THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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173 posts categorized "Collaborations"

29 May 2020

IIIF Week 2020

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As a founding member of the International Image Interoperability Framework Consortium (IIIF), here at the British Library we are looking forward to the upcoming IIIF Week, which has organised a programme of free online events taking place during 1-5 June.

IIIF Week sessions will discuss digital strategy for cultural heritage, introduce IIIF’s capabilities and community through introductory presentations and demonstrations of use cases. Plus explore the future of IIIF and digital research needs more broadly. 

IIIF logo with text saying International Image Interoperability Framework

Converting the IIIF annual conference into a virtual event held using Zoom, provides an opportunity to bring together a wider group of the IIIF community. Enabling many to attend, including myself, who otherwise would not have been able join the in-person event in Boston, due to budget, travel restrictions, and other obligations.

Both IIIF newbies and experienced implementers will find events scheduled at convenient times, to allow attendees to form regional community connections in their parts of the world. Attendees can sign up for all events during the week, or just the ones that interest them. Proceedings will be in English unless otherwise indicated, and all sessions will be recorded, then made available following the conference on the IIIF YouTube channel.

To those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I’m especially looking forward to the Fun with IIIF session on Friday 5 June, 4-5pm BST, facilitated by Tristan Roddis from Cogapp. Most of the uses of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) have focused on scholarly and research applications. This session, however, will look at the opposite extreme: the state of the art for creating playful and fun applications of the IIIF APIs. From tile puzzles, to arcade games, via terapixel fractals, virtual galleries, 3D environments, and the Getty's really cool Nintendo Animal Crossing integration.

In addition to the IIIF Week programme, aimed for anyone wanting a more in-depth and practical hands-on teaching, there is a free workshop on getting started with IIIF, the week following the online conference. This pilot course will run over 5 days between 8-12 June, participation is limited to 25 places, available on a first come, first served basis. It will cover:

  • Getting started with the Image API
  • Creating IIIF Manifests with the Bodleian manifest editor
  • Annotating IIIF resources and setting up an annotation server
  • Introduction to various IIIF tools and techniques for scholarship

Tutors will assist participants to create a IIIF project and demonstrate it on a zoom call at the end of the week.

You can view and sign up for IIIF Week events at https://iiif.io/event/2020/iiifweek/. All attendees are expected to adhere to the IIIF Code of Conduct and encouraged to join the IIIF-Week Slack channel for ongoing questions, comments, and discussion (you’ll need to join the IIIF Slack first, which is open to anyone).

For following and participating in more open discussion on twitter, use the hashtags #IIIF and #IIIFWeek, and if you have any specific questions about the event, please get in touch with the IIIF staff at events@iiif.io.

See you there :-)

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

20 May 2020

Bringing Metadata & Full-text Together

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This is a guest post by enthusiastic data and metadata nerd Andy Jackson (@anjacks0n), Technical Lead for the UK Web Archive.

In Searching eTheses for the openVirus project we put together a basic system for searching theses. This only used the information from the PDFs themselves, which meant the results looked like this:

openVirus EThOS search results screen
openVirus EThOS search results screen

The basics are working fine, but the document titles are largely meaningless, the last-modified dates are clearly suspect (26 theses in the year 1600?!), and the facets aren’t terribly useful.

The EThOS metadata has much richer information that the EThOS team has collected and verified over the years. This includes:

  • Title
  • Author
  • DOI, ISNI, ORCID
  • Institution
  • Date
  • Supervisor(s)
  • Funder(s)
  • Dewey Decimal Classification
  • EThOS Service URL
  • Repository (‘Landing Page’) URL

So, the question is, how do we integrate these two sets of data into a single system?

Linking on URLs

The EThOS team supplied the PDF download URLs for each record, but we need a common identifer to merge these two datasets. Fortunately, both datasets contain the EThOS Service URL, which looks like this:

https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.755301

This (or just the uk.bl.ethos.755301 part) can be used as the ‘key’ for the merge, leaving us with one data set that contains the download URLs alongside all the other fields. We can then process the text from each PDF, and look up the URL in this metadata dataset, and merge the two together in the same way.

Except… it doesn’t work.

The web is a messy place: those PDF URLs may have been direct downloads in the past, but now many of them are no longer simple links, but chains of redirects. As an example, this original download URL:

http://repository.royalholloway.ac.uk/items/bf7a78df-c538-4bff-a28d-983a91cf0634/1/10090181.pdf

Now redirects (HTTP 301 Moved Permanently) to the HTTPS version:

https://repository.royalholloway.ac.uk/items/bf7a78df-c538-4bff-a28d-983a91cf0634/1/10090181.pdf

Which then redirects (HTTP 302 Found) to the actual PDF file:

https://repository.royalholloway.ac.uk/file/bf7a78df-c538-4bff-a28d-983a91cf0634/1/10090181.pdf

So, to bring this all together, we have to trace these links between the EThOS records and the actual PDF documents.

