A Wonderland of Knowledge - Behind the Scenes of the British Library (Nadya Miryanova work experience)
It was with a mixture of anticipation, curiosity and excitement that I opened the door to the staff entrance and started my two week work placement in the world’s largest library. I have been placed with BL Labs in the Digital Scholarship department, where I am working with Mahendra Mahey (Project Manager of BL Labs) for the following two weeks. After the inescapable health and safety induction, I am now extremely well acquainted with the BL’s elaborate fire alarm system, and following lunch at the staff restaurant, Mahendra provided me with an introduction to the British Library and explained the work undertaken by the BL Labs.
When most people hear the word ‘library’, conventional ideas typically spring to mind, including a copious number of books, and, of course, a disgruntled librarian ironically rather loudly encouraging silence every five minutes. I must admit that initially, my perspective was the same.
However, my viewpoint was soon to be completely turned around.
An extraordinary institution, the British Library is indeed widely known for its remarkable collection of books, it is home to around 14 million. However, contrary to popular belief, these are only a small section of the Library’s vast collections. In fact, the British Library actually has an extremely diverse range of items, ranging from patents to musical scores, and from ancient artefacts dating as far back as 1000 BC to this morning’s newspapers, altogether giving a grand figure of approximately 200 million documented items. I was also delighted to discover that the British Library has the world’s largest collection of stamps! It is estimated that if somebody looked at 5 items each day, it would take an astonishing 80,000 years to see the whole of BL collections.
I learnt that the objective of the BL Labs is to encourage scholars, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs and educators to work with the Library's digital collections, supporting its mission to try to ensure that the wealth and diversity of the Library’s intellectual digital heritage is available for the research, creativity and fulfilment of everyone. At BL Labs, anyone is invited to address an important research question(s) or ideas which uses the Library’s digital content and data, by entering the annual Awards or becoming involved in a collaborative project or even just using the collections in whatever way they want.
Although initially a little nervous when entering this immense institution, my fears evaporated completely, when on my very first day of working here, I was brought immediately into a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, promoted by the sincere kindness and interest that I was met with from each member of the Library's staff.
At precisely 9 o’clock in the morning, I found myself seated at my office desk, looking at the newly filled out Outlook calendar on my computer to see what new and exciting tasks I would be faced with that day and looking out for any upcoming events. My Tuesday consisted mostly of independent work at my desk, and after a quick catch-up with Mahendra at 9.30, where we discussed the working plan for the day and reviewed yesterday’s work, I sat down to start my second full day of work at the British Library.
Between 2013-2016, the British Library Labs held a competition, which looked for transformative project ideas that used the British Library’s digital collections and data in new and exciting ways. The BL Labs Awards recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been carried out using these collections. Mahendra had previously introduced me to the Labs Competition and Awards pages of the BL Labs website, and my main objective was to update the ideas and project submissions on this page, specifically adding the remaining Competition 2016 Entries, reviewing the 2015 and 2014 entries and checking that they were all complete with no entries missing. The competition entries can be accessed via the online archive.
This was an excellent opportunity for me to work on a new editing platform and further enhance my editing skills, which will doubtlessly prove very useful in everyday life as well as in the future. As I worked through editing and updating the pages, what struck me most was the incredible diversity and wide variety of ideas within the competition entries. From a project exploring Black Abolitionists and their presence in Britain, to the proposed creation of a Victorian meme machine, and from a planned political meeting’s mapper, to a suggested Alice in Wonderland bow tie design, each idea was entirely unique and original, despite the fact that each entry was adhering to the same brief. I was mesmerised by the amount of thought and careful planning that was evident in every submission, each one was intricately detailed and provided a careful and thorough plan of work.
After finishing lunch relatively early, I found myself with half an hour of my allocated break still left, and took the opportunity to explore the library. I walked down to the visitor’s entrance, and took a moment to admire the King’s library, a majestic tower of books standing in the British Library's centre. Stepping closer, I was able to read some of the inscriptions on the spines of the books, and was delighted to see that one of them was a book of Catullus’ poetry, poetry that I previously had studied in Latin GCSE. The scope of knowledge that lies within this library is practically endless, and it led me to reflect on the importance of the work of the BL Labs. I thought back to the competition entries, they prove that the possibilities for projects truly have no limit. The BL Labs are able to give scholars, academics and students the opportunity to access some of these digital collections such as books very easily and in any part of the world. Without this access, many of the wonderful projects that the BL currently works on would not be possible.
With that thought fresh in my mind, I was brought back to reality, and returned to my desk to continue working, this time on my mini-project. My last task for the day involved brainstorming ideas for this project. A direct focus was soon established, and I decided to explore the Russian language titles in the 65,000 digitised 19th Century Microsoft books. Later on, I shall be writing a blog post detailing my experience of working on this project.
As the Piccadilly line train arrived at St Pancras, I actually managed to step and head off in the completely right direction for the first time that week (needless to say, my sense of direction is not the best). Feeling rather proud of myself, I walked with a skip in my step, ready to immerse myself in whatever plan of work awaited today.
I looked at the schedule of the day and my heart leapt, I was to be attending my first ever proper staff meeting. It was a very technical meeting, started off by the Head of Digital Scholarship, Adam Faquhar, who talked about current activities taking place in the Digital Scholarship department. Everyone made contributions to the general discussion in the meeting and Mahendra talked about the development of the BL Labs work and the progress made so far. It also provided me with an opportunity to talk about some of the things I was presently doing and I found that everybody was very receptive and supportive. I found it very interesting to be introduced to people who work in the same area on a day-to-day basis with the British Library and enjoyed hearing about all the different projects currently being undertaken.
