07 December 2021
Digital transformations and the pandemic: the Digital Scholarship view
Many things have happened in the past couple of years. Following the closure of physical spaces with the first lockdown, and with reduced access to library systems, British Library staff had to swiftly transition to new ways of working. In this blog post I will looked at the ways in which this transformation has been experienced from the perspective of the Library’s Digital Research team. How did we change the way we work, what changes have we encouraged and witnessed, and what practices should we keep for the future?
Let’s look at our Digital Scholarship Training Programme (DSTP), one of our flagship activities. Created in 2012, this programme aims to develop the skills and knowledge of Library staff to support emerging areas of scholarship. With the swift change to working from home, we transitioned the delivery of our training events from onsite to a fully online delivery. We also started recording training sessions, so that members of staff could watch later if they could not attend. This transition took place very early in the pandemic, with the first online training event on offer on 17 March 2020 (“Library Carpentry Workshop: Tidy Data”).
We’ve seen a steady growth in attendance for our training programme. It became easier to provide more training opportunities online, which saw the number of attendees almost doubling between 2018-2019 and 2020-2021, from 819 to 1,552. At the same time, this has become less costly for us, saving on expenses of travel and subsistence. Our training programme has been well subscribed and more people could attend our events due to several reasons: we transitioned quickly to online delivery, when some members of staff could not do their regular tasks and needed some positive distractions; the Library has been encouraging learning and personal development; and, we don’t have to cap number of attendees as before – there are no room capacity limitations.
The shift to online delivery has many benefits: We can deliver more events more easily; we can now invite speakers from abroad – so there’s better international exposure; thanks to the recordings, our training offer is available for staff to use after the training takes place; more staff members learn and develop themselves in different areas of digital scholarship; and, as a result, members of staff make our digital collections more accessible online – which is great for our users.
Admittedly, online training does have its shortcomings. For example, the instructor may not be able to immediately identify and resolve problems that course attendees run into. In addition, many of us prefer face-to-face interaction. However, looking into the feedback we received from attendees, it is overwhelmingly positive – staff would like to have the option of onsite or online delivery, and enjoys the availability of recordings. It is therefore unlikely that we’ll go back to fully onsite delivery. A mixed delivery of our training programme looks like a good way forward. For example, if the training event involves more listening than doing, then online delivery is probably better.
Moving on to digital collections. At the beginning of the pandemic, Library users and staff members lost access to the physical collection. With that lack of access, attention was naturally turned to our digital collections. These became the only source of content for the Library to create engaging online content, to promote materials to researchers, and to provide access to its collections. We have seen colleagues using and communicating digital collections during this time, using digital tools and platforms, resulting in an increase of guest blog posts on the Digital Scholarship blog (about two-thirds of our posts in 2020-2021 were guest posts).
There are so many examples to choose from. See for instance the story map created by Jenny Norton-Wright, curator for Arabic scientific manuscripts from the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership project, visualising the journey during which a musical compendium was written in the 17th century. In fact, this was just one of many digital initiatives coming from the Qatar project – many of which are a result of their Imaging Hack Days – days set aside for the team to use their creative and technical skills to ‘hack’ the material in the digitised collection. From Hannah Nagle’s brilliant guide on how to make collages using images from the British Library Flickr collection, through the Watermarks project unveiling hidden watermarks in manuscripts, to making data into sound and investigating Arabic verb forms, there is something for everyone. You can read more about these and other projects in Laura Parsons’ blog posts here and here.
This past year has also seen more of us harnessing the power of IIIF to tell stories to online audiences. Earlier this year one of our Hack & Yack workshops was based around the topic of ‘Making interactive online exhibits and teaching resources with IIIF Manifests’ by exploring a tool called Exhibit. This tool was created by Mnemoscene for the University of St Andrews, and it allows people to create online exhibits. Several curators and other staff members used this IIIF-powered tool to showcase collection items. These included, for example, an exhibit created by Sara Hale from the Heritage Made Digital programme dedicated to Japanese Design Books; or another exhibit prepared by Jana Igunma, curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, focusing on an illustrated Thai cat treatise.
We have also seen a noticeable increased engagement during the pandemic with our crowdsourcing projects. These became more popular than ever, especially early on when some people could not perform their usual duties or go out, and needed something positive to do. Colleagues have witnessed a very high demand for crowdsourcing tasks, and have received many positive comments and feedback, about how participating and contributing to projects have helped raise the morale during these difficult times. These projects include, for example, In the Spotlight, Living with Machines tasks, Agents of Enslavement, Canadian Wildlife, and the Georeferencer. We now have a landing page for British Library crowdsourcing projects, check it out.
Other crowdsourcing work was done internally by the Collection Metadata team – the ‘crowd’ being British Library staff! Members of staff helped enhancing the metadata of legacy records. For example, colleagues with specific language skills were able to assist with checking machine-assigned language codes, identifying languages and adding keywords to records. Library staff were also adding information such as place and date of publication, genres, and editions, to books digitised as part a partnership with Microsoft.
Working with the Wikimedia family platforms, such as Wikidata, Wikibase and Wikisource, has also been on the rise come pandemic. Earlier this year, the team was joined by Lucy Hinnie, our Wikimedian-in-Residence. Lucy noted repeated references to the way the pandemic has shifted people's attention towards Wikimedia – more prioritisation of Wikimedia-related projects. One such British Library use case was inspired by a Wikisource project taking place at the National Library of Scotland, correcting OCRed text of 3,000 Scottish chapbooks. A staff talk delivered by Gavin Willshaw, then at the NLS, inspired digital curator Tom Derrick’s Bengali Wikisource project, which included two proofreading competitions for digitised and OCRed Bengali books, as part of the Two Centuries of Indian Print project.
Research Libraries UK (RLUK) called this the “Digital Shift” – “an umbrella term for the analogue-digital transition of many library services, operations, collections, and audience interactions.” The “Digital Shift” includes a lot of different things, but from our perspective, it is plain to see that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this digital transformation – and, as long as this is of benefit to our users, we will keep transforming, adjusting, and exploring new directions.