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Digital scholarship blog

133 posts categorized "Digital scholarship"

18 February 2019

Updated Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

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The traditional, somewhat stereotypical image of the researcher of things past has not changed much in recent times. There is nothing easier than to imagine a scholar sitting at a scarcely illuminated wooden desk, surrounded by piles of old hardbound volumes, spending hours on end rummaging through the sheets in search of a clue.

In the field of eighteenth-century studies, this is certainly still the case. Scholars often go on a pilgrimage to prestigious repositories such as the British Library. However, in the last fifteen years or so, technology has started to offer attractive alternatives to the pleasure of travelling to London. Powered by Gale-Cengage, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (commonly referred to as ECCO) is a well-known resource that provides access to English-language and foreign-language publications printed in Britain, Ireland and the American colonies during the eighteenth century. This extensive collection contains over 180,000 titles (200,000 volumes) and allows full-text searching of some 32 million pages. These are digital editions based on the Eighteenth Century microfilming that started in 1981 and the English Short Title Catalogue.

New ECCO main screen
New ECCO home page

Moving away from its classic web-1.0 design, the Gale-Cengage team recently decided to revamp the layout of ECCO – indeed, of their entire portfolio of archive products, which include among others the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Burney Newspapers Collection. The aim is to make the Gale Primary Sources experience more consistent and intuitive for the user. At the head of this delicate operation are product managers Doran Steele and Megan Sullivan, who lead a nine-person team of software developers, content engineers, researchers and designers. Not quite the IT-only type of personnel, Doran and Megan are scholars themselves, respectively holding degrees in History and Information Science and a remarkable passion for all things past. They are responsible for the maintenance of the existing ECCO interface, as well as the development of the upcoming design refresh.

During a recent interview they gave to the authors of this post, Doran and Megan declared their objective of evolving ECCO in line ‘with user expectations of modern online research experiences’. Their driving force was stated very clearly as a bottom-up process. ‘This redesign’, they explained, ‘is informed by user feedback and market research’. A beta version of the new site has been available since the second half of 2018 to enable the Gale-Cengage team to gather feedback about the new design. The product managers specified that the final transition to the ‘new’ ECCO will only be completed once they feel confident that the new experience ‘successfully meets the needs of our users’. The final goal is a better user experience, ‘one that is faster and more intuitive’. To achieve this, a range of new features have been included, such as more filters on search results; results more relevant to the search queries; data visualization tools; improved subject indexing; more options for adjusting the image; and the ability to download in a text format the OCR (optical character recognition) version of a volume. The latter feature will be a particularly welcome innovation for scholars that often need to look up the occurrence of a single word or cut and paste long chunks of text.

ECCO search results
New ECCO search results screen

The options for adjusting the page view are another significant novelty. The beta version boasts new settings to quickly select the preferred zoom level, as well as sliders to increase or decrease the brightness and contrast of the page. These improvements are particularly welcome considering that the quality of the scans remains unchanged. The page quality is not directly related to ECCO. The portal simply allows the consultation of the digitised microfilms included in the first collection (also known as ECCO 1, comprising over 154.000 texts) and the digitisation of a second, smaller collection of books (ECCO 2, over 52.000 titles). This raises an important issue. A plethora of relatively unknown, yet precious eighteenth-century material remains difficult to consult because, on top of the uneven quality in the texts that came out of eighteenth-century printing presses, the original microfilming technology that was employed for the first collection yielded relatively low-resolution results. This causes some hiccups with OCR recognition, thus discouraging the use of quantitative methodologies. But the issue is all the more salient when the category of eighteenth-century visuals is taken into account. At a time when British engravers multiplied in numbers to illustrate the newly-discovered wonders of the natural world or the archaeological remains of Roman cities in England, illustrations became an essential aspect of the eighteenth-century book market and reading experience. While for essential texts such as William Stukeley’s Itinerarium curiosum (1724) or Eleazar Albin and William Derham’s A Natural History of Birds (1734) more refined scans can be found elsewhere, a large number of texts is digitally available only through ECCO 1. Scholars interested in images are either to focus on well-known texts that have been digitised by other providers – with serious consequences in terms of canonicity – or eventually need to plan a visit to major libraries to consult the relevant volumes in person, somehow defeating the very idea of digital reading. Either way, the study of visual culture is somewhat inhibited. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ ECCO promises to enhance the user experience and to offer even more opportunities to engage with outstanding repositories of primary material. If you already had a chance to use the new version, we encourage you to get in touch with Doran and Megan: as your feedback and suggestions can improve ECCO even further.

