THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

15 posts categorized "Americas"

28 June 2019

Digital Conversations: Celebrating Ten Years of the New Media Writing Prize

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As part of our Digital Conversations series and the season of events accompanying the Library's Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition; we invite you to join us for an evening discussing the future of the ‘written’ word.  In partnership with Bournemouth University, if:book uk, and sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library; we are celebrating ten years of the New Media Writing Prize, by hosting a panel event on Thursday 18 July, 18:30 - 20:30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre. To book a ticket go here.

The New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) is an international award, which showcases exciting and inventive, interactive stories and poetry that integrate a variety of formats, platforms, and digital media. 

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On the 18th July, we will have an fascinating discussion featuring previous prize winners and innovative writers from around the world. This event will be chaired by NMWP co-founder and organiser Jim Pope from Bournemouth University, and speaking on the panel will be:

  • Andy Campbell, Digital Director at the One to One Development Trust and the founder/lead author of Dreaming Methods, One to One’s award-winning in-house Virtual Reality, digital storytelling and games development studio. Andy has been a NMWP judge since the prize was launched in 2010, has witnessed innovations and developments in digital publishing and has predictions for what may come next.
Digital Fiction Curios Exterior
Digital Fiction Curios is a unique digital archive of early electronic literature designed in the style of a ‘curiosity shop’, by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston
  • Amira Hanafi is a writer and artist based in Cairo. Her work ‘A Dictionary of the Revolution’, an experiment in polyvocal storytelling, won the New Media Writing Prize in 2018. In 2014, she initiated conversations around keywords used to talk about the 2011 Egyptian uprising and its aftermath with nearly 200 people. The project was published as a website using data visualization to allow readers to navigate through 125 texts that are woven from transcription of this speech.
A Dictionary of the Revolution
A Dictionary of the Revolution, by Amira Hanafi
  • Kayt Lackie, winner of the 2018 NMWP Dot Award for The VESSEL Project in Northern Ontario, Canada. This is an alternate reality game set in a fictionalised version of Elliot Lake. A weekend-long festival where the town of Elliot Lake becomes the setting of a real-world ‘video game’ – where players, as themselves, solve puzzles/gather clues/overcome challenges while experiencing a story created and performed by community participants.
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The Ephemera Box Storytelling Installation from the The Vessel Project
  • Christine Wilks, a digital writer, artist and developer of interactive narratives and playable media. Her digital fiction, 'Underbelly', won the very first New Media Writing Prize in 2010.  She is currently building her own platform for authoring and playing text-driven interactive digital narratives, which she is using to develop a psychological thriller for her practice-based PhD in Digital Writing at Bath Spa University.
Underbelly-Spin the Wheel
Underbelly, by Christine Wilks

We would be delighted to see you there to join our conversation, Thursday 18 July, 18:30 - 20:30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre, please book a ticket from: https://www.bl.uk/events/digital-conversations-celebrating-ten-years-of-the-new-media-writing-prize.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

25 June 2019

Imaginary Cities Exhibition at the British Library

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Until 14 July 2019

Entrance Hall Gallery, British Library

Our new art exhibition, Imaginary Cities, by British Library Labs artist in residence, Michael Takeo Magruder, has been drawing a steady stream of curious visitors since its opening on the 5th April 2019. Staged in the Entrance Hall Gallery, the show features four large technology-based art installations specially commissioned by the Library.

The works represent the artist's creative responses to a set of four nineteenth century city maps of London, Paris, New York and Chicago.

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One of the digitised maps: 'A Plan of London and its Environs', drawn by R. Creighton, engraved by J. Walker. In 'A Topographical Dictionary of England ...' by Samuel Lewis, 1835

These four original digitised maps come from the British Library’s One Million Images from Scanned Books collection, which was made available on Flickr Commons in 2013. In the intervening six years, it has received over one billion views and sparked a wealth of creative responses, from the development of new artificial intelligence research, image tagging software and video games to educational initiatives, commercial products and artworks that have been exhibited all over the world.

From the 65,000 books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that were digitised, some 50,000 images of maps were identified and tagged by volunteers. Read more... Taking these maps as his initial inspiration, Michael then began to develop his ideas for this exhibition.

