News, selling ‘Vaissier’s Congo Soap as the soap to be had in every ‘metropolis in Europe’. Image taken from the Illustrated London News 18 Oct. 1890: 507. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003.

To do this, I used a tool called AntConc, which was built originally for corpus linguistics research at the University of Lancaster, and did a collocation analysis. Collocations are essentially words that are frequently and habitually used together, and analyzing them allows you to establish common contexts and discourse fields around a given term.

For example, we find frequent references to mentions of poverty and related themes, indicated by terms such as ‘poor’, ‘pauperism’ ‘vagrants’ and ‘destitution’. This in itself is unsurprising, given that we know from previous historiography that discussions about the plight of the working poor especially in cities were frequent during the late 1870s and 1880s. Some other obvious themes come into view quickly – references to ‘management’, ‘local management’, to ‘water’ and ‘water supply’ and discussions about ‘railways’ and ‘railway lines’ leading in and out of London.

A picture from the Illustrated London News with reservoirs in proximity to London in order to alleviate fears about safety of the water supply in the city. Taken from The Illustrated London News August 5, 1911, Issue 3772, p.228-229, The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003.

We also see increasingly stronger associations in relation to London as a place of entertainment and tourism over the thirty-year period, references to ‘music halls’ and ‘nightlife’ as well as to ‘visitors to the metropolis’ are on the increase. Notably, however, references to other European cities or to terms indicating a ‘German’, ‘British’ or ‘European’ metropolis are missing. This does not mean that the Pall Mall Gazette did not report on cities from abroad; its outlook was far from provincial and it had a broad coverage on international events. But the collocation analysis suggested that the term ‘metropolis’ was almost exclusively applied to the city of London and hardly to other cities. This proved an interesting finding, because it indicated that the European dimension of the metropolis would have been perhaps less relevant to the late nineteenth century newspaper reader, and instead London was presented to its readers mostly as a metropolis quite distinct from its European counterparts.


[1] Thanks are due especially to James Baker, then a Digital Curator at the British Library, for assistance in obtaining access to the Pall Mall Gazette, and especially to Melvin Wevers, University of Utrecht, who prepared the data for text-mining purposes.

09 February 2016

Poetic Places App Launch Event

This is a guest post by Sarah Cole, the British Library’s current Creative Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Sarah is working on a project called Poetic Places, which explores 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. 

As the app nears completion, it’ll soon be time to release Poetic Places into the wild and let you good folk experience the result of the project.

To celebrate, we’ve decided to hold a free half-day event at the British Library Conference Centre in London on Friday 18th March 2016, starting at 13:30. We thought this would be a great opportunity to bring together and hear about a variety of projects that deal with literature, cultural heritage and place, to explore different methods and share our findings.

image from
Image taken from page 345 of 'L'Espagne ... Illustrée de 309 gravures dessinées sur bois par Gustave Doré',


Five excellent speakers and myself will be taking attendees through our work, we'll also have tea (& coffee) and a short walk where I’ll invite you to install the app and come exploring the poetic places around the British Library.

We’ll be hearing from:

Sarah Cole, Poetic Places

Andy Ryan, CityRead London

Dr Giasemi Vavoula, Affective Digital Histories

Maya Chowdhry, Tales from Towpath

Dr David Cooper, Manchester Metropolitan University, on literary geographies

Jocelyn Dodd, Talking Statues


There are limited places available for this free event, so go to to secure yours.

For those that can’t make it on the day, we’ll hopefully be recording the event to make it available online.

We look forward to seeing some of you then!

08 February 2016

Cambridge @BL_Labs Roadshow Mon 15 Feb (9.30am - 12.30pm) and (1.30pm - 4.30pm)

The @BL_Labs roadshow moves onto Cambridge and we still have a few places available for our FREE and open to all afternoon showcase event on Monday 15 February between 1.30pm - 4.30pm (booking essential). The event is kindly hosted by the Digital Humanities Network of researchers at the University Cambridge who are interested in how the use of digital tools is transforming scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

  BL_Labs_roadshow-cambridge Cambridge-digital-humanities-netowrk
@BL_Labs Roadshow in Cambridge - Mon 15 Feb (0930 - 1230 and 1330 - 1630), hosted by the Digital Humanities Network at the University of Cambridge.