New ECCO text screen
New ECCO image viewer screen

This post is by Alessio Mattana, Teaching Assistant in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @mattanaless), and Dr Giacomo Savani, Teaching Assistant in Ancient History at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @GiacomoSavani).

13 February 2019

Sign up for a research workshop on books written for mobile devices!

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Can you help us shape the future of our digital collection? London workshop 20th February

On 7- 8th February, we ran some user experience sessions in one of our Reading Rooms at the British Library, in order to better understand users’ expectations and requirements when accessing complex digital publications within our collections. Our focus is on “emerging formats” – eBook mobile apps and web-based interactive narratives – and exploring options for their future preservation and access. The first round of sessions was really informative and we are now pleased to announce that our research is continuing with a second round of research in London.

We are now looking for new participants to take part in a 2-and-a half-hour workshop, this time based at our partner agency, Bunnyfoot. As with the previous research sessions, we are looking for people who have familiarity with book apps and web-based interactive narratives designed for mobile devices, whether they’re using them for pleasure or as part of their practice. We would like participants to join a workshop on Wednesday 20th February, either in the morning or the afternoon, at Bunnyfoot’s research labs in London. The sessions will last for about 2-and-a-half hours and Bunnyfoot will offer a £120 incentive for anyone taking part.

If you are interested in taking part, please follow the link and complete the short survey to sign up: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/4841789/British-Library-Screener-Survey

To find out further information about the Emerging Formats project, please see our previous post on Emerging Formats and our project page.

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This post is by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Publications, on twitter as @IanCooke13 and Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari.

BL Labs 2018 Artistic Award Runner Up: 'Nomad'

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Nomad is a collaborative project between Abira Hussein, an independent researcher and curator, and Sophie Dixon and Ed Silverton of Mnemoscene. They were the runners up in the BL Labs Artistic Award category for 2018, and they've written a guest blog post about their project for the Digital Scholarship blog.

Nomad: Reconnecting Somali heritage

The project has been supported by the Heritage Lottery fund and premiered at the British Library and British Museum during the Somali Week Festival 2018. Centred around workshops engaging Somali communities in London, Nomad explores the creative use of Mixed Reality and web-based technology to contextualise archival Somali objects with the people and traditions to which they belong.

Nomad 1

Nomad began with three Somali heritage objects - a headrest, bowl, and incense burner - which had been digitised at the British Museum. Thanks to Object Journeys, a previous project Abira was involved in, they were freely available to use.

Our goal was to reflect the utilitarian nature of the objects by showing their intended use. Furthermore, in Somali culture, songs and poetry are very important and we wanted to reconnect the objects to the sounds and traditions to which they belonged.

Our approach was to use Microsoft’s Mixed Reality HoloLens headset to show a Nomadic Somali family using the objects in real, everyday spaces. When wearing the headset the user can select different objects to reveal different members of the family, seeing how the object would be used, and hearing the songs which would have accompanied their use.

You can get a taste of the HoloLens experience in this short video (1 minute).

To create these ephemeral figures we used motion capture and 3D modelling, creating the clothing by referencing archival photographs held at the Powell Cotton Museum in Kent.