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Cabinet containing some of the map-rich 19th century books that were digitised at the BL

Imaginary Cities was borne out of Michael's collaboration with British Library Labs, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and British Library funded project that inspires and facilitates exciting and innovative uses of the Library’s digital collections and data. Michael has worked with BL Labs for several years as researcher and artist in residence, putting our digitised resources and the user-data associated with them to work in completely new ways.

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A detail taken from Michael Takeo Magruder's gilded artwork based on the 1872 map of Paris and the public's digital interactions with it

In creating the art installations on display, Michael has employed traditional techniques such as precious metal gilding and woodworking alongside cutting edge digital technologies to produce four very different artworks. He worked closely with the computer scientist, David Steele, who used the digitised maps and data representing the public's live interaction with them to transform the singular into an endless set of iterations.

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UV-active installation based on the 1874 map of Chicago and user interactions

Another of Michael's long-term collaborators, Drew Baker, took the static 2D plans and extruded them into 3D in a real-time virtual game environment – taking the map and creating a synthetic 'city' from it. The resulting artwork is housed in the small darkened room within the gallery space, with a large 2D screen and a VR headset... When you don the Oculus headset, what you see is a virtual reality cityscape based on New York City which is continuously regenerated to reflect the live visitor data associated with the historical map on Flickr Commons, such as page views, interactions and volunteer image tagging.

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Visitor using the Oculus headset to explore the 3D imaginary city based on the digitised map, 'Plan of the City of New York,' created in 1766-76

The exhibition has been reviewed in the press and by leading art magazines such as Studio International and Artlyst as well as featuring in Techworld's Culture Crossover series, which showcases 'examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture'.

We encourage you to come and enjoy the free exhibition over the final weeks of its run. If you haven't yet visited, or are unable to make it to the British Library in person, you can take a virtual tour around the exhibition here (video duration 4:36 minutes):

More videos about Imaginary Cities are available here:

  • A guided tour of the exhibition by Michael Takeo Magruder, 4 April 2019 (duration 30:32 minutes).
  • A conversation with the artist, Michael Takeo Magruder, and his collaborators, Drew Baker, David Steele and the manager of BL Labs, Mahendra Mahey. Chaired by Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, 5 April 2019 (duration 1 hour 15 minutes).
  • The opening night speeches by Prof Dame Carol Black and the artist Michael Takeo Magruder at the private view of Imaginary Cities, British Library, 4 April 2019 (duration 19:31 minutes).
  • Michael talking about his residency with BL Labs at the British Library, 19 October 2017 (duration 6 minutes).

For information on events associated with Imaginary Cities, see www.bl.uk/events/imaginary-cities.

Upcoming events include talks and exhibition tours as part of the Knowledge Quarter Conference on 26 June 2019 and the Imaginary Cities Book Launch on 10 July 2019 (at the British Library).

The Imaginary Cities exhibition is generously supported by The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Posted by Eleanor Cooper on behalf of BL Labs.

19 March 2019

BL Labs 2018 Commercial Award Runner Up: 'The Seder Oneg Shabbos Bentsher'

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This guest blog was written by David Zvi Kalman on behalf of the team that received the runner up award in the 2018 BL Labs Commercial category.

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The bentsher is a strange book, both invisible and highly visible. It is not among the more well known Jewish books, like the prayerbook, Hebrew Bible, or haggadah. You would be hard pressed to find a general-interest bookstore selling a copy. Still, enter the house of a traditional Jew and you’d likely find at least a few, possibly a few dozen. In Orthodox communities, the bentsher is arguably the most visible book of all.

Bentshers are handbooks containing the songs and blessings, including the Grace after Meals, that are most useful for Sabbath and holiday meals, as well as larger gatherings. They are, as a rule, quite small. These days, bentshers are commonly given out as party favors at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, since meals at those events require them anyway. Many bentshers today have personalized covers relating the events at which they were given.

Bentshers have never gone out of print. By this I mean that printing began with the invention of the printing press and has never stopped. They are small, but they have always been useful. Seder Oneg Shabbos, the version which I designed, was released 500 years after the first bentsher was published. It is, in a sense, a Half Millennium Anniversary Special Edition.

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Bentshers, like other Jewish books, could be quite ornate; some were written and illustrated by hand. Over the years, however, bentshers have become less and less interesting, largely in order to lower the unit cost. In order to make it feasible for wedding planners to order hundreds at a time, all images were stripped from the books, the books themselves became very small, and any interest in elegant typography was quickly eliminated. My grandfather, who designed custom covers for wedding bentshers, simply called the book, “the insert.” Custom prayerbooks were no different from custom matchbooks.