Re-tracing Our Steps

While the crawler we built to download these PDFs worked well enough, it isn’t quite a sophisticated as our main crawler, which is based on Heritrix 3. In particular, Heritrix offers details crawl logs that can be used to trace crawler activity. This functionality would be fairly easy to add to Scrapy, but that’s not been done yet. So, another approach is needed.

To trace the crawl, we need to be able to look up URLs and then analyse what happened. In particular, for every starting URL (a.k.a. seed) we want to check if it was a redirect and if so, follow that URL to see where it leads.

We already use content (CDX) indexes to allow us to look up URLs when accessing content. In particular, we use OutbackCDX as the index, and then the pywb playback system to retrieve and access the records and see what happened. So one option is to spin up a separate playback system and query that to work out where the links go.

However, as we only want to trace redirects, we can do something a little simpler. We can use the OutbackCDX service to look up what we got for each URL, and use the same warcio library that pywb uses to read the WARC record and find any redirects. The same process can then be repeated with the resulting URL, until all the chains of redirects have been followed.

This leaves us with a large list, linking every URL we crawled back to the original PDF URL. This can then be used to link each item to the corresponding EThOS record.

This large look-up table allowed the full-text and metadata to be combined. It was then imported into a new Solr index that replaced the original service, augmenting the records with the new metadata.

Updating the Interface

The new fields are accessible via the same API as before – see this simple search as an example.

The next step was to update the UI to take advantage of these fields. This was relatively simple, as it mostly involved exchanging one field name for another (e.g. from last_modified_year to year_i), and adding a few links to take advantage of the fact we now have access to the URLs to the EThOS records and the landing pages.

The result can be seen at:

EThOS Faceted Search Prototype

The Results

This new service provides a much better interface to the collection, and really demonstrates the benefits of combining machine-generated and manually curated metadata.

New openVirus EThOS search results interface
New improved openVirus EThOS search results interface

There are still some issues with the source data that need to be resolved at some point. In particular, there are now only 88,082 records, which indicates that some gaps and mismatches emerged during the process of merging these records together.

But it’s good enough for now.

The next question is: how do we integrate this into the openVirus workflow? 

 

18 May 2020

Tree Collage Challenge

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Today is the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May 2020) and this year’s theme is kindness. In my opinion this starts with being kinder to yourself and there are many ways to do this. As my colleague Hannah Nagle recently reminded me in her recent blog post, creative activities can help you to relax, lift your mood and enable you to express yourself. Also, I personally find that spending time in green spaces and appreciating nature is of great benefit to my mental wellbeing.  UK mental health charity Mind promote ecotherapy and have a helpful section on their website all about nature and mental health.

However, I appreciate that it is not always possible for people to get outside to enjoy nature, especially in the current corona pandemic situation. However, there are ways to bring nature into our homes, such as listening to recordings of bird songs, looking at pictures, and watching videos of wildlife and landscapes. For more ideas on digital ways of connecting to nature, I suggest checking out “Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age” by Sue Thomas, who believes we don’t need to disconnect from the internet to reconnect with the earth, sea and sky.

Furthermore, why not participate in this year’s Urban Tree Festival (16-24 May 2020), which is completely online. There is a wide programme of talks and activities, including meditation, daily birdsong, virtual tours, radio and a book club. The festival also includes some brilliant art activities.

Urban Tree Festival logo with a photograph depicting a tree canopy
Urban Tree Festival 2020

Save Our Street Trees Northampton have invited people to create a virtual urban forest in their windows, by building a tree out of paper, then adding leaves every day to slowly build up a tree canopy. People are then encouraged to share photos of their paper trees on social media tagging them #NewLeaf.

Another Urban Tree Festival art project is Branching out with Ruth Broadbent, where people are invited to co-create imaginary trees by observing and drawing selected branches and foliage from sections of different trees. These might be seen from gardens or windows, from photos or from memory.

Paintings and drawings of trees are also celebrated in the Europeana’s Trees in Art online gallery, which has been launched by the festival today, to showcase artworks, which depict trees in urban and rural landscapes, from the digitised collections of museums, galleries, libraries and archives across Europe, including tree book illustrations from the British Library.

Thumbnail pictures of paintings of trees from a website gallery
Europeana Trees in Art online gallery

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, here at the British Library, we have set a Tree Collage Challenge, which invites you to make artistic collages featuring trees and nature, using our book illustrations from the British Library’s Flickr account.

This collection of over a million Public Domain images can be used by anyone for free, without copyright restrictions. The images are illustrations taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books. You can read more about them here.

As a starting point, for finding images for your collages, you may find it useful to browse themed albums.  In particular the Flora & Fauna albums are rich resources for finding trees, plants, animals and birds.

To learn how to make digital collages, my colleague Hannah Nagle has written a handy guide, to help get you started. You can download this here.

We hope you have fun and we can’t wait to see your collage creations! So please post your pictures to Twitter and Instagram using #GreatTree and #UrbanTreeFestival. British Library curators will be following the challenge with interest and showcasing their favourite tree collages in future blog posts, so watch this space!

