Digital scholarship blog

3 posts from February 2021

19 February 2021

AURA Research Network Second Workshop Write-up

Keen followers of this blog may remember a post from last December, which shared details of a virtual workshop about AI and Archives: Current Challenges and Prospects of Digital and Born-digital archives. This topic was one of three workshop themes identified by the Archives in the UK/Republic of Ireland & AI (AURA) network, which is a forum promoting discussions on how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied to cultural heritage archives, and to explore issues with providing access to born digital and hybrid digital/physical collections.

The first AURA workshop on Open Data versus Privacy organised by Annalina Caputo from Dublin City University, took place on 16-17 November 2020. Rachel MacGregor provides a great write-up of this event here.

Here at the British Library, we teamed up with our friends at The National Archives to curate the second AURA workshop exploring the current challenges and prospects of born-digital archives, this took place online on 28-29 January 2021. The first day of the workshop held on 28 January was organised by The National Archives, you can read more about this day here, and the following day, 29 January, was organised by the BL, videos and slides for this can be found on the AURA blog and I've included them in this post.


The format for both days of the second AURA workshop comprised of four short presentations, two interactive breakout room sessions and a wider round-table discussion. The aim being that the event would generate dialogue around key challenges that professionals across all sectors are grappling with, with a view to identifying possible solutions.

The first day covered issues of access both from infrastructural and user’s perspectives, plus the ethical implications of the use of AI and advanced computational approaches to archival practices and research. The second day discussed challenges of access to email archives, and also issues relating to web archives and emerging format collections, including web-based interactive narratives. A round-up of  the second day is below, including recorded videos of the presentations for anyone unable to attend on the day.

Kicking off day two, a warm welcome to the workshop attendees was given by Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, Larry Stapleton, Senior academic and international consultant from the Waterford Institute of Technology and Mathieu d’ Aquin, Professor of Informatics at the National University of Ireland Galway.

The morning session on Email Archives: challenges of access and collaborative initiatives was chaired by David Kirsch, Associate Professor, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. This featured two presentations:

The first of these was  about Working with ePADD: processes, challenges and collaborative solutions in working with email archives, by Callum McKean, Curator for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives, British Library and Jessica Smith, Creative Arts Archivist, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. Their slides can be viewed here and here. Apologies that the recording of Callum's talk is clipped, this was due to connectivity issues on the day.

The second presentation was Finding Light in Dark Archives: Using AI to connect context and content in email collections by Stephanie Decker, Professor of History and Strategy, University of Bristol and Santhilata Venkata, Digital Preservation Specialist & Researcher at The National Archives in the UK.

After their talks, the speakers proposed questions and challenges that attendees could discuss in smaller break-out rooms. Questions given by speakers of the morning session were:

  1. Are there any other appraisal or collaborative considerations that might improve our practices and offer ways forward?
  2. What do we lose by emphasizing usability for researchers?
  3. Should we start with how researchers want to use email archives now and in the future, rather than just on preservation?
  4. Potentialities of email archives as organizational, not just individual?

These questions led to discussions about, file formats, collection sizes, metadata standards and ways to interpret large data sets. There was interest in how email archives might allow researchers to reconstruct corporate archives, e.g. understand social dynamics of the office and understand decision making processes. It was felt that there is a need to understand the extent to which email represents organisation-level context. More questions were raised including:

  • To what extent is it part of the organisational records and how should it be treated?
  • How do you manage the relationship between constant organisational functions and structure (a CEO) and changing individuals?
  • Who will be looking at organisational email in the future and how?

It was mentioned that there is a need to distinguish between email as data and email as an artifact, as the use-cases and preservation needs may be markedly different.

Duties of care that exist between depositors, tool designers, archivists and researchers was discussed and a question was asked about how we balance these?

  • Managing human burden
  • Differing levels of embargo
  • Institutional frameworks

There was discussion of the research potential for comparing email and social media collections, e.g. tweet archives and also the difficulties researchers face in getting access to data sets. The monetary value of email archives was also raised and it was mentioned that perceived value, hasn’t been translated into monetary value.