This particular bentsher was created with the goal of bucking this trend; I attempted to give the book the feel of the some of the Jewish books and manuscripts of the past, using the research I was able to gather a graduate student in the field of Jewish history. Doing this required a great deal of image research; for this, the British Library’s online resources were incredible valuable. Of the more than one hundred images in the book, a plurality are from the British Library’s collections.

https://data.bl.uk/hebrewmanuscripts/

https://www.bl.uk/hebrew-manuscripts

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In addition to its visual element, this bentsher differs from others in two important ways. First, it contains ritual languages that is inclusive of those in the LGBTQ community, and especially for those conducting same-sex weddings. In addition, the book contains songs not just in Hebrew, but in Yiddish, as well; this was a homage to two Yiddishists who aided in creating the bentsher’s content. The bentsher was first used at their wedding.

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More here: https://shabb.es/sederonegshabbos/

Watch David accepting the runner up award and talking about the Seder Oneg Shabbos Bentsher on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 5.33 to 7.26): 

David Zvi Kalman was responsible for the book’s design, including the choice of images. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he focuses on the relationship between Jewish history and the history of technology. Sarah Wolf is a specialist in rabbinics and is an assistant professor at the Jewish Theology Seminary of America. Joshua Schwartz is a doctoral student at New York University, where he studies Jewish mysticism. Sarah and Joshua were responsible for most of the books translations and transliterations. Yocheved and Yudis Retig are Yiddishists and were responsible for the book’s Yiddish content and translations.

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.

19 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Runner Up: 'Pocahontas and After'

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This guest blog is by Border Crossing, the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award Runners Up, for their project, 'Pocahontas and After'.

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Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self. The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon. The second was taken in 2018 by John Cobb at Marlborough Primary School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister. It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, which was recently honoured in the British Library’s Labs Teaching and Learning category. The exhibition - which was seen by more than 20,000 people at Syon House last summer, and goes to St Andrews in February - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the 2017 ORIGINS Festival. During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers. In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners worked closely with heritage experts from the archives (including the British Library’s own Dr. Philip Hatfield), Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.

Their journeys into the archives were rich and challenging. What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turned out to be nothing of the kind. Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll. In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.

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As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture. Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed. For example, Sebastian Oliver Wallace-Odi, who has Ghanaian heritage, saw how Ronald Mumford’s archive photo had been contrived to show “British patriotism” from First Nations chiefs, riding a car bedecked in a Union Jack, during the First World War. Philip showed him how other photos demonstrated the presence of Mounties at the shoot, emphasising the lack of agency from the subjects. Sebastian countered it with an image in which the red white and blue flag is the symbol of the London Underground where his father works, and the car, like his shirt, is distinctly African.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways. It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project. Photos from the British Library digital collections.

Michael Walling - Artistic Director, Border Crossings. www.bordercrossings.org.uk

Watch the Border Crossing team receiving their Runner Up award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 3.46 to 10.09):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.

05 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Research Award Honourable Mention: 'Doctoral theses as alternative forms of knowledge: Surfacing "Southern" perspectives on student engagement with internationalisation'

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This guest blog is by Professor Catherine Montgomery, recipient of one of two Honourable Mentions in the 2018 BL Labs Awards Research category for her work with the British Library's EThOS collection.British Library slide 1

 ‘Contemporary universities are powerful institutions, interlinked on a global scale; but they embed a narrow knowledge system that reflects and reproduces social inequalities on a global scale’ (Connell, 2017).

Having worked with doctoral students for many years and learned much in this process my curiosity was sparked by the EThOS collection at the British Library. EThOS houses a large proportion of UK doctoral theses completed in British Universities and comprises a digital repository of around 500,000 theses. Doctoral students use this repository regularly but mostly as a means of exploring examples of doctorates in their chosen area of research. In my experience, doctoral students are often looking at formats or methodologies when they consult EThOS rather than exploring the knowledge provided in the theses.

So when I began to think about the EThOS collection as a whole, I came to the conclusion that it is a vastly under-used but incredibly powerful resource. Doctoral knowledge is not often thought of as a coherent body of knowledge, although individual doctoral theses are sometimes quoted and consulted by academics and other doctoral students. It is also important to remember that of 84,630 Postgraduate Research students studying full time in the UK in 2016/17, half of them, 42,325, were non-UK students, with 29,875 students being from beyond the EU. So in this sense, the knowledge represented in the EThOS collection is an important international body of knowledge.