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

14 May 2020

Searching eTheses for the openVirus project

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This is a guest post by Andy Jackson (@anjacks0n), Technical Lead for the UK Web Archive and enthusiastic data-miner.

Introduction

The COVID-19 outbreak is an unprecedented global crisis that has prompted an unprecedented global response. I’ve been particularly interested in how academic scholars and publishers have responded:

It’s impressive how much has been done in such a short time! But I also saw one comment that really stuck with me:

“Our digital libraries and archives may hold crucial clues and content about how to help with the #covid19 outbreak: particularly this is the case with scientific literature. Now is the time for institutional bravery around access!”
– @melissaterras

Clearly, academic scholars and publishers are already collaborating. What could digital libraries and archives do to help?

Scale, Audience & Scope

Almost all the efforts I’ve seen so far are focused on helping scientists working on the COVID-19 response to find information from publications that are directly related to coronavirus epidemics. The outbreak is much bigger than this. In terms of scope, it’s not just about understanding the coronavirus itself. The outbreak raises many broader questions, like:

  • What types of personal protective equipment are appropriate for different medical procedures?
  • How effective are the different kinds of masks when it comes to protecting others?
  • What coping strategies have proven useful for people in isolation?

(These are just the examples I’ve personally seen requests for. There will be more.)

Similarly, the audience is much wider than the scientists working directly on the COVID-19 response. From medical professions wanting to know more about protective equipment, to journalists looking for context and counter-arguments.

As a technologist working at the British Library, I felt like there must be some way I could help this situation. Some way to help a wider audience dig out any potentially relevant material we might hold?

The openVirus Project

While looking out for inspiration, I found Peter Murray-Rust’s openVirus project. Peter is a vocal supporter of open source and open data, and had launched an ambitious attempt to aggregate information relating to viruses and epidemics from scholarly publications.

In contrast to the other efforts I’d seen, Peter wanted to focus on novel data-mining methods, and on pulling in less well-known sources of information. This dual focus on text analysis and on opening up underutilised resources appealed to me. And I already had a particular resource in mind…

EThOS

Of course, the British Library has a very wide range of holdings, but as an ex-academic scientist I’ve always had a soft spot for EThOS, which provides electronic access to UK theses.

Through the web interface, users can search the metadata and abstracts of over half a million theses. Furthermore, to support data mining and analysis, the EThOS metadata has been published as a dataset. This dataset includes links to institutional repository pages for many of the theses.

Although doctoral theses are not generally considered to be as important as journal articles, they are a rich and underused source of information, capable of carrying much more context and commentary than a brief article[1].

The Idea

Having identified EThOS as source of information, the idea was to see if I could use our existing UK Web Archive tools to collect and index the full-text of these theses, build a simple faceted search interface, and perform some basic data-mining operations. If that worked, it would allow relevant theses to be discovered and passed to the openVirus tools for more sophisticated analysis.

Preparing the data sources

The links in the EThOS dataset point to the HTML landing-page for each theses, rather than to the full text itself. To get to the text, the best approach would be to write a crawler to find the PDFs. However, it would take a while to create something that could cope with the variety of ways the landing pages tend to be formatted. For machines, it’s not always easy to find the link to the actual theses!

However, many of the universities involved have given the EThOS team permission to download a copy of their theses for safe-keeping. The URLs of the full-text files are only used once (to collect each thesis shortly after publication), but have nevertheless been kept in the EThOS system since then. These URLs are considered transient (i.e. likely to ‘rot’ over time) and come with no guarantees of longer-term availability (unlike the landing pages), so are not included in the main EThOS dataset. Nevertheless, the EThOS team were able to give me the list of PDF URLs, making it easier to get started quickly.

This is far from ideal: we will miss theses that have been moved to new URLs, and from universities that do not take part (which, notably, includes Oxford and Cambridge). This skew would be avoided if we were to use the landing-page URLs provided for all UK digital theses to crawl the PDFs. But we need to move quickly.

So, while keeping these caveats in mind, the first task was to crawl the URLs and see if the PDFs were still there…

Collecting the PDFs

A simple Scrapy crawler was created, one that could read the PDF URLs and download them without overloading the host repositories. The crawler itself does nothing with them, but by running behind warcprox the web requests and responses (including the PDFs) can be captured in the standardised Web ARChive (WARC) format.

For 35 hours, the crawler attempted to download the 130,330 PDF URLs. Quite a lot of URLs had already changed, but 111,793 documents were successfully downloaded. Of these, 104,746 were PDFs.

All the requests and responses generated by the crawler were captured in 1,433 WARCs each around 1GB in size, totalling around 1.5TB of data.

Processing the WARCs

We already have tools for handling WARCs, so the task was to re-use them and see what we get. As this collection is mostly PDFs, Apache Tika and PDFBox are doing most of the work, but the webarchive-discovery wrapper helps run them at scale and add in additional metadata.

The WARCs were transferred to our internal Hadoop cluster, and in just over an hour the text and associated metadata were available as about 5GB of compressed JSON Lines.

