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122 posts categorized "Experiments"

19 February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 February 2019

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

06 February 2019

Interactive Fiction in the UK

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Nick Montfort suggests interactive fiction stories are ‘computer programs that display text, accept textual responses and then display additional text in reaction [to those responses]’.[1] Since there’s no agreed definition of interactive fiction (IF), Montfort’s is as good a starting point as any. ‘Textual responses’ might include typing, clicking on a link or selecting a choice from a menu, and it’s these differing textual responses which assist in further identifying and categorising interactive fiction. However, it’s also worth remembering that interactive fiction is constantly evolving, with new types emerging all the time, and Montfort’s definition is almost fifteen years old. Therefore, any work which makes significant use of text that the reader might adjust or affect in some way may be considered interactive fiction.

As one strand of the Emerging Formats project, the British Library is currently investigating UK Interactive Fiction (who is creating it, what kinds of work they’re creating, and what tools are being used) – in order to determine what the collecting priorities might be. The focus is on UK works specifically because this aligns with the Library’s collecting priorities with regard to born-digital works, arising out of legal deposit regulations.

The Interactive Fiction Competition identifies three broad types of IF: parser-based, Choose Your Own Adventure and hypertext. Parser-based works are sometimes referred to as ‘text adventures’. These involve typing commands in order to interact with the textual world and usually include puzzle solving. Choose Your Own Adventure (or CYOA) stories are more like the Fighting Fantasy game book series, or the recent Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’, providing readers with a series of choices which create a branching narrative. Hypertexts are linked passages of text much like a website, but the clickable links may provide choices or ways of exploring the world of the text. In these latter two types the reader’s role is less likely to involve solving puzzles and more likely to centre on exploration, interacting with characters or simply choosing how the story turns out. (Although, of course, these elements may be present in parser games too).

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Detectiveland by Robin Johnson, 2016 Winner of IFComp

As part of my Innovation Placement, I’ve explored 97 works by 62 creators so far. Of these, 39 are parser-based, 27 are hypertexts, and 8 are choice-based, with the remainder being other formats such as multimedia (for example, Lucy English’s collection of video poems, The Book of Hours), websites (such as Krishan Coupland’s Hotel), or bespoke or hybrid systems developed by the creator (a particularly good example of this is Robin Johnson’s Zeppelin Adventure, made with his homegrown Versificator engine which creates IF that is somewhere between parser-based and choice-based). I also came across a few formats not neatly described by the types outlined above, such as collaborative wiki-based interactive fiction. However these works (like many interactive fiction works) often contain no identifying information regarding the creator and therefore it’s very difficult to determine if they are UK created. In these instances I have tended to assume that if the creator prefers to remain entirely anonymous, the likelihood is they would also prefer not to have their work archived, and so these particular texts won’t form part of the collection.

There are plenty of works which do have an identifiable UK-based author, though. These cover a wide range of genres including comedy, horror, crime, romance, historical fiction, drama, ‘slice of life’ and mystery, although science fiction and fantasy are particularly well represented (around 26 of the works might be considered fantasy, while around 17 could be categorised as science fiction).

Of the parser-based games, so far Inform stands out as the most popular tool. This is perhaps unsurprising since Inform was created by British IF author and programmer, Graham Nelson in the mid-nineties, making it one of the longest running tools for interactive fiction creation. This means it has a robust community around it, a good collection of existing works to draw inspiration from and a large number of tutorials and discussion forums to aid new creators. Popular IF writer Emily Short uses Inform to produce many of her works, including the critically acclaimed Galatea, a retelling of the Pygmallion myth in which the reader-player attempts to converse with a living statue which is able to respond in myriad ways. However, there are also works made with Quest, such as Luke A. Jones’ Drumsticks a puzzle story about reuniting a band for one last gig.    

The majority of the hypertext games are created with Twine, although usage of the tool’s full range of features varies wildly. For example, Ed Sibley’s ghost story Dead Man’s Fiesta incorporates a host of images, coloured backgrounds and dynamic text, while Bethany Nolan’s crime caper Let’s Rob a Bank adopts Twine’s default layout, relying only on branching choices and variables to tell her story. A further Twine highlight is Raik by Harry Giles, a poetic fantasy story written in English with a Scots translation. (Sort of. To say more would be to spoil it!)