So I began to explore the EThOS collection with some help from a group of PhD students (Gihan Ismail, Luyao Li and Yanru Xu, all doctoral candidates at the Department of Education at the University of Bath) and the EThOS library team. I wanted to interrogate the collection for a particular field of knowledge and because my research field is internationalisation of higher education, I carried out a search in EThOS for theses written in the decade 2008 to 2018 focusing on student engagement with internationalisation. This generated an initial data set of 380 doctoral theses which we downloaded into the software package NVivo. We then worked on refining the data set, excluding theses irrelevant to the topic (I was focusing on higher education so, for example, internationalisation at school-level topics were excluded) coming up with a final data set of 94 theses around the chosen topic. The EThOS team at the British Library helped at this point and carried out a separate search, coming up with a set of 78 theses using a specific adjacent word search and they downloaded these into a spreadsheet for us. The two data sets were consistent with each other which was really useful triangulation in our exploration of the use of the EThOS repository.

This description makes it sound very straightforward but there were all sorts of challenges, many of them technology related, including the fact that we were working with very large amounts of text as each of the 380 theses was around 100,000 words long or more and this slowed down the NVivo software and sometimes made it crash. There were also challenges in the search process as some earlier theses in the collection were in different formats; some were scanned and therefore not searchable.

The outcomes of the work with the EThOS collection were fascinating. Various patterns emerged from the analysis of the doctoral theses and the most prominent of these were insights into the geographies of student engagement with internationalisation; issues of methodologies and theory; and different constructions of internationalisation in higher education.

The theses were written by students from 38 different countries of the globe and examined internationalisation of higher education in African countries, the Americas and Australia, across the Asian continent and Europe. Despite this diversity amongst the students, most of the theses investigated internationalisation in the UK or international students in the UK. The international students also often carried out research on their own countries’ higher education systems and there was some limited comparative research but all of these compared their own higher education systems with one or (rarely) two others. There was only a minority of students who researched the higher education systems of international contexts different from their own national context.

A similar picture emerged when I considered the sorts of theories and ideas students were using to frame their research. There was a predominance of Western theory used by the international students to cast light on their non-western educational contexts, with many theses relying on concepts commonly associated with Western theory such as social capital, global citizenship or communities of practice. The ways in which the doctoral theses constructed ideas of internationalisation also appeared in many cases to be following a well-worn track and explored familiar concepts of internationalisation including challenges of pedagogy, intercultural interaction and the student experience. Having said this, there were also some innovative, creative and critical insights into students engaging with internationalisation, showing that alternative perspectives and different ways of thinking were generated by the theses of the EThOS collection.

Raewyn Connell, an educationalist I used in the analysis of this project tells us that in an unequal society we need ‘the view-from-below’ to challenge dominant ways of thought. I would argue that we should think about doctoral knowledge as ‘the-view-from-below’, and doctoral theses can offer us alternative perspectives and challenges to the previous narratives of issues such as internationalisation. However, it may be that the academy will need to make space for these alternative or ‘Southern’ perspectives to come in and this will rely on the capacity of the participants, both supervisors and students, to be open to negotiation in theories and ideas, something which another great scholar, Boaventura De Sousa Santos, describes as intercultural translation of knowledge.

I am very grateful indeed to the British Library and the EThOS team for developing this incredible source of digital scholarship and for their support in this project. I was delighted to be given an honourable mention in the British Library Research Lab awards and I am intending to take this work forward and explore the EThOS repository further. I was fascinated and excited to find that a growing number of countries are also developing and improving access to their doctoral research repositories (Australia, Canada, China, South Africa and USA to name but a few). This represents a huge comparative and open access data set which could be used to explore alternative perspectives on ‘taken-for-granted’ knowledge. Where better to start than with doctoral theses?

More information on the project can be found in this published article:

Montgomery, C. (2018). Surfacing ‘Southern’ perspectives on student engagement with internationalisation: doctoral theses as alternative forms of knowledge. Journal of Studies in International Education. (23) 1 123-138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315318803743

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Watch Professor Montgomery receiving her award and talking about her project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 6.57 to 10.39):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.