A Legal Aside

Before proceeding, there’s legal problem that we need to address. Despite being freely-available over the open web, the rights and licenses under which these documents are being made available can be extremely varied and complex.

There’s no problem gathering the content and using it for data mining. The problem is that there are limitations on what we can redistribute without permission: we can’t redistribute the original PDFs, or any close approximation.

However, collections of facts about the PDFs are fine.

But for the other openVirus tools to do their work, we need to be able to find out what each thesis are about. So how can we make this work?

One answer is to generate statistical summaries of the contents of the documents. For example, we can break the text of each document up into individual words, and count how often each word occurs. These word frequencies are a no substitute for the real text, but are redistributable and suitable for answering simple queries.

These simple queries can be used to narrow down the overall dataset, picking out a relevant subset. Once the list of documents of interest is down to a manageable size, an individual researcher can download the original documents themselves, from the original hosts[2]. As the researcher now has local copies, they can run their own tools over them, including the openVirus tools.

Word Frequencies

second, simpler Hadoop job was created, post-processing the raw text and replacing it with the word frequency data. This produced 6GB of uncompressed JSON Lines data, which could then be loaded into an instance of the Apache Solr search tool [3].

While Solr provides a user interface, it’s not really suitable for general users, nor is it entirely safe to expose to the World Wide Web. To mitigate this, the index was built on a virtual server well away from any production systems, and wrapped with a web server configured in a way that should prevent problems.

The API this provides (see the Solr documentation for details) enables us to find which theses include which terms. Here are some example queries:

This is fine for programmatic access, but with a little extra wrapping we can make it more useful to more people.

APIs & Notebooks

For example, I was able to create live API documentation and a simple user interface using Google’s Colaboratory:

Using the openVirus EThOS API

Google Colaboratory is a proprietary platform, but those notebooks can be exported as more standard Jupyter Notebooks. See here for an example.

Faceted Search

Having carefully exposed the API to the open web, I was also able to take an existing browser-based faceted search interface and modify to suite our use case:

EThOS Faceted Search Prototype

Best of all, this is running on the Glitch collaborative coding platform, so you can go look at the source code and remix it yourself, if you like:

EThOS Faceted Search Prototype – Glitch project

Limitations

The main limitation of using word-frequencies instead of full-text is that phrase search is broken. Searching for face AND mask will work as expected, but searching for “face mask” doesn’t.

Another problem is that the EThOS metadata has not been integrated with the raw text search. This would give us a much richer experience, like accurate publication years and more helpful facets[4].

In terms of user interface, the faceted search UI above is very basic, but for the openVirus project the API is likely to be of more use in the short term.

Next Steps

To make the search more usable, the next logical step is to attempt to integrate the full-text search with the EThOS metadata.

Then, if the results look good, we can start to work out how to feed the results into the workflow of the openVirus tool suite.

 


1. Even things like negative results, which are informative but can be difficult to publish in article form. ↩︎

2. This is similar data sharing pattern used by Twitter researchers. See, for example, the DocNow Catalogue. ↩︎

3. We use Apache Solr a lot so this was the simplest choice for us. ↩︎

4. Note that since writing this post, this limitation has been rectified. ↩︎

 

04 May 2020

VisibleWikiWomen 2020 Campaign

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May the 4th be with you!

When I think of Star Wars, one of the first characters that comes to mind, is brave, quick witted and feisty Princess Leia, General of the Resistance, played by the unforgettable Carrie Fisher. Leia is a role model for nerdy girls throughout the galaxy! Sadly I don’t have any photos of the time I went a friend’s fancy dress party as Leia, wearing a long floaty white high necked gown, and sporting the cinnamon bun hairstyle (this was when I had much longer hair), but I remember having an absolute blast pretending to be one of my heros for an evening :-)

However, we don’t have to look as far as the fictional planet of Alderaan to find female heros and role models. #VisibleWikiWomen is an annual campaign to make all women, especially black, brown, indigenous and trans women, visible on Wikipedia and the broader internet. This global campaign brings together Wikimedians, feminist and women’s organisations, and cultural institutions in a worldwide effort to reduce the gender gap and the lack of images of women in the biggest online free encyclopedia.

#VisibleWikiWomen campaign logo image; silhouette of a woman taking a photograph with a camera
#VisibleWikiWomen campaign logo image

Due to COVID-19, the world is going through a collective experience of deep anxiety and uncertainty. It is a deeply important time for collective solidarity and support. The work of female artists, actresses, writers and musicians is entertaining us and lifting our spirits during the long days of lockdown. However, we often miss “seeing” and appreciating the women who are part of the critical infrastructure of care that keeps us going in times like this: health workers, carers, cashiers, cleaners, cooks, activists, scientists, policy-makers and so many more. 

Next weekend, 9-12 May 2020, is the #VisibleWikiWomen Edit-a-thon: Women in critical infrastructures of care. To acknowledge, affirm, support and raise awareness of these incredible women. During a time where we isolate ourselves physically, #VisibleWikiWomen is an opportunity where we can come together virtually, to introduce and celebrate online, the faces, work, and wisdom of women who have often been missing from the world’s shared knowledge and histories. 