Researcher needs and metadata was another topic brought up by attendees, it was suggested that the information about collections in online catalogues needs to be descriptive enough for researchers to decide if they wish to visit an institution, to view digital collections on a dedicated terminal. It was also suggested that archives and libraries need to make access restrictions, and the reasoning for these, very clear to users. This would help to manage expectations, so that researchers will know when to visit on-site because remote access is not possible. It was mentioned that it is challenging to identify use cases, but it was noted that without deeper understanding of researcher needs, it can be hard to make decisions about access provision.

It was acknowledged that the demands on human-processing are still high for born digital archives, and the relationship between tools and professionals still emergent. So there was a question about whether researchers could be involved in collaborations more, and to what extent will there be an onus on their responsibilities and liabilities in relation to usage of born digital archives?

Lots of food for thought before the break for lunch!

The afternoon session chaired by Nicole Basaraba, Postdoctoral Researcher, Studio Europa, Maastricht University, discussed Emerging Formats, Interactive Narratives and Socio-Cultural Questions in AI.

The first afternoon presentation Collecting Emerging Formats: Capturing Interactive Narratives in the UK Web Archive was given by Lynda Clark, Post-doctoral research fellow in Narrative and Play at InGAME: Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise, University of Dundee, and Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications, British Library. Their slides can be viewed here.  

The second afternoon session was Women Reclaiming AI: a collectively designed AI Voice Assistant by Coral Manton, Lecturer in Creative Computing, Bath Spa University, her slides can be seen here.

Following the same format as in the morning, after these presentations, the speakers proposed questions and challenges that attendees could discuss in smaller break-out rooms. Questions given by speakers of the afternoon session were:

  1. Should we be collecting examples of AIs, as well as using AI to preserve collections? What are the Implications of this
  2. How do we get more people to feel that they can ask questions about AI?
  3. How do we use AI to think about the complexity of what identity is and how do we engineer it so that technologies work for the benefit of everyone?

There was a general consensus, which acknowledged that AI is becoming a significant and pervasive part of our life. However it was felt that there are many aspects we don't fully understand. In the breakout groups workshop participants raised more questions, including:

  • Where would AI-based items sit in collections?
  • Why do we want it?
  • How to collect?
  • What do we want to collect? User interactions? The underlying technology? Many are patented technologies owned by corporations, so this makes it challenging. 
  • What would make AI more accessible?
  • Some research outputs may be AI-based - do we need to collect all the code, or just the end experience produced? If the latter, could this be similar to documenting evidence e.g. video/sound recordings or transcripts.
  • Could or should we use AI to collect? Who’s behind the AI? Who gets to decide what to archive and how? Who’s responsible for mistakes/misrepresentations made by the AI?

There was debate about how to define AI in terms of a publication/collection item, it was felt that an understanding of this would help to decide what archives and libraries should be collecting, and understand what is not being collected currently. It was mentioned that a need for user input is a critical factor in answering questions like this. A number of challenges of collecting using AI were raised in the group discussions, including:

  • Lack of standardisation in formats and metadata
  • Questions of authorship and copyright
  • Ethical considerations
  • Engagement with creators/developers

It was suggested that full scale automation is not completely desirable and some kind of human element is required for specialist collections. However, AI might be useful for speeding up manual human work.

There was discussion of problems of bias in data, that existing prejudices are baked into datasets and algorithms. This led to more questions about:

  • Is there is a role for curators in defining and designing unbiased and more representative data sets to more fairly reflect society?
  • Should archives collect training data, to understand underlying biases?
  • Who is the author of AI created text and dialogue? Who is the legally responsible person/orgnisation?
  • What opportunities are there for libraries and archives to teach people about digital safety through understanding datasets and how they are used?

Participants also questioned:

  • Why do we humanise AI?
  • Why do we give AI a gender?
  • Is society ready for a genderless AI?
  • Could the next progress in AI be a combination of human/AI? A biological advancement? Human with AI “components” - would that make us think of AIs as fallible?

With so many questions and a lack of answers, it was felt that fiction may also help us to better understand some of these issues, and Rachel Foss ended the roundtable discussion by saying that she is looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, about an artificial being called Klara who longs to find a human owner, which is due to be published next month by Faber.