We used the British Library’s John Low collection as the source for the sounds you hear in the Mixed Reality experience. John Low travelled across Somalia between 1983-1986 working for an NGO to support community development. In his spare time he made field recordings with different tribes and dialects, providing an insight into the diversity of Somali oral traditions. The collection includes work songs reflecting pastoral life and poems, also known as Gabay, which are often recited in communal settings.

Nomad 2
Workshop held at the British Museum during the Somali Week Festival

With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund we toured the Mixed Reality experience to different Somali communities in London. The immersive experience became a way to inspire and encourage communities to share their own stories, to be part of an openly accessible archive representing their own narratives for Somali cultural heritage.

These workshops were exciting events in which participants handled real objects, tried the Mixed Reality experience and took part in the photogrammetry process to capture 3D models of the objects they had brought to the workshops.

To make the objects and sounds accessible to all, we also created Web-based Augmented Reality postcards to be used in the workshops. 

Nomad 3
Workshop participants looking at 3D objects using web-based Augmented Reality on their mobile phones

From the workshops we have 3D models, photographs and audio recordings which we’re currently adding to an online archive using the Universal Viewer. For updates about the archive and to find out more about our project please visit us at nomad-project.co.uk.

Watch the Nomad team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 4:15 to 8:16):

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.

07 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Research Award Honourable Mention: 'HerStories: Sites of Suffragette Protest and Sabotage'

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At our symposium in November 2018, BL Labs awarded two Honourable Mentions in the Research category for projects using the British Library's digital collections. This guest blog is by the recipients of one of these - a collaborative project by Professor Krista Cowman at the University of Lincoln and Tamsin Silvey, Rachel Williams, Ben Ellwood and Rosie Ryder at Historic England. 

HerStories: Sites of Suffragette Protest and Sabotage

The project marked the commemoration of the centenaries of some British women winning the Parliamentary vote in February 2018, the right to stand as MPs in November 1918 and of the first election in which women voted in December 1918.  The centenary year caught the public imagination and resulted in numerous commemorative events.  Our project added to these by focussing on the suffragette connections of England’s historic buildings.  Its aim was to uncover the suffragette stories hidden in the bricks and mortar of England’s historic buildings and to highlight the role that the historic built environment played in the militant suffrage movement.  The Women’s Social and Political Union co-ordinated a national campaign of militant activities across the country in the decade before the First World War.  Buildings were integral to this.  The Union rented out shops and offices in larger towns and cities.  It held large public meetings in the streets and inside meeting halls.

Suffragettes also identified buildings as legitimate targets for political sabotage.  The WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, famously urged her followers to strike at the enemy through property.  Buildings were then seen as legitimate targets for political sabotage by suffragettes who broke windows, set fires and placed bombs as part of their campaign to force the government to give votes to women. 

The project used the newly-digitised resources of Votes for Women and The Suffragette to identify historic buildings connected with the militant suffrage campaign.  Local reports in both papers were consulted to compile a database of sites connected to the WSPU across England.

HerStories image 1

This revealed a huge diversity in locations and activities.  Over 5000 entries from more than 300 geographical locations were logged. Some were obscure and mundane such as 6 Bronte Street in Keighley, the contact address for the local WSPU branch for 1908.  Others were much more high–profile including St Paul’s Cathedral where a number of services were disrupted by suffragettes and a bomb was planted.   All of the sites on the database were then compared with the National Heritage List, the official record of England’s protected historic buildings compiled and maintained by Historic England. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/

This provided a new data set of over a hundred locations whose historic significance had already been recognised through listing but whose connection to militant suffrage was currently unrecognised. 

These sites were further researched using the British Library’s collection of historic local newspapers to retrieve more detail about their suffragette connections including their contemporary reception. This showed previously unknown detail including an attempted attack on the old Grammar School, King’s Norton, where the Nottingham Evening Post reported how suffragettes who broke in did no damage but left a message on the blackboard saying that they had refrained from damaging it’s ‘olde worlde’ rooms.

HerStories image 2

The team selected 41 sites and updated their entries on The List to include their newly-uncovered suffragette connections. 