The goal of this online event is to gather and upload, good quality images of women, which are in the public domain, or under free license, to Wikimedia Commons (the image file repository for Wikipedia) under the VisibleWikiWomen category and have fun! These images could be photographs or drawings of women, as well as images of their work, with proper consent. If you are not sure where to start, there will be some online training sessions on how to upload images to Commons and also group conversations, where participants can ask questions and share their experiences participating in the campaign.

The Edit-a-thon is being organised by:

Schedule for the online event is:

  • May 9 (Saturday) - online training at 12pm UTC (English session) and 3pm UTC (Spanish session). Each session will be a 1:30 hour video-call
  • From May 9 to May 12 - uploading images to Wikimedia Commons at each participant's preferred time
  • May 11 (Monday) - Q&A online session for troubleshooting and discussing issues, at 2pm UTC (English session) and 5pm UTC (Spanish session)

Many other organisations have joined as institutional partners, including Wikimedia UK and the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) Consortium, who have asked their member institutions, including the British Library, to identify and encourage reuse of openly licensed digitised images that fit the criteria for this campaign. For more information, check out the “Guide for Cultural and Memory Institutions to make women visible on Wikipedia” created by Whose Knowledge?. If you use any digitised British Library images, please let us know (by emailing digitalresearch(at)bl(dot)uk), as we always love to hear how people have used our collections.

Logo images of the VisibleWikiWomen partner organisations
Logos of some of the VisibleWikiWomen partner organisations

In the British Library we have some experience of running Wikipedia edit-a-thons to help address the gender imbalance; we have held a number of successful Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women edit-a-thons, led by Polly Russell. Also, for International Women’s Day in 2019, the British Library & Qatar National Library Partnership, organised an Imaging Hack Day, which produced interactive photographs, story maps and a zine.

People editing Wikipedia pages
Photograph of the second British Library Wiki-Food and (mostly) Women edit-a-thon on 6th July 2015

Our landmark exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, was due to open in the Library last month. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the on-site exhibition is postponed. However, in the meantime, we are exploring women’s rights via our online channels, alongside writers, artists and activists. Our first offering is a tribute to writer Mary Wollstonecraft, a podcast featuring historian Dan Snow, Lady Hale, campaigner Bee Rowlatt, scholar Professor Emma Clery, actor Saffron Burrows and musician Jade Ellins, paying homage to the foremother of feminism.

Good luck to all those taking part in the #VisibleWikiWomen 2020 campaign, May the FORCE be with you!

This post is by Jedi Librarian, Jocasta Nu, sorry I just wanted to link to Wookieepedia! It is actually written by Digital Curator (which is a just as cool job title as a Jedi Librarian) Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

24 April 2020

BL Labs Learning & Teaching Award Winners - 2019 - The Other Voice - RCA

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Innovations in sound and art

Dr Matt Lewis, Tutor of Digital Direction and Dr Eleanor Dare, Reader of Digital Media both at the School of Communication, at the Royal College of Art and Mary Stewart Curator, Oral History and Deputy Director of National Life Stories at the British Library reflect on an ongoing and award-winning collaboration (posted on behalf of them by Mahendra Mahey, BL Labs Manager).

In spring 2019, based in both the British Library and the Royal College of Art School of Communication, seven students from the MA Digital Direction course participated in an elective module entitled The Other Voice. After listening in-depth to a selection of oral history interviews, the students learnt how to edit and creatively interpret oral histories, gaining insight into the complex and nuanced ethical and practical implications of working with other people’s life stories. The culmination of this collaboration was a two-day student-curated showcase at the British Library, where the students displayed their own creative and very personal responses to the oral history testimonies.

The culmination of this collaboration was a two-day student-curated showcase at the British Library, where the students displayed their own creative and very personal responses to the oral history testimonies. The module was led by Eleanor Dare (Head of Programme for MA Digital Direction, RCA), Matt Lewis (Sound Artist and Musician and RCA Tutor) and Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History Curator). We were really pleased that over 100 British Library staff took the time to come to the showcase, engage with the artwork and discuss their responses with the students.

Eleanor reflects:

The students have benefited enormously from this collaboration, gaining a deeper understanding of the ethics of editing, the particular power of oral history and of course, the feedback and stimulation of having a show in the British Library.”

We were all absolutely delighted that the Other Voice group were the winners of the BL Labs Teaching and Learning Award 2019, presented in November 2019 at a ceremony at the British Library Knowledge Centre.  Two students, Karthika Sakthivel and Giulia Brancati, also showcased their work at the 2019 annual Oral History Society Regional Network Event at the British Library - and contributed to a wide ranging discussion reflecting on their practice and the power of oral history with a group of 35 oral historians from all over the UK.  The collaboration has continued as Mary and Matt ran ‘The Other Voice’ elective in spring 2020, where the students adapted to the Covid-19 Pandemic, producing work under lockdown, from different locations around the world. 