Thanks to everyone who spoke at and participated in this AURA workshop, to make it a lively and productive event. Extra special thanks to Deirdre Sullivan for helping to run the online event smoothly. Looking ahead, the third workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Archives: What comes next? is being organised by the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the AURA project team, and is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 16 March 2021. Please do join the AURA mailing list and follow #AURA_network on social media to be part of the network's ongoing discussions.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom)

11 February 2021

Investigating Instances of Arabic Verb Form X in the BL/QFP Translation Memory

The Arabic language has a root+pattern morphology where words are formed by casting a (usually 3-letter) root into a morphological template of affixed letters in the beginning, middle and/or end of the word. While most of the meaning comes from the root, the template itself adds a layer of meaning. For our latest Hack Day, I investigated uses of Arabic Verb Form X (istafʿal) in the BL/QFP Translation Memory.

I chose this verb form because it conveys the meaning of seeking or acquiring something for oneself, possibly by force. It is a transitive verb form where the subject may be imposing something on the object and can therefore convey subtle power dynamics. For example, it is the form used to translate words such as ‘colonise’ (yastaʿmir) and ‘enslave’ (yastaʿbid). I wanted to get a sense of whether this form could reflect unconscious biases in our translations – an extension of our work in the BLQFP team to address problematic language in cataloguing and translation.

The other reason I chose this verb form is that it is achieved by affixing three consonants to the beginning of the word, which made it possible to search for in our Translation Memory (TM). The TM is a bilingual corpus, stretching back to 2014, of the catalogue descriptions we translate for the digitised India Office Records and Arabic scientific manuscripts on the QDL. We access the TM through our translation management system (memoQ), which offers some basic search functionalities. This includes a ‘wild card’ option where the results list all the words that begin with the three Form X consonants under investigation (است* and يست*).

Snippet of results in memoQ using the wildcard search function
Figure 1: Snippet of results in memoQ using the wildcard search function.


My initial search using these two 3-letter combinations returned 2,140 results. I noticed that there were some recurring false positives such as certain place names and the Arabic calque of ‘strategy’ (istrātījiyyah). The most recurring false positive (699 counts), however, was the Arabic verb for ‘receive’ (istalam) – which is unsurprising given frequent references to correspondences being sent and received in catalogue descriptions of IOR files. What makes this verb a false positive is that the ‘s’ is in fact a root consonant, and therefore the verb actually belongs to Form VIII (iftaʿal). 

After eliminating these false positives, I ended up with 1349 matches. From these, I was able to identify 55 unique verbs used in relation to IOR files. I then conducted a more targeted search of three cases of each verb: the perfective (past) istafʿal, the imperfective (present) yastafʿil, and the verbal noun (istifʿāl). I used the wild card function again to capture variations of these cases with suffixes attached (e.g. pronoun or plural suffixes). Although these would have been useful too, I did not look for the active (mustafʿil) and passive (mustafʿal) participles because the single short vowel that differentiates them is rarely represented in Arabic writing. Close scrutiny of the context of each result would have been needed in order to assign them correctly, and I did not have enough time for that in a single day.

List of the Form X verbs found in the TM and their frequency (excluding six verbs that only occur once)
Figure 2: List of the Form X verbs found in the TM and their frequency (excluding six verbs that only occur once)


I made a note of the original English term(s) that the Form X verb was used to translate. I then identified seven potentially problematic verbs that required further investigation. These six verbs typically convey an action that is being either forcefully or wrongfully imposed.

Seven potentially problematic verbs that take Form X in the TM
Figure 3: Seven potentially problematic verbs that take Form X in the TM


My next step was to investigate the use of these verbs in context more closely. I looked at the most frequent of these verbs (istawlá/yastawlī/istīlaʾ) in our TM, first using the source + target view, and then the three-column concordance view of the target text. The first view allowed me to scrutinise how we have been employing this verb vis-à-vis the original term used in the English catalogue description. It struck me that, in some cases, more neutral verbs such as ‘take’ and ‘take possession of’ were used on the English side; meaning that bias was introduced during translation.