11 May 2018

Digital Conversations @BL: Empowering Technologies

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As part of our Digital Conversations series, we invite you to join us for an evening discussing how Indigenous communities are using new technologies to preserve and promote their culture; this takes place on Tuesday 22 May, 18:30 - 20:30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre, to book a ticket go here.

Various topics and examples of how digital platforms are used by communities across the world will be covered. Including crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, apps, Etsy, videogames and social media.  Chaired by Niamh Moore our panel includes the following speakers:

 

 

  • Gloria O’Neill, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in the United States, is here in person to discuss BAFTA winning game Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), which shares Alaska Native culture and values with the world at large

 

  • Felicity Wright who has over twenty years experience in working with non-profit Aboriginal-owned social enterprises. Currently she works for Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya, Australia, who sell their art and craft work to global audiences from their Etsy store. This will be a recorded presentation introduced by Jo Pilcher, University of Brighton, whose PhD research is about Aboriginal Australian textile production in the Northern Terrority

 

  • Michael Wynne, Digital Applications Librarian, will give an overview of Mukurtu, a free, mobile, and open source content management system platform, which is built with indigenous communities

We are looking forward to a fascinating and lively discussion, so please prepare your questions for the panel! If you can't attend in person, please follow #BLdigital for the twitter stream during the event.

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Game play scene from Never Alone featuring the owl man

This event is sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. It will include a combination of in-person, Skype and pre-recorded presentations. This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom, on twitter as @miss_wisdom.

22 February 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Picturing Canada and Interactive Map (Staff Award Runner Up)

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Putting collection metadata on the map: Picturing Canada

The Picturing Canada project began in 2012 as a British Library, Eccles Centre and Wikimedia UK collaboration to digitise a collection and experiment with releasing high quality reproductions of collection items into the public domain. At its heart the project sought to open up an under-used collection of photographs, connecting them with new audiences and uses outside of the walls of the British Library. It also provided a template for the Library’s subsequent public domain releases and has been provided many around with an insight into the depth of the Library’s Canadian collections.

Before the collection could be released it needed to be digitised and robust metadata created. Fortunately the Library had a good working batch of metadata created off the back of work done by researchers from Dalhousie University in the 1980s. The initial use of this to the project was clear but in digitising the images and putting them and the metadata online something became apparent; most images had some sort of information (be it a title or a photographer’s studio address) that could be used to determine a geographical location for the images.

At the time, this realisation was parked for future investigation but the 2015 exhibition, ‘Canada Through the Lens’, drawing off the same digitised collection, opened up an opportunity to try and use this information to map the collection and generate new insights into its contents. Much of the coordinate determination and mapping was done by Joan Francis, co-awardee of the BL Labs runner-up prize, who worked to find and add coordinates for the photographs. This was a relatively simple but time-consuming process involving finding locations in the metadata image title or, in the case of a photographer’s studio address, on the photograph itself. These text-based locations were then converted into co-ordinates compatible with Google Fusion Tables (there’s an excellent tutorial here) and added to records for each image.

 

The result of this is the map that you see above, a series of points which can be clicked on to see a partial metadata record for the item as well as a link to the photograph itself on Wikipedia Commons. As the work is time-consuming and fraught with potential error we have still only worked to a robust mapping of about four fifths of the collection and this is the work you see here. Interestingly, map is not just a useful finding aid – although it performs this function very well.

Mapping the collection also provides insight into the geography of photographic production in Canada during the period this collection was created (1895 – 1923). It is clear, for instance, how significant the eastern metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal and Quebec are to Canada’s photographic production in this period. Similarly, the corridors of production seen running close to the Canada-US border and occasionally spurring north also suggest the significance of the railroad to Canada’s photographic economy. So the map helps users to find images but also offers more questions; an exciting prospect for continued work.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Philip Hatfield and Joan Francis

Submit a project for one of the BL Labs 2018 Awards! Join us on 12 November 2018 for the BL Labs annual Symposium at the British Library.

03 November 2016

Black Abolitionist Performances and their Presence in Britain - An update!

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Posted by Hannah-Rose Murray, finalist in the BL Labs Competition 2016.

Reflecting back on an incredible and interesting journey over the last few months, it is remarkable at the speed in which five months has flown by! In May, I was chosen as one of the finalists for the British Library Labs Competition 2016, and my project has focused on black abolitionist performances and their presence in Britain during the nineteenth century. Black men and women had an impact in nearly every part of Great Britain, and it is of no surprise to learn their lectures were held in famous meeting halls, taverns, the houses of wealthy patrons, theatres, and churches across the country: we inevitably and unknowably walk past sites with a rich history of Black Britain every day.