Here is just a taster of the amazing works the students created in 2019, which made them worthy winners of the BL Labs Teaching and Learning Award 2019.

Karthika Sakthivel and Giulia Brancati were both inspired by the testimony of Irene Elliot, who was interviewed by Dvora Liberman in 2014 for an innovative project on Crown Court Clerks. They were both moved by Irene’s rich description of her mother’s hard work bringing up five children in 1950s Preston.

On the way back by Guilia Brancati

Giulia created On the way back an installation featuring two audio points – one with excerpts of Irene’s testimony and another an audio collage inspired by Irene’s description. Two old fashioned telephones played the audio, which the listener absorbed while curled up in an arm chair in a fictional front room. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.

Irene-eilliot
Irene Elliot's testimony interwoven with the audio collage (C1674/05)
Audio collage and photography © Giulia Brancati.
Listen here

Giulia commented:

In a world full of noise and overwhelming information, to sit and really pay attention to someone’s personal story is an act of mindful presence. This module has been continuous learning experience in which ‘the other voice’ became a trigger for creativity and personal reflection.”

Memory Foam by Karthika Sakthivel

Inspired by Irene’s testimony Karthika created a wonderful sonic quilt, entitled Memory Foam.

Karthika explains,

There was power in Irene’s voice, enough to make me want to sew - something I’d never really done on my own before. But in her story there was comfort, there was warmth and that kept me going.”

Illustrated with objects drawn from Irene's memories, each square of the patchwork quilt encased conductive fabric that triggered audio clips. Upon touching each square, the corresponding story would play.

Karthika further commented,

The initial visitor interactions with the piece gave me useful insights that enabled me to improve the experience in real time by testing alternate ways of hanging and displaying the quilt. After engaging with the quilt guests walked up to me with recollections of their own mothers and grandmothers – and these emotional connections were deeply rewarding.”

Karthika, Giulia and the whole group were honoured that Irene and her daughter Jayne travelled from Preston to come to the exhibition, Karthika:

"It was the greatest honour to have her experience my patchwork of her memories. This project for me unfurled yards of possibilities, the common thread being - the power of a voice.”

Memory-foam
Irene and her daughter Jayne experiencing Memory Foam © Karthika Sakthivel.
Irene's words activated by touching the lime green patch with lace and a zip (top left of the quilt) (C1674/05)
Listen here

Meditations in Clay by James Roadnight and David Sappa

Listening to ceramicist Walter Keeler's memories of making a pot inspired James Roadnight and David Sappa to travel to Cornwall and record new oral histories to create Meditations in Clay. This was an immersive documentary that explores what we, as members of this modern society, can learn from the craft of pottery - a technology as old as time itself. The film combines interviews conducted at the Bernard Leach pottery with audio-visual documentation of the St Ives studio and its rugged Cornish surroundings.


Meditations in Clay, video montage © James Roadnight and David Sappa.

Those attending the showcase were bewitched as they watched the landscape documentary on the large screen and engaged with the selection of listening pots, which when held to the ear played excerpts of the oral history interviews.

James and David commented,

This project has taught us a great deal about the deep interview techniques involved in Oral History. Seeing visitors at the showcase engage deeply with our work, watching the film and listening to our guided meditation for 15, 20 minutes at a time was more than we could have ever imagined.”

Beyond Form

Raf Martins responded innovatively to Jonathan Blake’s interview describing his experiences as one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. In Beyond Form Raf created an audio soundscape of environmental sounds and excerpts from the interview which played alongside a projected 3D hologram based on the cellular structure of the HIV virus. The hologram changed form and shape when activated by the audio – an intriguing visual artefact that translated the vibrant individual story into a futuristic media.

Beyond-form
Jonathan Blake's testimony interwoven with environmental soundscape (C456/104) Soundscape and image © Raf Martins.
Listen here

Stiff Upper Lip

Also inspired by Jonathan Blake’s interview was the short film Stiff Upper Lip by Kinglsey Tao which used clips of the interview as part of a short film exploring sexuality, identity and reactions to health and sickness.

Donald in Wonderland

Donald Palmer’s interview with Paul Merchant contained a wonderful and warm description of the front room that his Jamaican-born parents ‘kept for best’ in 1970s London. Alex Remoleux created a virtual reality tour of the reimagined space, entitled Donald in Wonderland, where the viewer could point to various objects in the virtual space and launch the corresponding snippet of audio.

Alex commented,

I am really happy that I provided a Virtual Reality experience, and that Donald Palmer himself came to see my work. In the picture below you can see Donald using the remote in order to point and touch the objects represented in the virtual world.”

Donald-wonderland
Donald Palmer describes his parents' front room (C1379/102)
Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, exploring the virtual reality space (pictured) created by Alex Remoleux.
Listen here

Showcase at the British Library

The reaction to the showcase from the visitors and British Library staff was overwhelmingly positive, as shown by this small selection of comments. We were incredibly grateful to interviewees Irene and Donald for attending the showcase too. This was an excellent collaboration: RCA students and staff alike gained new insights into the significance and breadth of the British Library Oral History collection and the British Library staff were bowled over by the creative responses to the archival collection.