Source + target view of concordance results for the verb istawlá
Figure 4: Source + target view of concordance results for the verb istawlá


The second view makes it possible to see the text immediately preceding and succeeding the verb, typically displaying the assigned subject and object of the verb. It therefore shows who is doing what to whom more clearly, even though the script direction goes a bit awry for Arabic. Here, I noticed that the subjects were disproportionately non-British: it is overwhelmingly native rulers and populations, ‘pirates’, and rival countries who were doing the forceful or wrongful taking in the results. This may indicate an unconscious bias that has travelled from the primary sources to the catalogue descriptions and is something that requires further investigation.

Three-column view of concordance results for the verb istawlá
Figure 5: Three-column view of concordance results for the verb istawlá


My hack day investigation was conducted in the spirit of continuous reflection on and improvement of our translation process. Using a verb form rather than specific words as a starting point provided an aggregate view of our practices, which is useful in trying to tease out how the descriptions on the QDL may collectively convey an overall stance or attitude. My investigation also demonstrates the value of our TM, not only for facilitating and maintaining consistency in translation, but as a research tool with countless possibilities. My findings from the hack day are naturally rough-and-ready, but they provide the seed for further conversations about problematic language and unconscious bias among translators and cataloguers.

This is a guest post by linguist and translator Dr Mariam Aboelezz (@MariamAboelezz), Translation Support Officer, BL/QFP Project

02 February 2021

Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: training materials and next steps

Over the past year British Library staff have contributed to the AHRC-funded project "Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship". Led by James Baker, University of Sussex, the project set out to demonstrate the value of corpus linguistic methods and computational tools to the study of legacies of catalogues and cultural institutions’ identities. In a previous blogpost James explained the historical research that shaped this project and outlined the original work plan which was somewhat disrupted by the pandemic.

As we approach the end of the first phase of this AHRC project, we want to share the news about the completion as part of this project of the training module on Computational Analysis of Catalogue Data. The materials take into account the interests and needs of the community for which it is intended. In July James and I delivered a couple of training sessions over Zoom for a group of GLAM professionals, some of whom had previously shown interest in our approach to catalogue data by attending Baker’s British Academy-funded “Curatorial Voice” project.

Screenshot from the December session on Zoom showing a task within the training module
Screenshot from the December session on Zoom showing a task within the training module.


In response to feedback from these sessions we updated the lessons to query data derived from descriptions of photographs held at the British Library. This dataset reflects better the diversity of catalogue records created by different cataloguers and curators over time. British Library staff then took part in a Hack-and-Yack session which demonstrated the use of AntConc and approaches from computational linguistics for the purposes of examining the Library’s catalogue data and how this could enable catalogue related work. This was welcomed by curators, cataloguers and other collections management staff who saw value in trying this out with their own catalogue data for the purpose of improving its quality, identifying patterns and ultimately making it more accessible to users. In December, the near-finished module was presented over Zoom to a wider group of GLAM professionals from the UK, US and Turkey.

Screenshot from the December session demonstrating how to use the concordance tool in AntConc
Screenshot from the December session demonstrating how to use the concordance tool in AntConc.

We hope that the training module will be widely used and further developed by the community and are delighted that it has already been referenced in a resource for researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. In terms of next steps, the AHRC has granted an extension for holding some partnership development activities with our partners at Yale University and delivering the end-of-project workshop which will hopefully lead to future collaborations in this space.

Screenshot showing James Baker delivering the December training session on Zoom with participants' appreciative comments in the chat
James Baker delivering the December training session on Zoom which participants found really useful.

Personally, I gained a lot from this fruitful collaboration with James and Andrew Salway as it gave me a first-hand experience of developing a “Carpentries-style” lesson, understanding how AntConc works, and applying corpus linguistic methods. I want to thank [British Library staff who took part in the training sessions and in particular those colleagues who supplied catalogue data and shared curatorial expertise: Alan Danskin, Victoria Morris, Nicolas Moretto, Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones and Adrian Edwards.

This post is by Digital Curator Rossitza Atanassova (@RossiAtanassova)