The amended entries can be seen in more detail on Historic England’s searchable map at https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/suffragette-protest-and-sabotage-sites 

The results provided a significant addition to the suffragette centenary commemorations by marking the important connections between suffragette’s fight for the vote and England’s Historic listed buildings.

Watch Krista Cowman and Tamsin Silvey receiving their Honourable Mention award on behalf of their team, and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 10.45 to 13.33): 

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

British Library slide 2

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.

01 February 2019

The British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership Imaging Hack Day – Part 2

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On 25th October the BL/QFP team held their first Hack Day. The original concept, as well as the planning and run up to the day were previously discussed in a blog piece by Sotirios Alpanis, but here, I am excited to present details of the day itself and its results.

On the morning of the Hack Day, there was a creative buzz in the air as the digitisation studio transformed into an artist’s workshop. Free from the strict guidelines for imaging and quality assurance, there were no targets to meet, and the only brief was to engage creatively with the collection. Throughout the day, there was a noticeable stream of movement back and forth between the sixth floor office and the Imaging studio. Elizabeth Hunter and Carl Norman from Imaging Services South were in and out all day to check on the three cameras they had set up in different corners of the studio to record a time-lapse video of all the activities, and many members of the wider team dropped in for conversation.

At the end of the day, the team gave short informal presentations on their individual projects. The projects revealed a variety of skills and a wide range of ideas. Some linked with each other contextually, whilst others resulted from collaboration with members of the wider team - hence the frequent visits by staff from the main office!

Matt and Melanie working on their hacks


The hacks

Daniel Loveday was interested in colourisation, setting out to add historically accurate colours to black and white photographic images. With assistance from Louis Allday, Gulf History Content Specialist, he worked on a portrait of the Sharif of Mecca. Louis speculated that the ‘turban would have been white, a colour of turban that was often worn by Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, which he was) and as worn by a later Sharif of Mecca, Husayn’. He also suggested that the gown ‘would be similar to European-style naval dress (dark/navy blue with gold detailing) as the dress of late Ottoman era officials such as this was heavily influenced by European military forms at the time.’ The last piece of clothing to colour was the sash across the body which Louis reasoned ‘would possibly be green, a colour also closely associated with the Prophet, his family and his descendants.’

Sharif of Mecca


Coming from a different angle, Melanie Taylor explored the potential to form new relationships and striking visual narratives from digitised content. Reflecting on how imaging technicians engage with content, Melanie’s project directed focus to the purely visual qualities of digitised items. Drawing on hundreds of images, her results were poetic and illuminating. The wider BL/QFP team, who usually look at the material through the eyes of a reader or researcher, appreciated this fresh perspective.

Visual Narratives 1
Visual Narratives 2
Visual Narratives 3

Matt’s Lee work also evolved from acts of repetition. Placing images of parallel or similar things side by side, he was able to create interesting patterns, comparisons and meanings. These visual typologies included lists of dates, places, signatures, and logos. Louis suggested a typology made from ‘the names of the numerous states of the area that was to become Saudi Arabia in 1932, including both earlier (and smaller) incarnations of the Saudi state and other rival kingdoms and emirates that it conquered.’ This idea remains a work in progress.

Visual typology (stamps, crests and logos)

Visual typology (Muscat typography)

Darran Murray and Jordi Clopes Masjuan were both inspired by an astrolabe quadrant from ‘Two treatises on Astronomy by Sibṭ al-Māridīnī’, albeit in very different ways. Jordi sought to capture images highlighting the quadrant’s shape and texture, emphasising its beauty as an artefact. Owing to pressures of time, copy stand photography in digitisation projects doesn’t usually allow for experimentation with lighting techniques; and, in the interests of consistency, the colour of the backing paper remains the same throughout. Here, however, Jordi specifically matched the paper to the quadrant, and thus effectively revealed more details of its edges.