While the CYOA category is somewhat smaller, there are still several tools and approaches in use. Most popular is Inkle Studio’s Ink, used to create a variety of stories including Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate, in which the reader-player roleplays as an estate agent attempting to sell properties to a variety of supernatural clients. The house-buying creatures are randomised and so several replays are required in order to meet them all.

The oldest work so far is paradoxically also one of the newest. The Beast of Torrack Moor by Linda Doughty (née Wright), originally written in 1988 for the ZX Spectrum was lovingly recreated for the web in 2018 by Chris Ainsley (with the original author’s permission) using his Adventuron engine. Despite what its name might suggest, this is more of a quintessentially English mystery than a blood-curdling horror.

As this brief overview indicates, UK IF creators employ a wide array of tools, styles, genres and topics, and even within the same tools and genres, there’s a huge amount of experimentation and variation. I hope to uncover yet more in the coming weeks and months, as well as finding ways to preserve them for future reader-players. If you are a UK-based creator of web-based interactive fiction, please do not hesitate to get in touch, or alternatively, feel free to nominate your work for inclusion via the UK Web Archive.

This post is by the Library's Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction Lynda Clark, on twitter as @Notagoth. You can find out more about the Library's Emerging Formats project here.

[1] Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, 6th edn (Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press, 2005), p.vii.

05 February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 January 2019

Reading 35,000 Books: The UCD Contagion Project and the British Library Digital Corpus - Workshop & Roundtable

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A guest post by Geradine Meany, Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of English, Drama and Film and Derek Greene, Assistant Professor at the School of Computer Science, both at the University College Dublin who are organising a FREE workshop and roundtable together with the BL Labs team on Thursday 20 February 2019 at the British Library in London.

How do you set about finding specific references and thematic associations in the massive digital resource represented by the British Library Nineteenth Century Book Corpus, originally digitised through a collaboration with Microsoft?

The Contagion, Biopolitics and Cultural Memory project at UCD Dublin set out to illuminate culturally and historically specific understandings of disease and contagion that appear within the fiction in the corpus. In order to do so, the project team extracted over 35,000 unique volumes out of a total of 65,000 in English and built a searchable interface of 12.3 million individual pages of text, which can be filtered and sorted using the corpus metadata (e.g. author, title, year, etc). The interface incorporates an index of the topical catalogue of volumes used by the British Library from 1823-1985 (within Alston index). Using a combination of OCR text recognition and manual annotation, we have extracted data the two top levels of the index, covering over 98% of the English language texts in the corpus. So for the first time it is possible to reliably identify and extract fiction, drama, history, topography, etc, from the corpus.

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Extracting data from 35,000 digitised books

To allow researchers to further filter the corpus to identify texts from niche topic areas, the interface supports the semi-automatic creation of word lexicons, built upon modern “word embedding” natural language processing methods. By combining the resulting lexicons with existing corpus metadata and the data extracted from digitised version of the Alston Index, researchers can efficiently create and export small topical sub-corpora for subsequent close reading.

The Contagion project team is currently using information retrieval and word embeddings to identify texts for close reading. This combination allows us to track key trends pertaining to illness and contagion in the corpus, and interpret these findings with particular reference to current and historical debates surrounding biopolitics, medical culture and migration. Clusters of associations between contagion, poverty and morality are identifiable within the corpus. However, to date our research indicates that Victorians were more worried about religious contamination from migrants and minorities than they were about contagious diseases.

A key feature of the project is the intersection of methodologies and concepts from English literature, automated text mining, and medical humanities. This involves using data analytics as a mode of interpretation not a substitute for it, a way of engaging with the extent and complexity of cultural production in the nineteenth century. Cultural data resists giving definitive yes or no answers to the questions put to it by researchers, but the more cultural data we analyse the better we can map the processes of cultural change and continuity, in all their complexity. The process of tracking themes, topics, and associations enabled by the new interface offers an opportunity to work with and far beyond the existing canon of nineteenth century fiction, itself radically expanded by the last 20 years of scholarship. The identification within the corpus of a very large collection of 3 volume novels indicates that the popular novel is very well represented, for example, while the ability to identify and extract ‘Collected Works’ indicates which writers their contemporaries expected to remain central to the tradition of fiction.

