Digital scholarship blog

15 posts categorized "Comics-unmasked"

27 January 2016

Come to our first @BL_Labs Roadshow event at #citylis London Mon 1 Feb (5pm-7.30pm)

Labs Roadshow at #citylis London, Mon 1 Feb (5pm-7.30pm)

Live in or near North-East London and are available on Monday 1 Feb between 1700 - 1930? Come along to the first FREE UK Labs Roadshow event of 2016 (we have a few places left and booking is essential for anyone interested) and:

#citylis London BL Labs London Roadshow Event Mon 1 Feb (1730 - 1930)
#citylis at the Department for Information ScienceCity University London,
the first BL Labs Roadshow event Mon 1 Feb (1700 - 1930)
  • Discover the digital collections the British Library has, understand some of the challenges of using them and even take some away with you.
  • Learn how researchers found and revived forgotten Victorian jokes and Political meetings from our digital archives.
  • Understand how special games and computer code have been developed to help tag un-described images and make new art.
  • Talk to Library staff about how you might use some of the Library's digital content innovatively.
  • Get advice, pick up tips and feedback on your ideas and projects for the 2016 BL Labs Competition (deadline 11 April) and Awards (deadline 5 September). 

Our first hosts are the Department for Information Science (#citylis) at City University London. #citylis have kindly organised some refreshments, nibbles and also an exciting student discussion panel about their experiences of working on digital projects at the British Library, who are:

#citylis student panel  Top-left, Ludi Price and Top-right, Dimitra Charalampidou Bottom-left, Alison Pope and Bottom-right, Daniel van Strien
#citylis student panel.
Top-left, Ludi Price 
Top-right, Dimitra Charalampidou
Bottom-left, Alison Pope
Bottom-right, Daniel van Strien

For more information, a detailed programme and to book your place (essential), visit the BL Labs Workshop at #citylis event page.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

The BL Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

22 January 2016

BL Labs Competition and Awards for 2016

Today the Labs team is launching the fourth annual Competition and Awards for 2016. Please help us spread the word by tweeting, re-blogging, and telling anyone who might be interested!

British Library Labs Competition 2016

The annual Competition is looking for transformative project ideas which use the British Library’s digital collections and data in new and exciting ways. Two Labs Competition finalists will be selected to work 'in residence' with the BL Labs team between May and early November 2016, where they will get expert help, access to the Library’s resources and financial support to realise their projects.

Winners will receive a first prize of £3000 and runners up £1000 courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Labs Symposium on 7th November 2016 at the British Library in London where they will showcase their work.

The deadline for entering is midnight British Summer Time (BST) on 11th April 2016.

Labs Competition winners from previous years have produced an amazing range of creative and innovative projects. For example:

(Top-left)  Adam Crymble's Crowdsource Arcade (Bottom-left) Katrina Navickas' Political Meetings Mapper and (Right) Bob Nicholson's Mechanical Comedian.
(Top-left) Adam Crymble's Crowdsource Arcade and some specially developed games to help with tagging images
(Bottom-left) Katrina Navickas' Political Meetings Mapper and a photo from a Chartist re-enactment 
(Right) Bob Nicholson's Mechanical Comedian

A further range of inspiring and creative ideas have been submitted in previous years and some have been developed further.

British Library Labs Awards 2016

The annual Awards, introduced in 2015, formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been carried out using the British Library’s digital collections and data. This year, they will be commending work in four key areas:

  • Research - A project or activity which shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Commercial - An activity that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the Library's digital content.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour which inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Teaching / Learning - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and £100 for the runner up for each category at the Labs Symposium on 7th November 2016 at the British Library in London, again courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The deadline for entering is midnight BST on 5th September 2016.

The Awards winners for 2015 produced a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects in  Research, Creative/Artistic, Entrepreneurship categories and a special Jury's prize:

(Top-left) Spatial Humanities research group at the University Lancaster,  (Top-right) A computer generated work of art, part of  'The Order of Things' by Mario Klingemann,  (Bottom-left) A bow tie made by Dina Malkova  and (Bottom-right) work on Geo-referenced maps at the British Library that James Heald is still involved in.
(Top-left) Spatial Humanities research group at the University Lancaster plotting mentions of disease in newspapers on a map in Victorian times,
(Top-right) A computer generated work of art, part of 'The Order of Things' by Mario Klingemann,
(Bottom-left) A bow tie made by Dina Malkova inspired by a digitised original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland
(Bottom-right) Work on Geo-referencing maps discovered from a collection of digitised books at the British Library that James Heald is still involved in.
  • Research: “Representation of disease in 19th century newspapers” by the Spatial Humanities research group at Lancaster University analysed the British Library's digitised London based newspaper, The Era through innovative and varied selections of qualitative and quantitative methods in order to determine how, when and where the Victorian era discussed disease.
  • Creative / Artistic:  “The Order of Things” by Mario Klingemann involved the use of semi-automated image classification and machine learning techniques in order to add meaningful tags to the British Library’s one million Flickr Commons images, creating thematic collections as well as new works of art.
  • Entrepreneurship: “Redesigning Alice” by Dina Malkova produced a range of bow ties and other gift products inspired by the incredible illustrations from a digitised British Library original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground by Lewis Carroll and sold them through the Etsy platform and in the Alice Pop up shop at the British Library in London.
  • Jury's Special Mention: Indexing the BL 1 million and Mapping the Maps by volunteer James Heald describes both the work he has led and his collaboration with others to produce an index of 1 million 'Mechanical Curator collection' images on Wikimedia Commons from the British Library Flickr Commons images. This gave rise to finding 50,000 maps within this collection partially through a map-tag-a-thon which are now being geo-referenced.

A further range of inspiring work has been carried out with the British Library's digital content and collections.

If you are thinking of entering, please make sure you visit our Competition and Awards archive pages for further details.

Finally, if you have a specific question that can't be answered through these pages, feel free to contact us at, or why not come to one of the 'BL Labs Roadshow 2016' UK events we have scheduled between February and April 2016 to learn more about our digital collections and discuss your ideas?

We really look forward to reading your entries!

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs.

The British Library Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


12 November 2015

The third annual British Library Labs Symposium (2015)

The third annual BL Labs Symposium took place on Monday 2nd November 2015 and the event was a great success!

The Labs Symposiums showcase innovative projects which use the British Library's digital content and provide a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field.

The videos for the event are available here.

This year’s Symposium commenced with a keynote from Professor David De Roure, entitled “Intersection, Scale and Social Machines: The Humanities in the digital world”, which addressed current activity in digital scholarship within multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary frameworks.


 Professor David De Roure giving the Symposium keynote speech

Caroline Brazier, the Chief Librarian of the British Library, then presented awards to the two winners of the British Library Labs Competition (2015) – Dr Adam Crymble and Dr Katrina Navickas, both lecturers of Digital History at the University of Hertfordshire.  


(L-R): Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian; Competition winners Katrina Navickas and Adam Crymble; Dr Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship 

After receiving their awards, it was time for Adam and Katrina to showcase their winning projects.

Adam’s project, entitled “Crowdsourcing Arcade: Repurposing the 1980s arcade console for scholarly image classification”, takes the crowdsourcing experience off the web and establishes it in a 1980s-style arcade game.


Presentation by Dr Adam Crymble, BL Labs Competition (2015)  winner 

Katrina’s project, “Political Meetings Mapper: Bringing the British Library maps to life with the history of popular protest”, has developed a tool which extracts notices of meetings from historical newspapers and plots them on layers of historical maps from the British Library's collections.


Presentation by Dr Katrina Navickas, BL Labs Competition (2015)  winner 

After lunch, the Symposium continued with Alice's Adventures Off the Map 2015 competition, produced and presented by Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator at the British Library. Each year, Off the Map challenges budding designers to use British Library digital collections as inspiration to create exciting interactive digital media.

The winning entry was "The Wondering Lands of Alice", created by Off Our Rockers, a team of six students from De Montfort University in Leicester: Dan Bullock, Freddy Canton, Luke Day, Denzil Forde, Amber Jamieson and Braden May.


Video: Alice's Adventures Off the Map 2015 competition winner 'The Wondering Lands of Alice'

This was followed by the presentations of the British Library Labs Awards (2015), a session celebrating BL Labs’ collaborations with researchers, artists and entrepreneurs from around the world in the innovative use of the British Library's digital collections.

The winners were: 

BL Labs Research Award (2015) – “Combining Text Analysis and Geographic Information Systems to investigate the representation of disease in nineteenth-century newspapers”, by The Spatial Humanities project at Lancaster University: Paul Atkinson, Ian Gregory, Andrew Hardie, Amelia Joulain-Jay, Daniel Kershaw, Cat Porter and Paul Rayson.  

The award was presented to one of the project collaborators, Ian Gregory, Professor of Digital Humanities at Lancaster University.