Astrolabe quadrant before and after

Astrolabe quadrant and the ‘Four treatises on Astronomy‘

Darran investigated the quadrant’s practical function and educational qualities by creating a guide on ‘How to build and use your very own Astrolabe.’ He went on to make a paper version of the wooden device himself.

Astrolabe quadrant model

Darran’s guide would be beautifully illustrated by both of these projects!


The next project also had an educational purpose and aimed to make the resources of the QDL more accessible to visitors who may be less familiar with Gulf and Middle Eastern history. Combining storytelling, maps and images, they created an interactive version of a tour by Political Resident, Geoffrey Prior, from Bahrain to Muscat, in February 1940, transporting the viewer to the different locations where particular events took place. To do this, they used a JavaScript tool called Story Map by Knight Lab, the Northwestern University, which is user friendly and can be embedded in a website. Unsurprisingly, the idea generated a lot of interest and further ideas for telling other stories in similar ways.

 

Rebecca Harris wanted to digitise landscape and aerial photographs using a macro lens in order to ‘bring the viewers’ attention to details and fragments which would otherwise go unnoticed.’ Using her computer screen like a magnifying glass, she examined topographical features found in shelfmarks IOR/R/15/1/606 and IOR/L/PS/12/1956, and was able to identify potential coordinates.

Macro experiments

Similarly to Daniel, Hannah Nagle has focused on colourisation. She drew inspiration from early autochrome images of the Middle East found in Albert Kahn’s collection ‘The Archives of the Planet’. She coloured a black and white photograph depicting a group of women in Linga, Persia, skilfully conveying the atmosphere of the region at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Colourised black and white image


At the end of the day, I hacked my own shelfmark as well, 'Four treatises on Astronomy'. I picked a manuscript damaged by insects and with assistance from our Conservation Team Manager Salvador Alcantra Pelaez, I photographed it on contrasting paper. Later the pages were digitally removed in order to draw attention to the damage. All the images were combined in an animation showing insects’ impact on the manuscript.

Capturing ‘Four treatises on Astronomy’

Marks of insect damage

The first Hack Day was an all-round success. It was interesting for the wider team to see how imaging technicians engaged creatively with the material we are digitising. Furthermore, to observe what collaborations formed and how knowledge was shared amongst different areas of the project.

A week after the Hack Day, we ran a retrospective meeting, where we unanimously decided to repeat the activity on quarterly basis. We gathered a lot of feedback and scheduled the next Hack Day for the 7th February. I can reveal that this time the Imaging team will be responding to a theme, watch this space for more hacks!

Hack Day poster

Hack Day poster

This is a guest post by Renata Kaminska, Digitisation Studio Manager for the British Library's Qatar Project

 

31 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Staff Award Winner: 'The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200'

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A guest blog by our colleague Tuija Ainonen, describing the project which won the 2018 BL Labs staff award.

The collections of medieval manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) rank amongst the finest and most important in the world. Together they have particularly strong holdings of manuscripts made in France and England before 1200.

Image2_BnF MS Latin 8846  f001v
Scenes from Genesis from the Canterbury or Anglo-Catalan Psalter, Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century: BnF MS Latin 8846, f. 1v.

In the summer of 2016, the two Libraries joined forces to digitise and promote access to 800 medieval manuscripts. 400 manuscripts from each Library were fully digitised in the project that was made possible by generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. The successful completion of this ground-breaking international project in November 2018 required the collaboration of a large number of specialists from various fields: curators, cataloguers, conservators, and imaging and information technology specialists from both libraries worked together closely through a programme of knowledge exchange and collaborative workshops.

Image3_Cotton MS Caligula A XIV f022r
An angel leads St Peter out of prison, from the Caligula Troper, England, 2nd half of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 22r.

The result of this collaboration now allows anyone around the world to explore and compare these beautiful and historically important manuscripts, which were previously available principally to scholars using the reading rooms of the British Library in London and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and in occasional exhibitions.