On February 20th 2019, the FREE ‘Reading 35,000 Books’ workshop and roundtable will present the project’s work to date, and will also include discussion by scholars of nineteenth century literature and the British Library Labs of the future development and use of the new searchable interface, including exporting topical sub-corpora for further research.

The event is supported by the Irish Research Council.

 

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.

25 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Artistic Award Winner: 'Another Intelligence Sings'

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This guest blog is by the winners of the BL Labs Artistic Award for 2018, Robert Walker, Rose Leahy and Amanda Baum, for 'Another Intelligence Sings'.AI Sings 1

When the natural world is recorded, it is quantised for the human ear, to wavelengths within our perception and timeframes within our conception. Yet the machine learning algorithm sits outside the human sensorium, outside the human lifespan. An algorithm is agnostic to the source, the intention and the timescale of data. By feeding it audio samples of lava and larvae, geological tensions and fleeting courtship, the seismic and the somatic, the many voices of life are woven into a song no one lifespan or life form could sing.

Another Intelligence Sings ( AI Sings ) is an immersive audio-tactile installation inviting you to experience the sounds of our biological world as recounted through an AI. Through the application of neural networks to field recordings from the British Library sound archive a nonhuman reading of the data emerges. Presenting an alternative composition of Earth’s songs, AI Sings explores an expanded view of what might be perceived as intelligent.

The breadth of the British Library Wildlife and Environmental Sounds archive enabled us to take a cross section of the natural world from primordial physical phenomena to the great beasts of the savannas to the songbirds of the British countryside. The final soundscape is created from using two different neural networks, Wavenet and Nsynth. We trained Wavenet, Google’s most advanced human speech synthesis neural network, on many hours of field recordings, including those from the British Library archives.

Nsynth is an augmented version of Wavenet that was built and trained by Magenta, Google AI’s creative lab. Nsynth creates sounds that are not a simple crossfade or blend but something genuinely new based on the perceived formal musical qualities of the two source sounds. This was used to create mixtures between specific audio samples, for example, sea lion meets mosquito, leopard meets horse, and mealworm meets ocean.

Click here to play a 4 minute clip of the sound from the installation.

AI Sings 2
Through this use of the technology, AI Sings reorients the algorithm’s focus, away from the human expression of individual thought and towards an amalgam of geological and biological processes. The experience aims to enable humans to meditate on the myriad intelligences around and beyond us and expand our view of what might be perceived as intelligent. This feeds into our ongoing body of shared work, which raises questions about the use of artificial intelligence in society. Previously, we have used a neural network to find linguistic patterns not perceivable to human reading to mediate our collectively written piece Weaving Worlds (2016). In AI Sings we continue this thread of asking which perspectives an AI can bring that human perception cannot.

AI Sings 3

AI Sings takes digital archive content and makes it into a tactile, sensuous, and playful experience. By making the archive material an experiential encounter, we were able to encourage listeners to enter into a world where they could be immersed and engaged in the data. Soft, tactile materials such as hair and foam invited people to enter into and interact with the work. In particular, we found that the playful nature of the materials in the piece meant that children were keen to experience the work, and listen to the soundscape, thereby extending the audience of the archive material to one it may not usually reach.

By addressing the need for experiential, visceral and poetic encounters with AI, Another Intelligence Sings goes beyond the conceptual and engages people in the technology which is so rapidly transforming society. We hope this work shows how the creative application of AI opens up new possibilities in the field of archivology, from being a tool of categorisation to becoming a means of expanding the cultural role of the library in the future.

The piece premiered at the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2018 on 22nd of September as part of London Design Festival, where it was exhibited to over 22,000 visitors. Following the weekend we were invited by Open Cell, London’s newly opened bioart- and biodesign studio and exhibition space, to be showcased on their site.

More about the project can be found on our websites:

www.baumleahy.com + www.irr.co + www.amandabaum.com + www.roseleahy.com

Watch the AI Sings team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 8.18):

 

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.