Professor Ian Gregory  receiving the BL Labs Research Award (2015), on behalf of the Spatial Humanties project, from Dr Aquiles Alencar-Brayner


BL Labs Creative/Artistic Award (2015) – “The Order of Things” by Mario Klingemann, New Media Artist.


Mario Klingemann receiving the BL Labs Creative/Artistic Award (2015) from Nora McGregor


BL Labs Entrepreneurial Award (2015) –“Redesigning Alice: Etsy and the British Library joint project” by Dina Malkova, designer and entrepreneur.


Dina Malkova receiving the BL Labs Entrepreneurial Award (2015) from Dr Rossitza Atanassova


Jury’s Special Mention Award – “Indexing the BL 1 million and Mapping the Maps” by James Heald, Wikipedia contributor.


James Heald receiving the Jury's Special Mention Award (2015) from Dr Mia Ridge

The Symposium concluded with a thought provoking panel session, “The Ups and Downs of Open”, chaired by George Oates, Director of Good, Form & Spectacle Ltd. George was joined by panelists Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator at the British Library, Jenn Phillips-Bacher, Web Manager at the Wellcome Library, and Paul Downey, Technical Architect at the Government Digital Service (GDS). The session discussed the issues, challenges and value of memory organisations opening up their digital content for use by others. 


Panel session (L-R): George Oates; Jenn Phillips-Bacher; Paul Downey; Mia Ridge

The BL Labs team would like to thank everyone who attended and participated in this year’s Symposium, making the event the most successful one to date – and we look forward to seeing you all at next year’s BL Labs Symposium on Monday 7th of November 2016!

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs.

The British Library Labs Project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

05 October 2015

British Library Labs Symposium (2015)


The BL Labs team are excited to announce that the third annual British Library Labs Symposium (2015) is taking place on Monday 2nd November 2015, from 09:30 –17:00 in the British Library Conference Centre, St Pancras. The event is free, although you must book a ticket. Don’t delay, as last year’s event was a sell out!

The Symposium showcases innovative projects which use the British Library’s digital content, and provides a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field.

This year, Dr Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, will launch the Symposium. This will be followed by a keynote from Professor David De Roure, Professor of e-Research at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford e-Research Centre. The British Library’s Chief Librarian, Caroline Brazier, will then present awards to the two British Library Labs Competition (2015) winners, who will follow with presentations on their winning projects.

After lunch, Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator at the British Library, will announce the winners of the Alice’s Adventures Off the Map competition, which challenged budding designers to use British Library digital collections as inspiration in the creation of exciting interactive digital media.

Following, the winners will be announced of the British Library Labs Awards (2015), which recognises projects that have used the British Library’s digital content in exciting and innovative ways. Presentations will be given by the winners in each of the Awards’ three categories: Research, Creative/Artistic and Entrepreneurial.  

The afternoon will end with a thought provoking panel session discussing the issues of opening up digital content for memory organisations, chaired by George Oates, Director of Good, Form & Spectacle Ltd.

The Symposium will conclude with a networking reception in the Chaucer and Foyer area.

Don’t forget to book your place for the Symposium today!

For any further information, please contact

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs.

The British Library Labs Project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

22 October 2014

Victorian Meme Machine - Extracting and Converting Jokes

Posted on behalf of Bob Nicholson.

The Victorian Meme Machine is a collaboration between the British Library Labs and Dr Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill University). The project will create an extensive database of Victorian jokes and then experiment with ways to recirculate them over social media. For an introduction to the project, take a look at this blog post or this video presentation.

1 - intro image

In my previous blog post I wrote about the challenge of finding jokes in nineteenth century books and newspapers. There’s still a lot of work to be done before we have a truly comprehensive strategy for identifying gags in digital archives, but our initial searches scooped up a lot of low-hanging fruit. Using a range of keywords and manual browsing methods we quickly managed to identify the locations of more than 100,000 gags. In truth, this was always going to be the easy bit. The real challenge lies in automatically extracting these jokes from their home-archives, importing them into our own database, and then converting them into a format that we can broadcast over social media.

Extracting joke columns from the 19th Century British Library Newspaper Archive – the primary source of our material – presents a range of technical and legal obstacles. On the plus side, the underlying structure of the archive is well-suited to our purposes. Newspaper pages have already been broken up into individual articles and columns, and the XML for each these articles includes an ‘Article Title’ field. As a result, it should theoretically be possible to isolate every article with the title “Jokes of the Day” and then extract them from the rest of the database. When I pitched this project to the BL Labs, I naïvely thought that we’d be able to perform these extractions in a matter of minutes – unfortunately, it’s not that easy. 