Two web resources

All 800 manuscripts are now available on an innovative website hosted by the BnF, France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200. The website allows users to search manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to view and compare manuscripts side-by-side using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. Images can be annotated and downloaded either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. Annotations can also be downloaded in a data-interchange JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) format and shared.

Image4_Website France et Angleterre
The website France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 provides full access to all 800 project manuscripts. It is searchable in English, French and Italian.

The team at the British Library tackled the processes required to transform the images and catalogue records into an IIIF format. For example, cataloguing in the Library’s Integrated Archives and Manuscripts System (IAMS) required expansion of the use of the authority files, including a systematic application of International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) and Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) numbers, all of which facilitated the work toward multilingual search functionality for author and place information. The incorporation of authority files also allowed the author and place information to be present in the IIIF manifests, and thus to be displayed in the IIIF viewer. Collaboration with the Heritage Made Digital team and the Technology department’s Architecture and Design team allowed us to ingest 400 medieval manuscripts in the new IIIF format. In some ways, the project constituted a pilot project paving the way for the continuation of the transformation of the thousands of manuscripts that are currently available through the Digitised Manuscripts website in a pre-IIIF format. The project’s contribution in this respect was both pioneering and transformative.

Image5_Website France et Angleterre MSSCompared
Side-by-side display of three manuscripts from Winchester: British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r, BnF Latin 987, f. 31r, and British Library Arundel MS 60, f. 13r, all in same IIIF compatible viewer.

The other innovative resource, the British Library-hosted Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website, presents a curated selection of these manuscripts, highlighting different topics and manuscripts in both English and French. Curiously minded people with a more general interest are able to explore themes such as medieval art, history and science on this website by reading articles and immersing themselves in the beautiful images that showcase some of the most spectacular highlights of the collections. Further, a number of short videos reveal how manuscripts were made and what they can tell us about the cultural exchange between England and France during the early Middle Ages.

Image6_Curated_Website_Medieval_England_and_France
The curated website Medieval England and France, 700–1200 is an online exhibition presenting medieval manuscripts and their significance through videos, articles, and short manuscript descriptions.

How did we do it? Preservation, cataloguing and digitisation

Here at the British Library the digitisation and cataloguing workflows proceeded in tandem for almost two years, and were joined by the web curation workflow for the final year of the project. A conservator checked each manuscript before it was photographed and any necessary preservation work was performed to ensure that all manuscripts could be digitised safely. Two photographers, expert in handling rare manuscript material, worked for a year and a half to produce over 125,000 images. An imaging officer checked each image and processed them for display in two image viewers (Digitised Manuscripts and the IIIF compatible project viewer).

Image7_Polonsky-Team Feb 2018
One stage of the project team (left to right), front row: Emilia Henderson, Alison Ray, Tuija Ainonen, Jessica Pollard; back row: Clarck Drieshen, Carl Norman, Neil McCowlen; furthest back: Cristian Ispir.

All of the manuscripts were newly catalogued to include an up-to-date bibliography, the identification of texts and provenance, and descriptions of the artwork. Soon after the project began, the web curation joined the workflow, involving collaboration with a large number of external contractors, including article authors, a filmmaker, and a translator. Two project interns helped at various stages and gained valuable insight into the workings of a large international digitisation and curation project.

Team at the British Library

The Core team at the British Library (in alphabetical order): Tuija Ainonen (Project Curator and Manager), Calum Cockburn (Intern), Clarck Drieshen (Cataloguer), Andy Irving (Solutions Architect), Cristian Ispir (Cataloguer), Amy Jeffs (Intern), Neil McCowlen (Senior Imaging Technician), Laure Miolo (Cataloguer), Carl Norman (Senior Imaging Technician), Jessica Pollard (Conservator), Alison Ray (Imaging Officer and Curatorial Web Officer), and Kate Thomas (Imaging Officer).

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From left: David Sparling congratulating Tuija Ainonen, Kate Thomas, Cristian Ispir, Calum Cockburn, and Clarck Drieshen who accepted the BL Labs Staff Award 2018 on behalf of the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project team at the British Library.

