The newly appointed manager of the British Library Labs (BL Labs), Silvija Aurylaitė, is excited to start leading the BL Labs Labs transformation with a new focus on computational creative thinking. The BL Labs is a welcoming space for everyone curious about computational research and using the British Library’s digital collections. We welcome all researchers - data scientists, digital humanists, artists, creative practitioners, and everyone curious about digital research.
Find out more from Silvija, in conversation with Maja Maricevic, BL Head of Higher Education and Science.
Maja: The Labs have a proud history of experimenting and innovating with the British Library’s digital collections. Can you tell us more about your own background?
Silvija: Ever since I discovered the BL Labs in London 8 years ago, I have been immersed into the world of experimentation with digital collections. I started researching collections from open GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) around the world and the implications of copyright and licensing for creative reuse. In a large ecosystem of open digital collections, my special interest has been identifying content for people to use to bring to life their creative ideas such as new design works.
Inspired by the Labs, I started developing my own curatorial web project, which won the Europeana Creative Design Challenge in 2015. The award gave me the chance to work with a team of international experts to learn new skills in areas such as IT, copyright and social entrepreneurship. This experience later evolved into the ‘Revivo Images’, a pilot website that gives guidance on open image collections around the world, which are carefully selected for quality, reliability of copyright and licence information, with explanations how to use the databases. It was a result of collaboration with a great interdisciplinary team including an IT lead, programmers, curators, designers and a copywriter.
All this gave me invaluable experience in overseeing a digital collections web project from vision to implementation. I learned about curating content from across collections, building an image database and mapping metadata using various standards. We also used AI and human input to create keywords and thematic catalogs and designed a simple minimalist user interface.
What I most enjoyed about this journey, actually, was meeting a great range of creative people in many creative fields, from professional animators to students looking for a theme for their BA final thesis - and learning what excited them most, and what barriers they faced in using open collections. I met many of them at various art festivals, universities, design schools and events where I delivered talks and creative workshops in my free time to spread the word about open digital collections for creativity. For two years I was also responsible for the ‘Bridgeman Education’ online database, one of the largest digital image collections with over 1.300.000 images from the GLAM sector, designed for the use of art images in higher education curricula. I had the opportunity to talk to many librarians, lecturers and students from around the world about what they find most useful in this new digital turn.
As a result of this, I am particularly excited about introducing the Labs to university students: from students in computer science departments with coding skills to researchers in social sciences and humanities, to creativity champions in fashion, graphic design or jewelry, who might be attracted to aesthetic qualities of our collections or those looking to pick up creative coding skills.
The landscape has changed a lot in the last 8 years since I learned about the Labs, and I gradually started my own journey of learning code and algorithmic thinking. Already in my previous role in the British Library, as the Rights Officer for the Heritage Made Digital project, we approached digital collections as data. Now we are all embracing computational data science methods to gain new insights into digital collections, and that is what the future British Library Labs is going to celebrate.
Maja: You have a strong connection to the BL Labs since you were the Labs volunteer 8 years ago. What most inspired you when you first heard of the Labs?
Silvija: Personally, the Labs were my first professional experience abroad after my MA studies in intellectual history at the American university in Budapest, and happened to be one of the main incentives to stay in London.
This city has attracted me for its serendipity - you can have a great range of urban experiences from attending the oldest special interest societies and visiting antiquarian bookshops to meeting founders of latest startups in their regular gatherings and getting up to speed with the mindset of perpetual innovation.
When I first heard about the Labs in one of its public events, this sentence struck me: “experiment with the BL digital collections to create something new”, with the “new” being undefined and open. I had this idea of a perpetuity - the possibility of endlessly combining the knowledge and aesthetics of the past, safeguarded by one of the biggest libraries of the world, with the creative visions, skills and technology of today and tomorrow.
Such endless new experiences of digital collections can be accelerated by creating a dedicated space for experimentation - a collider or a matchmaker - that contributes to the diverse serendipitous urban experience of London itself. This is how I see the Labs.
Looking from a user point of view, I am particularly excited about the ‘semiotic democracy’, or ‘the ability of users to produce and disseminate new creations and to take part in public cultural discourse’ (Stark, 2006). I believe this new playful approach to digitise out-of-copyright cultural materials will fundamentally change the way we see GLAMs. We’ll look at them less and less as spaces that are only there to learn about the past as it used to be, as a recipient, and more and more as a co-creator, able to enter into a meaningful dialogue and reshape meanings, narratives and experiences.
Maja: Prior to Labs appointment, you also have a significant rights management experience. What have you learned that will be useful for the Labs?
Silvija: It was a delight to work with Matthew Lambert, the Head of Copyright, Policy & Assurance, for the Heritage Made Digital project, led by Sandra Tuppen, in setting up the British Library’s copyright workflow for both current and historical digitisation projects. This project now allows users to explore the BL’s digital images in the Universal Viewer with attributed rights statements and usage terms.
These last 3.5 years was a great exercise in dealing with very large, often very messy, data to create complex systems, policies and procedures which allow oversight of all important aspects of the digital data including copyright and licencing, data protection and sensitivities. Of course, such work in the Library is of massive importance because it affects the level of freedom we later have to experiment, reuse and do further research based on this data.
Personally, the Heritage Made Digital project is also very precious to me because of its collaborative nature. They use MS SharePoint tool to facilitate data contributions from across many departments in the BL. And they are just fantastic at promoting and celebrating digitisation as a common effort to make content publicly accessible. I will definitely use this experience to suggest solutions on how to register and document both the BL’s datasets and related reuse projects as a similar collaborative project within the Library.
Maja: There is so much that is changing in digital research all the time. Are there particular current developments that you find exciting and why?
Silvija: Yes! First, I find the moment of change itself exciting - there is no book about the tools we use today that won’t be running out of date tomorrow. This is a good neuroplasticity exercise that trains the mind not to sleep and be constantly attentive to new developments and opportunities.
Second, I absolutely love to see how many people, from creators to researchers and library staff, are gradually and naturally embracing code languages. With this comes associated critical thinking, such as the ability to surpass often outdated old database interfaces to reveal exciting data insights simply by having a liberating package of new digital skills.
And, third, I am super excited about the possibility of upscaling and creating a bigger impact with existing breakthrough projects and brilliant ideas relating to the British Library’s data. I believe this could be done by finding consensus on how we want to register and document data science initiatives - finalised, ongoing and most wanted, both internally and externally - and then by promoting this knowledge further.
This would allow us to enter a new stage of the BL Labs. The new ecosystem of re-use would promote sustainability, reproducibility, adaptation and crowdsourced improvement of existing projects, giving us new super powers!
↩︎ Stark, Elisabeth (2006). Free culture and the internet: a new semiotic democracy. opendemocracy.net (June 20). URL: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/semiotic_3662jsp