1-5 -joke_syntaxMarking up a joke with tags

The archive’s public-facing platform is owned and operated by the commercial publisher Gale Cengage, who sells subscriptions to universities and libraries around the world (UK universities currently get free access via JISC). Consequently, access to the archive’s underlying content is restricted when using this interface. While it’s easy to identify thousands of joke columns using the archive’s search tools, it isn’t possible to automatically extract all of the results. The interface does not provide access to the underlying XML files, and images can only be downloaded one-by-one using a web browser’s ‘save image as’ button. In other words, we can’t use the commercial interface to instantly grab the XML and TIFF files for every article with the phrase “Jokes of the Week” in its title.

The British Library keeps its own copies these files, but they are currently housed in a form of digital deep-storage that is impossible for researchers to directly access and extremely cumbersome to discover content within it. In order to move forward with the automatic extraction of jokes we will need to secure access to this data, transfer it onto a more accessible internal server, custom build an index that allows us to search the full text of the articles and titles so that we may extract all of the relevant text and image files showing the areas of the newspaper scans from which the text was derived.

All of this is technically possible, and I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way to do it in the next stage of the project. However, given the limited time available to us we decided to press ahead with a small sample of manually extracted columns and focus our attention on the next stages of the project. This manually created sample will be of great use in future, as we and other research groups can use it to train computer models, which should enable us to automatically classify text from other corpora as potentially containing jokes that we would not have been able to find otherwise.

For our sample we manually downloaded all of the ‘Jokes of the Day’ columns published by Lloyd’s Weekly News in 1891. Here’s a typical example:

2 - joke column

These columns contain a mixture of joke formats – puns, conversations, comic stories, etc – and are formatted in a way that makes them broadly representative of the material found elsewhere in the database. If we can find a way to process 1,000 jokes from this source, we shouldn’t have too much difficulty scaling things up to deal with 100,000 similar gags from other newspapers.    

Our sample of joke columns was downloaded as a set of jpeg images. In order to make them keyword searchable, transform them into ‘memes’, and send them out over social media we first need to convert them into accurate, machine-readable text. We don’t have access to the existing OCR data, but even if this was available it wouldn’t be accurate enough for our purposes. Here’s an example of how one joke has been interpreted by OCR software:

  3 - OCR comparison
Some gags have been rendered more successfully than this, but many are substantially worse. Joke columns often appeared at the edge of a page, which makes them susceptible to fading and page bending. They also make use of unusual punctuation, which tends to confuse the scanning software. Unlike newspaper archives, which remain functional even with relatively low-quality OCR, our project requires 100% accuracy (or something very close) in order to republish the jokes in new formats.

So, even if we had access to OCR data we’d need to correct and improve it manually. We experimented with this process using OCR data taken from the British Newspaper Archive, but the time it took to identify and correct errors turned out to be longer than transcribing the jokes from scratch. Our volunteers reported that the correction process required them to keep looking back and forth between the image and the OCR in order to correct errors one-by-one, whereas typing up a fresh transcription was apparently quick and straightforward. It seems a shame to abandon the OCR, and I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually find a way to make it usable. The imperfect data might work as a stop-gap to make jokes searchable before they are manually corrected. We may be able to improve it using new OCR software, or speed up the correction process by making use of interface improvements like TILT. However, for now, the most effective way to convert the jokes into an accurate, machine-readable format is simply to transcribe directly from the image.

13 June 2014

Victorian Meme Machine

Posted on behalf of Bob Nicholson (a more detailed explanation of his winning entry to the British Library Labs competition for 2014)

Introducing the Victorian Meme Machine

What would it take to make a Victorian joke funny again?

Nothing short of a miracle, you might think. After all, there are few things worse than a worn-out joke. Some provoke a laugh, and the best are retold to friends, but even the most delectable gags are soon discarded. While the great works of Victorian art and literature have been preserved and celebrated by successive generations, even the period’s most popular jokes have now been lost or forgotten.

Fortunately, thousands of these endangered jests have been preserved within the British Library’s digital collections. I applied to this year’s Labs Competition because I wanted to find these forgotten gags and bring them back to life. Over the next couple of months we’re going to be working together on a new digital project – the ‘Victorian Meme Machine’ [VMM].