In addition to these, many British Library staff members were involved at various stages of the delivery, and we wish to extend our gratitude to Jo Harrop, Lulu Paul, Mia Ridge, Nicolas Moretto and Sandra Tuppen who helped us to actualise and improve the technical workflows along the way. We wish to thank also Alison Hudson, Chantry Westwell, and Emilia Henderson who provided valuable content and comments at various stages of the project. Special thanks are due to the many staff members at the British Library who had the vision, gave their support and guided the team all along the way, and especially to the members of the internal and joint project boards of (in alphabetical order) Claire Breay, Michele Burton, Paul Clements, Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Gabrielle, Karl Harris, Kristian Jensen, Scot McKendrick, Cordelia Rogerson, and Ben Sanderson.

The project was made possible thanks to the vision and support of The Polonsky Foundation as part of its mission to provide and improve access to our shared cultural heritage.

Tuija Ainonen

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Watch the Polonsky England and France Project team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 15:05):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital cotent 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.

28 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Winner: 'Pocket Miscellanies'

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This guest blog is by the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award winner, Jonah Coman.

Pocket Miscellanies were born as a response to a cluster of problems posed by digitisation and access to medieval content. Medieval images are rarely seen by non-medievalists and members of the general public outside of meme-based content. Offline and analog, the medievalist has no freely-available tools to educate or illustrate to a non-specialist what their research is about. The digital and physical zines showcase close-reading snippets of the digitised medieval manuscripts held by the British Library, as well as over 70 other institutions.

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Figure 1. Leather binder with the first ten issues of Pocket Miscellanies. Photo © Eleanor May Baker.

Teaching and learning resource

The Pocket Miscellany choice of topics was selected to showcase the diversity of human representation in medieval manuscripts. This project is as political as it is educational. The first ten little volumes (#1 Adam, #2 Eve, #3 Temptation by the Snake, #4 Sex, #5 Sodom, #6 Trans bodies, #7 People of colour, #8 Racism #9 Disability and #10 Mobility aids) set up the political project of this ongoing collection, concentrating on disenfranchised communities, such as people of colour, LGBTQ people and disability in medieval visual culture. To date, there are ten published zines, but the project is expanded to include over 80 topics to be gradually released in the future.

The Pocket Miscellanies are distributed both online and offline as pocket-sized concertina books (usually distributed as collections), so that learners from different communities outwith most obvious user groups (researchers, teachers, educators) gain access to digital content provided by national, regional and university libraries with comprehensive medieval digital content.

Publication DIY: online and offline

From a feminist medievalist position, the format of the zine was the obvious choice for distributable political scholarship. Zines (short from magazines) are DIY radical publications that elide strictures of book publishing. Zine distribution models rely on sharing via social interaction: a zine can be a reminder of a discussion or political statement. Zines democratise knowledge that mainstream works might be afraid to tackle, or might be suppressed by mainstream publication systems concerned with sales rather than radical ideas. The small, folded formats native to zines are also reminiscent to the materiality and physical formats of medieval and early modern books created for English readers, such as the Sarum books of hours and the folding almanac.

The Pocket Miscellanies have two pathways to impact: the digital version has been shared with medievalist and historian teachers and educators via the Issuu publication platform, garnering nearly a thousand unique readers in the months they have been online. The paper copy, of very small size, can and was distributed at conferences (Bodies Ignored in Leeds, Permeable Bodies in London), other public events (Edinburgh Pride, Glasgow and Dundee Zine Fest, Edinburgh book art and comic book conventions) and to non-specialists in casual conversation. Over 3000 paper copies were printed and distributed for free since August. Both of these impact pathways have the advantage of accessibility - they are quick-and-dirty guides for non-specialists to learn about the most common depictions of a specific motif – as well as a history within DIY teaching community.

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Figure 2. Poster and zine display at the BL Labs Symposium, 11 Nov 2018. Photo © Ash.