Feedback
Examples of feedback from British Library showcase of 'The Other Voice' by Royal College of Art

With thanks to the MA Other Voice cohort Giulia Brancati, Raf Martins, Alexia Remoleux, James Roadnight, Karthika Sakthivel, David Sappa and Kingsley Tao, RCA staff Eleanor Dare and Matt Lewis & BL Oral History Curator Mary Stewart, plus all the interviewees who recorded their stories and the visitors who took the time to attend the showcase.

15 April 2020

Rapidly pivoting to online delivery of a Library Carpentry course

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This blogpost is by Jez Cope, Data Services Lead in the British Library’s Research Infrastructure Services team with contributions from Nora McGregor, Digital Curator, British Library Digital Research Team.

Nora wrote a piece the other day about Learning in Lockdown, suggesting a number of places you can find online resources to learn from while working from home. She also mentioned that we were running our own experiments on this, having been forced by circumstance to pivot our current Library Carpentry course to online delivery for colleagues stuck at home under lockdown. This post is an attempt to summarise some of the things we’ve learned so far about that.

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From in-person to online

A series of Library Carpentry workshops were planned last month as part of our regular staff Digital Scholarship Training Programme. It was a collaboration between Sarah Stewart and me from Research Infrastructure Services, and Nora McGregorDaniel van Strien and Deirdre Sullivan from Digital Scholarship, two teams in the Collections division of the British Library. 

The original plan was to run three, slightly personalised for the British Library context, 2-hour workshops at weekly intervals, in person at our flagship site at St Pancras, London, for roughly 15 staff members:

  1. Tidy Data
  2. Working with Text in the Command Line
  3. GitHub & Git Pages

We also planned to do an optional fourth session covering Python & Jupyter Notebooks. All four sessions were based on material from the Library Carpentry community, which includes a significant percentage of what we call “live coding”: the instructor demonstrates use of a tool or programming language live with a running explanation, and participants follow along, duplicating what the instructor does on their own workstation/laptop and asking questions as they arise.

The team agreed (the Friday before, eek!) to try running Session 1: Tidy Data fully online via Zoom instead of face-to-face. By that point though the Library was still open, many of the staff attending were either already working remotely, or expecting to shortly, so we thought we’d get a jump on trying to run the sessions online rather than force staff into a small enclosed training room!

So we ran that first session online, and then asked the participants what they thought: would they like us to postpone the rest of the course until we could run it face-to-face, or at least until we’ve all got more used to remote ways of working. The overwhelming response was that everyone would like to continue the rest of the workshops as planned, so we did! Below we've put together just some of our first reflections and things we've learned from pivoting to online delivery of a Library Carpentry style workshop. 

Photo of woman wearing headphones sitting at desk by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Our experiences & tips

It's a good time to reflect on your teaching practice and learn a bit more about how people learn. If you only read one book on this subject, make it How Learning Works Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching” (Ambrose et al, 2010), which does a great job of busting some common learning myths and presents research-backed principles with guidance on how to implement them practically.

In-person workshops, particularly of a technical nature, will not directly translate into an equivalent online session, so don’t even try! The latter should be much shorter than what you would expect to deliver in person. The key is to minimise cognitive load: brains work best when they can concentrate on one thing at a time in relatively short bursts. Right now, everyone is already a bit overtaxed than normal just trying to adapt to the new state of affairs, so be prepared to cover a lot less material, perhaps over shorter more frequent sessions if necessary, than you might otherwise expect.

With that in mind, we found it useful to use our live online session time primarily as a way to get people set up and familiar with the technology and coursework, and to give them enough background information to instill confidence in them to continue the learning in more depth in their own time. We feel the Library Carpentry lessons are very well suited for this kind of live + asynchronous approach.

Before your session

  • Manage expectations from the outset. Be clear with participants about what they can expect from the new online session, particularly if it is a modification of a course typically given in person. Especially right now, many people are having to start using online tools that they’re unfamiliar with, so make sure everyone understands that’s ok, and that time (and resource) will be built into the course to help everyone navigate any issues. Stress that patience (and forgiveness!) with themselves, each other, the instructor, and the process is essential! 
  • Decide what tools you’re going to use and test them out to become familiar with them. If possible, give your participants an opportunity to try things out beforehand too, so they’re not learning the tools at the same time as learning your content.
  • If your training is of a technical nature, it can be helpful to survey participants ahead of time about what sort of computing environment they have at home. We found it useful to get a sense of what operating systems folks would be using so that we could be prepared for the inevitable Mac vs. Windows questions and whether or not they were familiar with videoconferencing tools and such.

  • Share course materials with participants (especially pre-course setup instructions and anticipated schedule) well ahead of time. It can be much harder to follow along remotely, and easier to get lost if you get distracted by a call of nature or family member. Providing structure, eliminating surprises and giving everyone time to acclimate to material ahead of time will help the session run smoothly. 

