Sarah FitzGerald is a linguistics PhD researcher at the University of Sussex investigating the origins and development of Cameroon Pidgin English. She is currently a research placement student in the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Team, using data from the Endangered Archives Programme to create data visualisations
This summer I have taken a break by working hard, I’ve broadened my academic horizons by ignoring academia completely, and I’ve felt at home while travelling hundreds of miles a week. But above all else, I’ve just had a really nice time.
In my last two blogs I covered the early stages of my placement at the British Library, and discussed the data visualisation tools I’ve been exploring.
In this final blog I am going to outline the later stages of my project, I am also going to talk about my experience of undertaking a British Library placement, what I’ve learned and whether it was worth it (spoiler alert, it was).
What I’ve been doing
The final stages of my project have mostly consisted of two separate lines of investigation.
Firstly, I have been working on finding out as much as I can about the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)’s projects in Africa and finding the best ways to visualise that information in order to create a sort of bank of visualisations that the EAP team can use when they are talking about the work that they do. Visualisations, such as the one below showing the number of applications related to each region of Africa by year, can make tables of data much easier to understand.
Secondly, I was curious about why some project applications get funded and some do not. I wanted to know if I could identify any patterns in the reasons why projects get rejected.
This gave me the opportunity to apply my skills as a linguist to the data, albeit on a small scale. I decided to examine the feedback given to unsuccessful applicants by the panel that awards the EAP grants to see if I could identify any patterns. To do this I created a corpus, or electronic database, of texts. This could then be run through corpus analysis software to look for patterns.
This image shows a word list created for my corpus using AntConc software, which is a free and open source corpus analysis tool.
My analysis allowed me to identify a number of issues common to many unsuccessful applications. In addition to applications outside of the scope of EAP there are also proposals which would make excellent projects but their applications lack the necessary information to award a grant.
Based on my analysis I was able to make a number of recommendations about additional information EAP could provide for applicants which might help to prevent potentially valuable archives being lost due to poor applications.
What I’ve learned
As well as learning about visualisation software I’ve learned a lot this summer about the EAP archives.
I’ve found out where applications are coming from, and which African countries have the most associated applications. I’ve learned that there are many great data visualisation tools available for free online. I’ve learned that there are over 70 different languages represented in the EAP archived projects from Africa.
James Ssali and an unknown woman, from the Ham Musaka archive, Uganda (EAP656)
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is just how much archival material is available for research – and on an incredibly broad range of topics. The materials digitised and preserved in Africa over the last 13 years includes:
This wealth of information provides so much opportunity for research and these are just the archives from Africa. The EAP funds projects all over the world.
Shui manuscript from China (EAP143)
In addition to learning about the EAP archives I’ve learned a lot from working in the British Library more generally. The scale of the work that is carried out is immense and I don’t think I fully appreciated before working here for three months just how large the challenges they face are.
In addition to preserving a copy of every book published in the UK, the BL is also working to create large digital archives in order to facilitate the way that modern scholarship has developed. They are digitising books, audio, websites, as well as historical documents such as the records of the East India Company.
View of East India House by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd
Was it worth it?
A PhD is an intense thing to undertake and you have a time limit to complete it. At first glance, taking three months out to work on a placement with little direct relevance to my PhD might seem a bit foolish, particularly when it means a daily commute from Brighton to London.
Far from wasting my time, however, this placement has been an enriching experience. My PhD is on the origins and development of Cameroon Pidgin English. This placement has given me a break from my work while broadening my understanding of African culture and the context in which the language I study is spoken.
I’ve always had an interest in data visualisation and my placement has given me time to play with visualisation tools and gain a real understanding of the resources available. I feel refreshed and ready for the new term despite having worked full time all summer.
The break has also given me thinking space, it has allowed ideas to percolate and given me new skills which I can apply to my work. Taking a break from academia has given me more perspective on my work and more options for how to develop it.
The British Library, St Pancras
Finally, the travel has been a lot but my supervisors have been very flexible, allowing me to work from home two days a week. The up-side of coming to London regularly has been getting to work with interesting people.
Working in a large institution could be an intimidating and isolating experience but it has been anything but. The digital scholarship team have been welcoming and interested, in particular I have had two very supportive supervisors. The British Library are really keen to support and develop placement students, and there is a lovely community of PhD students at the BL some on placements, some doing their PhD here.
I have had a great time at the British Library this summer and can only recommend the scheme to anyone thinking of applying for a placement next year.