The online version of the zines links to the digitised source hosted on the library’s own website, and is easily editable/correctable. After the initial publication of the online zines. Due to their digital form, each individual zine is permanently undergoing improvement via the open loop of online feedback and consumption facilitated by Twitter and Issuu. I use crowd-sourced information about the specific themes and amended the content to reflect spearheading scholarship in the field - information that has not been published yet, nor, sometimes, may be published in the future. This way, state-of-the-art research can be integrated in a quick publication and distribution circuit. 

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Figure 3. Screenshot from the Issuu.com/MxComan online library.

The paper copies are easily distributable in offline, analog spaces and provide a physical token of the learning experience. I use an independent publishing method historically widespread in queer communities, the zine, to create an analog version to 'viral content'. Zines are bricolage-fuelled, cheaply-printed, freely distributed and easily discarded methods of teaching and information. Using the independent publishing medium of the zine I created small chapbooks that can be printed at home, mixed and shared, carried in a pocket and left in community spaces and flier racks.

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Figure 4. A bundle of the ten original zines. Photo (c) Ana Hine.

Rip-and-mix: how copyright can the enemy of knowledge

Working with digitised content from tens of libraries across the world has proved frustrating because of the diversity of copyright policies. Modern libraries and research centres have a lot of power as gatekeepers of historical material. Texts and images that would be long out of copyright (virtually anything produced in the middle ages) is protected by many institutions under copy rights, prohibiting (esp. commercial) reproduction. This affects what images researchers choose to present to wider public; most academic publications will never be able to include the amount of colour illustrations that the self-published zine format allows. The collaborative and radical DIY ethics of zine-making allows Pocket Miscellanies to be a disruptive alternative to mainstream publication industry, bringing cutting-edge research in print (and full-colour illustration) right now, at very small costs and an extremely agile pace.

The whole issue of copyright is where zines have been historically and still are so radical. Reproduction rights are different than publication rights; strict reproduction and redistribution rights are essentially violated by any dissemination of an image anywhere else but on its origin website. Attaching a ‘medieval reaction’ image to a tweet or Facebook post, as well as pining it on a Pinterest board, are essentially in violation with the most museums’ and auction houses’ extremely strict CC-BY-NC-ND+ rules. On the other side, 'publication' rights are eschewed by zines since, technically, zines are not publications. Unlike magazines, journals or books, zines do not have ISBNs, cannot count towards REFs etc so are essentially outlaws in terms of publication rights. Unlike mainstream publications, zines are predicated on anarchist, bootleg, rip-and-mix aesthetic.

The Pocket Miscellany zines posed hard choices: do I follow the anarchic, disruptive and historically radical tradition of the zine, and use any digitised image that I can find, disregarding the copyright statements and challenging the hegemonical hold institutions have over historical images via aberrant legalities, or do I create a series of zines only with images obtained by legitimate venues, choosing academic strictures for the advantage of being able to share them far and wide without breaking copyright terms? In the end, the content of the zines, showing collections of the same visual motif in a context of continuity, dictated my choice: having as varied examples of one image as possible was more important than being able to sell these zines in bookshops and gift-shops. At the same time, I chose to only use images that are ok to use in a non-commercial capacity, so none from libraries with ‘non-derivatives’ policies. These choices (half-punk, half-tame) made selling these zines in any form and at any price point impossible, so their production relies on donations

The Pocket Miscellanies are an ongoing project. As I mentioned, I have over 80 topics planned, and half a dozen collaborations in the works. If you would want to share your expertise on a specific topic, please get in touch via Twitter @MxComan; if you want to support the project, as well as get your hands on some paper goodies, you can do so on Patreon. If you are organising a conference and you want to distribute any of the zines related to the conference, or even better, have me deliver an impact, public engagement and zine-making workshop at your conference, get in touch and we can discuss it further.

Watch Jonah receiving the winning award for Teaching and Learning, and talking about Pocket Miscellanies on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 10.32):

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.