I was inspired to apply for this competition by last year’s winner, Katrina Navickas. Her project focused on the Chartist movement, and in particular using the nineteenth century digitised newspaper database to find locations of Chartist meetings around the country. Katrina and the Labs team wrote code to identify these meetings in the Chartist newspaper, and churned out hundreds of results that would have taken her years to search manually.

I wanted to do the same thing, but with black abolitionist speeches. However, there was an inherent problem: these abolitionists travelled to Britain between 1830-1900 and gave lectures in large cities and small towns: in other words their lectures were covered in numerous city and provincial newspapers. The scale of the project was perhaps one of the most difficult things we have had to deal with.

When searching the newspapers, one of the first things we found was the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) is patchy at best. OCR refers to scanned images that have been turned into machine-readable text, and the quality of the OCR depended on many factors – from the quality of the scan itself, to the quality of the paper the newspaper was printed on, to whether it has been damaged or ‘muddied.’ If the OCR is unintelligible, the data will not be ‘read’ properly – hence there could be hundreds of references to Frederick Douglass that are not accessible or ‘readable’ to us through an electronic search (see the image below).

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An excerpt from a newspaper article about a public meeting about slavery, from the Leamington Spa Courier, 20 February 1847

In order to 'clean' and sort through the ‘muddied’ OCR and the ‘clean’ OCR, we need to teach the computer what is ‘positive text’ (i.e., language that uses the word ‘abolitionist’, ‘black’, ‘fugitive’, ‘negro’) and ‘negative text’ (language that does not relate to abolition). For example, the image to the left shows an advert for one of Frederick Douglass’s lectures (Leamington Spa Courier, 20 February 1847). The key words in this particular advert that are likely to appear in other adverts, reports and commentaries are ‘Frederick Douglass’, ‘fugitive’, ‘slave’, ‘American’, and ‘slavery.’ I can search for this advert through the digitised database, but there are perhaps hundreds more waiting to be uncovered.
We found examples where the name ‘Frederick’ had been ‘read’ as F!e83hrick or something similar. The image below shows some OCR from the Aberdeen Journal, 5 February 1851, and an article about “three fugitive slaves.” The term ‘Fugitive Slaves’ as a heading is completely illegible, as is William’s name before ‘Crafts.’ If I used a search engine to search for William Craft, it is unlikely this result would be highlighted because of the poor OCR.

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OCR from the Aberdeen Journal, 5 February 1851, and an article about “three fugitive slaves.”

I have spent several years transcribing black abolitionist speeches and most of this will act as the ‘positive’ text. ‘Negative’ text can refer to other lectures of a similar structure but do not relate to abolition specifically, for example prison reform meetings or meetings about church finances. This will ensure the abolitionist language becomes easily readable. We can then test the performance of this against some of the data we already have, and once the probability ensures we are on the right track, we can apply it to a larger data set.

All of this data is built into what is called a classifier, created by Ben O’Steen, Technical Lead of BL Labs. This classifier will read the OCR and collect newspaper references, but works differently to a search engine because it measures words by weight and frequency. It also relies on probability, so for example, if there is an article that mentions fugitive and slave in the same section, it ranks a higher probability that article will be discussing someone like Frederick Douglass or William Craft. On the other hand, a search engine might read the word ‘fugitive slave’ in different articles on the same page of a newspaper.

We’re currently processing the results of the classifier, and adjusting accordingly to try and reach a higher accuracy. This involves some degree of human effort while I double check the references to see whether the results actually contains an abolitionist speech. So far, we have had a few references to abolitionist speeches, but the classifier’s biggest difficulty is language. For example, there were hundreds of results from the 1830s and the 1860s – I instantly knew that these would be references around the Chartist movement because the language the Chartists used would include words like ‘slavery’ when describing labour conditions, and frequently compared these conditions to ‘negro slavery’ in the US. The large number of references from the 1860s highlight the renewed interest in American slavery because of the American Civil War, and there are thousands of articles discussing the Union, Confederacy, slavery and the position of black people as fugitives or soldiers. Several times, the results focused on fugitive slaves in America and not in Britain.