Building a search engine that works for you (9.30am - 12.30pm).Building-search-engine-that-works-for-you-2

Building a search engine that works for you, Cambridge - Mon 15 Feb (9.30am - 12.30pm).

Led by British Library Labs Technical Lead Ben O'Steen, a special workshop will be held in the morning (9.30am - 12.30pm) which gets under the 'hood' of search engines. Attendees will load some texts from the largely 19th Century British Library digitised Book collection into a search engine to explore the problems, opportunities and assumptions made when creating such a service. The session will be using Elasticsearch, Python, Git and Notepad++.

The aim is to step people through the challenges and compromises required to have something as simple as a Google search service and to explore a few ways to tailor it to specific needs. It involves dealing with XML and the quality of real world data and use python code to put data into and query Elasticsearch. This 3-hour workshop will give participants an understanding of how search engines work from the inside. No technical knowledge is required as a prerequisite but spaces are strictly limited and the focus of this workshop will be on practical application of the ideas. University of Cambridge researchers and students have priority for bookings however you can now book hereHowever, please contact Anne Alexander to see if there have been any last minute cancelations, especially if you are from outside the University and would like to attend.

Labs and Digital Research Showcase with an 'Ideas Lab' (1.30pm-4.30pm).

The showcase in the afternoon (1.30pm-4.30pm) will provide participants an opportunity to:

  • Understand what Digital Research activity is being carried out at the British Library.
  • Discover the digital collections the British Library has, understand some of the challenges of using them and even take some away with you.
  • Learn how researchers found and revived forgotten Victorian jokes and Political meetings from our digital archives.
  • Understand how special games and computer code have been developed to help tag un-described images and make new art.
  • Find out about a tool that links digitised handwritten manuscripts to transcribed texts and one that creates statistically representative samples from the British Library’s book collections.
  • Consider how the intuitions of a DJ could be used to mix and perform the Library's digital collections.
  • Talk to Library staff about how you might use some of the Library's digital content innovatively.
  • Get advice, pick up tips and feedback on your ideas and projects for the 2016 BL Labs Competition (deadline 11 April) and Awards (deadline 5 September).

For more information about the afternoon session, a detailed programme and to book your place, visit the Labs & Digital Research Showcase with an 'Ideas Lab' event page.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

The BL Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

03 February 2016

PhD placements in Digital Scholarship

The British Library is currently selecting professional development projects for doctoral researchers, hosted by our specialist curatorial teams and other Library experts. All applications for the PhD placement scheme must be supported by the applicant’s PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent). Each placement (3 month or PT equivalent) has a dedicated workplan, plus full supervision and training and 3 of these placements will particularly contribute to the field of digital scholarship:

1. DIGITAL HUMANITIES IN CHINA: The Library is working on digitising and cataloguing our vast Chinese collections, to inform the development of future British Library services and support for scholars conducting innovative and computationally driven research. Through the placement, the Digital Research Team in conjunction with Asian & African Collections at the British Library will explore the extent to which Digital Humanities activities - relating to and within China - are being undertaken.

BLOG_ImageImage: Diamond Sutra of 868AD, frontispiece and text.( ID 010627)The British Library Flickr . Reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence2

2. THE FUTURE OF THE PHD THESIS: The rise of the non-text thesis presents a new curatorial challenge in digital archiving. As more universities allow students to submit a non-traditional final thesis for their PhD – for example in the form of a website, software, film, performance, artwork or database - this project will examine the implications for EThOS (, the British Library’s online repository of text-based theses. The project anticipates the potential issues surrounding the non-text theses, and seeks to explore how to adapt to and embrace this growing trend. 

3. DIGITAL –ONLY PUBLISHING: This PhD placement offers an opportunity to contribute to the Library’s on-going commitment to grow our holdings. The successful candidate will focus on a specific sector of the digital-only publishing sector, and their findings will be used to help anticipate future developments. The placement offers a valuable opportunity to gain insight into the many and varied challenges of managing published digital objects on a large scale.

The application deadline for the 2016/2017 PhD placements is 19 February 2016.

Full application guidelines available at:

Any questions please contact


Jane Shepard

Research Support team