During your session

  • Turn on your video; people like to be able to see who’s teaching them, IDK, I guess it’s a human thing. Evidence on whether this actually improves learning is patchy, but there is good evidence that learners prefer it. On the flipside, you might encourage your participants, who can, to turn on their video if possible, as this can help the presenter connect with the class. 

  • Take some time at the start to make sure everyone is aware and familiar with the features of the conferencing tool you're using. At a minimum make sure everyone is aware of the mechanisms available to them for participating and communicating during the session. We used Zoom to deliver this course and found it was helpful to point out that the "Group" view setting is more ideal than the "Speaker" view which will flit around too much if there is any background noise, that everyone should mute their microphones when not speaking, where the chat box can be accessed for asking questions, and how to use the "raise hand" feature when answering a question from the instructor. The latter is useful in getting a quick read of the whole class on whether or not participants need help at certain stages.

  • Assign one or two people specifically to monitor any backchannels, such as chat boxes or Slack, if you’re using them, as it’s really hard to do this while also leading the session. These people can also summarise key points from the main session in the chat.

  • If using a shared online notes document (like Google Docs or HackMD) break the ice by asking everyone to do a simple task with it, like adding their name to a list of attendees. Keep the use of supplemental resources simple though, try not to send attendees off in too many directions too often as many folks with small laptop screens will find it difficult to navigate between lots of different windows and links too frequently.

  • Don’t forget to make time for breaks! Concentrating on your screen is hard work at the best of times, so it’s really important for both learners and teachers to have regular breaks during the session.

After your session

  • Send round links to any materials that learners didn’t receive before the session, especially things that came up in discussion that aren’t recorded in your slides or notes. Another good reason for having someone dedicated to monitoring the chat is they can also be on hand to ensure any good advice or examples or links from the chat session is collected before it closes and disappears (our current policy is to not collect an automatic transcription with Zoom sessions). 

  • Give people a channel to stay in touch, ask further questions and generally feel a bit less alone in their learning after the session; this could be a Slack team, a mailing list, a wiki or whatever works for you and your learners.

  • Make sure you have a mechanism in place to gather honest feedback from attendees and make adjustments for the next time around. Practice makes perfect!

Conclusions

This is a learning process for all of us, even those who are experienced teachers, so don’t be afraid to try things out and make mistakes (you will anyway!). We’d love to hear more about your experiences. Drop us a line in the comments or email digitalresearch@bl.uk!

 

14 April 2020

BL Labs Artistic Award Winner 2019 - The Memory Archivist - Lynda Clark

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Posted on behalf of Lynda Clark, BL Labs Artistic Award Winner 2019 by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

My research, writing and broader critical practice are inextricably linked. For example, the short story “Ghillie’s Mum”, recently nominated for the BBC Short Story Award, was an exploration of fraught parent / child relationships, which fed into my interactive novella Writers Are Not Strangers, which was in turn the culmination of research into the way readers and players respond to writers and creators both directly and indirectly. 

The Memory Archivist” BL Labs Artistic award winner 2019, offers a similar blending of creative work, research and reflection. The basis for the project was the creation of a collection of works of interactive fiction for the UK Web Archive (UKWA) as part of an investigation into whether it was possible to capture interactive works with existing web archiving tools. The project used WebRecorder and Web ACT to add almost 200 items to the UKWA. An analysis of these items was then undertaken, which indicated various recurring themes, tools and techniques used across the works. These were then incorporated into “The Memory Archivist” in various ways.

Memory Archvist
Opening screen for the Memory Archivist

The interactive fiction tool Twine was the most widely used by UK creators across the creative works, and was therefore used to create “The Memory Archivist”. Key themes such as pets, public transport and ghosts were used as the basis for the memories the player character may record. Elements of the experience of, and challenges relating to, capturing interactive works (and archival objects more generally) were also incorporated into the narrative and interactivity. When the player-character attempts to replay some of the memories they have recorded, they will find them captured only partially, or with changes to their appearance.

There were other, more direct, ways in which the Library’s digital content was included too, in the form of  repurposing code. ‘Link select’ functionality was adapted from Jonathan Laury’s Ostrich and CSS style sheets from Brevity Quest by Chris Longhurst were edited to give certain sections their distinctive look. An image from the Library’s Flickr collection was used as the central motif for the piece not only because it comes from an online digital archive, but because it is itself a motif from an archive – a French 19th Century genealogical record. Sepia tones were used for the colour palette to reflect the nostalgic nature of the piece.

Example-screen-memory-archvist
Example screen shots from the Memory Archivist

Together, these elements aim to emphasise the fact that archives are a way to connect memories, people and experiences across time and space and in spite of technological challenges, while also acknowledging that they can only ever be partial and decontextualised. 

The research into web archiving was presented at the International Internet Preservation Consortium in Zagreb and the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Web Archiving & Preservation Working Group event in Edinburgh

Other blog posts from Lynda's related work are available here: