Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

24 April 2019

The ‘Season of Place’ – learning about all things digital mapping

This post by the British Library’s Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, reports on a training ‘season’ dedicated to digital mapping.

One of the British Library Digital Scholarship team’s core purposes is to deliver training to BL staff on a wide variety of digital humanities skills, and we’ve been doing so for over seven years. Since last year, we’ve been experimenting with a new format to deliver our Digital Scholarship Training Programme (DSTP) – that would allow flexibility and adaptability through modularity. We offer a thematic series of talks, hands-on workshops and courses in different shapes and sizes. We call this series a ‘season’ or ‘strand’. Digital Curator Mia Ridge has succinctly described this experimental training format in her recent blog post.

Mia was the first to co-ordinate a series of training modules around a specific topic – content mining for digital scholarship with cultural heritage collections. I was next to organise a second series of training, which we called the ‘Season of Place’. With the help of colleagues such as Gethin Rees (Lead Curator for Digital Map Collections) and Magdalena Peszko (Curator for Map Collections), we’ve planned, co-ordinated and delivered a series of modules on digital mapping, running from December 2018 to the end of March 2019.

The ‘Season of Place’

Creating web maps, visualising collections spatially, and understanding the research potential of digital maps are all unsurprisingly very popular topics among BL staff. Our collection items are naturally rife with associated geographical information, whether place of publication/creation or the mention of place names in the text. Mapping collection items data, whether catalogue records or textual content, in isolation or in conjunction with other data, could offer fresh perspectives on heritage material, boost discovery and empower analysis and research.

The aim of the ‘Season of Place’ was therefore three-fold:

  • To demonstrate the importance of geographical information embedded within BL collections, and the applicability of geospatial tools and technologies to these collections.
  • To provide staff with the skills to use a set of online tools to perform actions such as mapping historical data, geoparsing content and enriching catalogue records with geographical data.
  • To spark inspiration through case studies and examples of cutting-edge visualisations and research using digital maps.

What did we cover?

Our training sessions included talks, courses and hands-on sessions delivered by internal and external experts covering topics such as cataloguing geospatial data, geoparsing, georeferencing, working with online mapping tools, digital research using online maps, and public engagement through interactive platforms and crowdsourcing.

Online tools and platforms included (but were not limited to):

  • Recogito: recently winning Best DH Tool Award, Recogito is an online platform for collaborative document annotation. It is maintained by Pelagios Commons, a Digital Humanities initiative aiming to foster better linkages between online resources documenting the past. Recogito provides a personal workspace where one can upload, collect and organise source materials – texts, images and tabular data – and collaborate in their annotation and interpretation. We had Dr Valeria Vitale deliver a fantastic workshop dedicated to this platform. 
  • Google My Maps: as Google Fusion Tables is shutting down in December 2019, we’ve decided to teach how to use this mapping tool instead. Google My Maps is a free tool that allows the creation of custom maps online in a straightforward way. A great BL case study is an interactive map created by Nick Dykes, visualising the spatial spread of hand-drawn maps and other documents from the War Office Archive.

  • Bounding Box: with this tool for metadata enrichment for catalogue records one can create basic geospatial metadata. This has been used, for example, in Qatar Digital Library catalogue records.
  • Palladio: this set of web-based tools, created by Stanford’s Humanities + Design Lab, can be used to create maps and network visualisations. It’s very useful for showing connections between various entities across time and space.
  • Georeferencer: this is a British Library platform created to crowdsource the georeferencing (assigning points on a map image to corresponding geographical coordinates) of over 50,000 digitised maps from the BL collection. This has been a massive hit, with many people helping us create digital geospatial data for these historic maps.



  • OpenRefine: Owen Stephens delivered his superb OpenRefine course, teaching BL staff the basic capabilities of this tool to clean and normalise data (e.g. in preparation to be mapped). However, this time Owen added some extra location-related topics: retrieving data from online sources (using Name Entity Recognition) and using ‘reconciliation’ services to match local data to external data sources. OpenRefine is a popular tool at the BL, and Graham Jevon from the Endangered Archives Programme is now working on a sequence of regular expressions to standardise EAP data.

We were honoured to have several external speakers coming to the BL and telling us about their ideas and projects. These included Sally Bushell and Rebecca Hutcheon (Lancaster University) talking about ‘Chronotopic Cartographies and Litcraft: Mapping Space and Time in Literature’; John Hessler (Library of Congress) presenting on ‘Machine and Deep Learning for Librarians: Designing Tools for Collections Discovery in the 21st Century’; Leif Isaksen (University of Exeter) on ‘How to Decide What to Where: Semantic Geo-annotation and the Pelagios Network’; and Sam Griffiths (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) talking about ‘Exploring the interface of political meeting places and urban space in Ancoats, Manchester c.1780-1860’.

This impressive line-up was complemented by a public ‘Digital Conversation’ talk and panel on ‘Data, Place and Digital Economies’, chaired by Ian Cooke and included Mark Birkin, Miranda Marcus, Jeremy Morley and Emmanouil Tranos.

What’s next?

My colleague Stella Wisdom has embarked on her promising ‘Season of Emerging Formats’ (based on the BL Emerging Formats project), looking at publication types that are a bit more challenging to curate and preserve. Nora McGregor also has a thing or two up her sleeve, so stay tuned!