I then began working on some YouTube transcription work on the winners of the 2016 BL Labs competition, the first one being SherlockNet. The SherlockNet team worked to use convolutional neural networks to automatically tag and caption the British Library Flickr collection of digitised images taken largely from 19th Century books. If that doesn't sound impressive enough, consider the fact that this entry was submitted by three people, who were just 19 years old (undergraduate university students). My work involved listening carefully to each one of the interviews, and typing on a separate word document exactly what Luda Zhao, Karen Wang and Brian Do were talking about. This word document would then be used to make subtitles for the final film and would prove invaluable when creating a storyboard for the final cut down interview.
As I turned the corner of Midland Road and stood to face the traffic lights, my gaze wondered over to the now familiar Alice in Wonderland poster that had the ‘British Library’ printed on it in block capitals. I smiled as I looked up at the Cheshire cat that was perched neatly on top of the first 'I' in the words 'British Library' and the cat smiled back, revealing a wide toothy grin. Alice, likewise, was looking up at the Cheshire cat, and in that moment, her situation was made very credible to me. She was surrounded by this entirely new world of Wonderland, and in a similar way, I find myself in a parallel world of continuous acquisition of knowledge, as each day I am learning something new, with the British Library being the Wonderland. A wonderful and well-known literary extract from Lewis Carol came to mind:
“`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' (Alice)
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
`I don't much care where--' said Alice.
`Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
`--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'
With this in mind, I briskly walked over to the doors of the office.
The beginning of my day consisted mostly of working on my own project, further classifiying a sub collection of Russian titles from the digitised collection of 65,000 books mostly from the 19th century. I worked on further enhancing the organisation and categorisation of these books, establishing a clear methodical approach that began with sorting the books into 2 categories-fiction and non-fiction. Curiously, the majority of the titles were actually non-fiction. After an e-mail correspondence with Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, I discovered that most of the books that were part of the digitisation were acquired at the time when they were published, so they were selected by Katya’s distant predecessors, a fact I found remarkable.
For the second-half of the day, I focussed once more on the YouTube transcriptions work and managed to finish transcribing the interviews for SherlockNet. I then discussed with Mahendra how I would storyboard the interviews in preparation for the film editing process. First, I would have to pick out specific sections of the interview that were most suitable to use in the film, marking the exact timings when the person started speaking to when they finished, and I then placed the series of timings in a chronological order. I was also able to choose the music for the end product (possibly my favourite part!), and I based my selection of the music on the mood of the videos and my perception of the characters of the individuals. I concluded my day by finding a no-copyright YouTube music page and discovered an assortment of possible music tracks. I managed to narrow down the selection to four possible soundtracks, which included titles such as ‘Spring in my Step’ and ‘Good Starts’.
As I swiped my staff pass across the reader which permits access into the building, I checked my phone to see what the time was. It was 8.30am and concurrently, I caught sight of the date, Friday 14th July. I stopped in my tracks. Today was marking my first full working week at the British Library, I could hardly believe how quickly the time went! It forcibly reminded me of the inscription on my clock at home, ‘tempus fugit’ (time flees) because if there’s one thing that has gone abnormally fast here at my time at the BL, it’s time.
In the morning, I attended a meeting discussing an event Mahendra is planning around the Digitised Hebrew manuscripts, and I was lucky enough to meet Ilana Tahan, the Lead Curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections. The meeting included a telephone call to Eva Frojmovic, an academic at the Centre for Jewish Studies in the School of Fine Art of the History of Art and Cultural Studies in the University of Leeds. The discussion was centered mostly on an event that would be taking place where the BL would be talking about its collection of digitised Hebrew manuscripts in order to promote their free use to the general public. The very beautiful Hebrew manuscripts could actually have a very wide target audience, perhaps additionally reaching outside the academic learning sphere and having the potential to be used in the creative/artistic space.
Contrary to popular belief, the collection of 1302 digitised manuscripts can be used by anyone and everyone, leading to exciting possibilities and new projects. The amazing thing about the digital collections is that it makes it possible for someone who does not live in London to access them, where ever they may be in the world, and they can be looked at digitally, and can be used to enhance any learning experience, ranging from seminars or lessons to PhD research projects. The actual hard-copy of the manuscripts can also be, of course, accessed in the British Library. The structure and timings of the event were discussed, and a date was set for the next meeting and for the event. To finish the meeting, Mahendra offered an explanation of the handwriting recognition transcription process for the manuscripts. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and each individual handwritten letter is recognised as a shape by the computer, though it's important that the computer has ground truth (i.e. examples of human transcribed manuscripts). Each letter and word is recognised and processed and will very cleverly convert the original Hebrew handwritten-script written into computerised Hebrew script. This means it would then allow someone to search for words in the manuscript, easily and quickly using a computerised search tool.
For the majority of the afternoon, I was floating between a variety of different projects, doing more work on the YouTube transcriptions and enhancing my mini-project, as well as creating a table of the outstanding blogs that still had to be published on the British Library's Digital Scholarship blog.
At the end of the day, I did a review of my first week, evaluating the progress that I had made with Mahendra. Throughout the week, I feel that I have enhanced and developed a number of invaluable skills, and have gained an incredible insight into the working world.
I will be writing about my second week, as well as my mini-project soon, so please come and visit this blog again if you are interested to find out more about some of the work being done at the British Library.