Another result we had referred to a West Indian lion tamer in London! This is a fascinating story and part of the hidden history we see as a central part of the project, but is obviously not an abolitionist speech. We are currently working on restricting our date parameters from 1845 to 1860 to start with, to avoid numerous mentions of Chartists and the War. This is one way in which we have had to be flexible with the initial proposal of the project.

Aside from the work on the classifier, we have also been working on numerous ways to improve the OCR – is it better to apply OCR correction software or is it more beneficial to completely re-OCR the collection, or perhaps a combination of both? We have sent some small samples to a company based in Canberra, Australia called Overproof, who specialise in OCR correction and have provided promising results. Obviously the results are on a small scale but it’s been really interesting so far to see the improvements in today’s software compared to when some of these newspapers were originally scanned ten years before. We have also sent the same sample to the IMPACT centre for competence of Competence in Digitisation whose mission is to make the digitisation of historical printed text “better, faster, cheaper” and provides tools, services and facilities to further advance the state-of-the-art in the field of document imaging, language technology and the processing of historical text. Preliminary results will be presented at the Labs Symposium.

Updated website

Before I started working with the Library, I had designed a website at http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com. The structure was rudimentary and slightly awkward, dwarfed by the numerous pages I kept adding to it. As the project progressed, I wanted to improve the website at the same time, and with the invaluable help of Dr Mike Gardner from the University of Nottingham, I re-launched my website at the end of October. Initially, I had two maps, one showing the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass, and another map showing speaking locations by other black abolitionists such as William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown and Moses Roper (shown below).

Website-update-maps
Left map showing the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass. Right map showing speaking locations by other black abolitionists such as William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown and Moses Roper.

After working with Mike, we not only improved the aesthetics of the website and the maps (making them more professional) but we also used clustering to highlight the areas where these men and women spoke the most. This avoided the ‘busy’ appearance of the first maps and allowed visitors to explore individual places and lectures more efficiently, as the old maps had one pin per location. Furthermore, on the black abolitionist speaking locations map (below right), a user can choose an individual and see only their lectures, or choose two or three in order to correlate patterns between who gave these lectures and where they travelled. 

Website-update-maps-v2
The new map interface for my website.

Events

I am very passionate about public engagement and regard it as an essential part of being an academic, since it is so important to engage and share with, and learn from, the public. We have created two events: as part of Black History Month on the 6th October, we had a performance here at the Library celebrating the life of two formerly enslaved individuals named William and Ellen Craft. Joe Williams of Heritage Corner in Leeds – an actor and researcher who has performed as numerous people such as Frederick Douglass and the black circus entertainer Pablo Fanque – had been writing a play about the Crafts, and because it fitted so well with the project, we invited Joe and actress Martelle Edinborough, who played Ellen, to London for a performance. Both Joe and Martelle were incredible and it really brought the Craft’s story and the project to life. We had a Q&A afterwards where everyone was very responsive and positive to the performance and the Craft’s story of heroism and bravery.

Hannah-murray-actors
(Left to Right) Martelle Edinborough, Hannah-Rose Murray and Joe Williams

The next event is a walking tour, taking place on Saturday 26 November. I’ve devised this tour around central London, highlighting six sites where black activists made an indelible mark on British society during the nineteenth century. It is a way of showing how we walk past these sites on a daily basis, and how we need to recognise the contributions of these individuals to British history.

Hopefully this project will inspire others to research and use digital scholarship to find more ‘hidden voices’ in the archive. In terms of black history specifically, people of colour were actors, sailors, boxers, students, authors as well as lecturers, and there is so much more to uncover about their contribution to British history. My personal journey with the Library and the Labs team has also been a rewarding experience. It has further convinced me that we need stronger networks of collaboration between scholars and computer scientists, and the value of digital humanities in general. Academics could harness the power of technology to bring their research to life, an important and necessary tool for public engagement. I hope to continue working with the Labs team fine-tuning some of the results, as well as writing some pages about black abolitionists for the new website. I’m very grateful to the Library and the Labs team for their support, patience, and this amazing opportunity as I’ve learned so much about digital humanities, and this project – with its combination of manual and technological methods – as a larger model for how we should move forward in the future. The project will shape my career in new and exciting ways, and the opportunity to work with one of the best libraries in the world is a really gratifying experience.

I am really excited that I will be there in London in a few days time to present my findings, why don't you come and join us at the British Library Labs Symposium, between 0930 - 1730 on Monday 7th of November, 2016?