  VMMLogo-cogThe Victorian Meme Machine (VMM)

The VMM will create an extensive database of Victorian jokes that will be available for use by both researchers and members of the public. It will analyse jokes and semi-automatically pair them with an appropriate image (or series of images) drawn from the British Library’s digital collections and other participating archives. Users will be able to re-generate the pairings until they discover a good match (or a humorously bizarre one) – at this point, the new ‘meme’ will be saved to a public gallery and distributed via social media. The project will monitor which memes go viral and fine-tune the VMM in response to popular tastes. Hopefully, over time, it’ll develop a good sense of humour!

Let’s take a closer look at how it’ll work. Here’s a simple, two-line joke taken from a late-Victorian newspaper:

Chicago Woman: How much do you charge for a divorce?
Chicago Lawyer: One hundred dollars, ma’am, or six for 500dols

Users will then be invited to give the joke descriptive tags, highlight key words, and describe its structure. Here’s an example of how our sample joke might be encoded:

Chicago_jokeEncoding a joke for the VMM

This will give the VMM all the data it needs to pair the joke with an appropriate image. In this first example, the joke had been paired with an image featuring a woman talking to a lawyer and presented in the form of a caption:

  Chicago_joke_3_peopleJoke paired with an image to create a meme.

We also hope to present the jokes in other formats, such as speech bubbles: 

Chicago_joke_woman_clerkJoke represented as speech bubbles. 

Each of these images is a close match for the joke – both feature women speaking to men who appear to be lawyers. However, if we loosen these requirements slightly then the pairings begin to take on a new (and sometimes rather bizarre) light:

  Chicago_joke_collageA selection of representations of the joke.

These are just some early examples of what the VMM might offer. When the database is ready, we’ll invite the public to explore other ways of creatively re-using the jokes. Together, I hope we’ll be able to resurrect some of these long-dead specimens of Victorian humour and let them live again – if only for a day.

Bob_nicholson_cropped_2Dr Bob Nicholson
Lecturer in History, Edge Hill University
Winner of British Library Labs Competition 2014




Bob Nicholson is lecturer in history specialising in nineteenth-century Britain and America, with a particular focus on journalism, popular culture, jokes, and transatlantic relations. Bob has been exploring representations of the United States, and the circulation of its popular culture, in Victorian newspapers and periodicals. He is a keen proponent of the Digital Humanities and likes to experiment with the new possibilities offered to both researchers and teachers by digital tools and archives. He has written for The Guardian, had his research covered by The Times, and was shortlisted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in their first search for New Generation Thinkers (2011).


13 May 2014

Crowdsourcing Comic Art

This month Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK opened at the British Library, a major exhibition celebrating the UK's rich heritage of mainstream and underground comic and comic art. Though much of the exhibition focuses on work produced by recent icons of the genre - Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Posy Simmonds - the British Library collections contains a wealth of early work from artists both iconic (James Gillray, George Cruikshank) and those whose work is unknown, forgotten, and unattributed.

As we are a library, much of this work is hidden away inside books, making it hard to find. This is where we need you.


Last year we released a collection of over a million images from the British Library's 18th, 19th, and 20th century digitised book collections into the Public Domain for unrestricted use and reuse (for more info see 'A million first steps'). As we used automated processes to clip these images from each digitised book, we knew very little about them apart from the title of the books themselves. Since then members of the public have added over 80,000 tags to these images, thereby aiding discovery of and research using the collection. As a result, certain patterns have been identified: there are many portraits, there are many maps, there are many beautiful decorative flourishes. But there is also a wealth of comic art in the collection: including reproductions of and homages to Georgian satire, gentle late-19th-century humorous illustration, picture puzzles, political drama, and early-Victorian cat memes.


We have collected these together in Flickr under the tag 'comic_art' but we suspect there are many more hidden comic treasures to be found.

This is where you come in. All we ask is that you to head to the British Library Flickr page, enter some creative search terms in the search box (remember to select 'The British Library's Photostream' from the dropdown, or alternatively enter the URL into your web browser), browse the collection, tag any humorous, funny, satirical, ribald, or comic art you find with the tag 'comic_art', and share them via your prefered social network.

Update 14 May. We have two sets that refresh daily: 'Illustrations needing tags!' and 'Unseen Illustrations'. These sets represent the least tagged and least seen of the 1 million images. One approach would be to pick through those each day in search of comic art!


Before Comic Unmasked closes we'll collect them all together as a set and report back on the fruits of your labour. Your efforts will help us unlock the secrets of the collection for the benefit of all, so we look forward to seeing what you find!

James Baker

Curator, Digital Research


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