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Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


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19 March 2019

BL Labs 2018 Commercial Award Runner Up: 'The Seder Oneg Shabbos Bentsher'

This guest blog was written by David Zvi Kalman on behalf of the team that received the runner up award in the 2018 BL Labs Commercial category.


The bentsher is a strange book, both invisible and highly visible. It is not among the more well known Jewish books, like the prayerbook, Hebrew Bible, or haggadah. You would be hard pressed to find a general-interest bookstore selling a copy. Still, enter the house of a traditional Jew and you’d likely find at least a few, possibly a few dozen. In Orthodox communities, the bentsher is arguably the most visible book of all.

Bentshers are handbooks containing the songs and blessings, including the Grace after Meals, that are most useful for Sabbath and holiday meals, as well as larger gatherings. They are, as a rule, quite small. These days, bentshers are commonly given out as party favors at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, since meals at those events require them anyway. Many bentshers today have personalized covers relating the events at which they were given.

Bentshers have never gone out of print. By this I mean that printing began with the invention of the printing press and has never stopped. They are small, but they have always been useful. Seder Oneg Shabbos, the version which I designed, was released 500 years after the first bentsher was published. It is, in a sense, a Half Millennium Anniversary Special Edition.


Bentshers, like other Jewish books, could be quite ornate; some were written and illustrated by hand. Over the years, however, bentshers have become less and less interesting, largely in order to lower the unit cost. In order to make it feasible for wedding planners to order hundreds at a time, all images were stripped from the books, the books themselves became very small, and any interest in elegant typography was quickly eliminated. My grandfather, who designed custom covers for wedding bentshers, simply called the book, “the insert.” Custom prayerbooks were no different from custom matchbooks.

This particular bentsher was created with the goal of bucking this trend; I attempted to give the book the feel of the some of the Jewish books and manuscripts of the past, using the research I was able to gather a graduate student in the field of Jewish history. Doing this required a great deal of image research; for this, the British Library’s online resources were incredible valuable. Of the more than one hundred images in the book, a plurality are from the British Library’s collections.


In addition to its visual element, this bentsher differs from others in two important ways. First, it contains ritual languages that is inclusive of those in the LGBTQ community, and especially for those conducting same-sex weddings. In addition, the book contains songs not just in Hebrew, but in Yiddish, as well; this was a homage to two Yiddishists who aided in creating the bentsher’s content. The bentsher was first used at their wedding.


More here:

Watch David accepting the runner up award and talking about the Seder Oneg Shabbos Bentsher on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 5.33 to 7.26): 

David Zvi Kalman was responsible for the book’s design, including the choice of images. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he focuses on the relationship between Jewish history and the history of technology. Sarah Wolf is a specialist in rabbinics and is an assistant professor at the Jewish Theology Seminary of America. Joshua Schwartz is a doctoral student at New York University, where he studies Jewish mysticism. Sarah and Joshua were responsible for most of the books translations and transliterations. Yocheved and Yudis Retig are Yiddishists and were responsible for the book’s Yiddish content and translations.

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.

08 March 2019

The British Library / Qatar National Library Partnership Imaging Hack Day – International Women’s Day

On 7th February 2019, the Imaging Team from the British Library Qatar National Library Partnership drew up the blinds in the studio and turned it into an artist’s workshop once again for our second Hack Day. The team produced their Hack ideas and responded creatively to the collection items we are digitising and uploading to the Qatar Digital Library under the theme of International Women’s Day. Taking place on 8th March, we worked a month in advance in order to ensure our ideas could develop and be ready to share in time. International Women’s Day is celebrated globally and aims to end worldwide discrimination. The day is also dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women now and in the past.

Rebecca Harris working on her Hack Day banner

To advertise the Hack Day, Hannah Nagle produced a leaflet and two posters that superimposed information about the upcoming day onto images of items from the collection. The posters included details about the Prep Session on 24th January. This was a productive meeting where we were able to give informal presentations to our colleagues on the project and staff from the wider library. It allowed us to exchange ideas, receive feedback and talk about possible collaborations between staff (while also feasting on Hack Snacks provided by Sotirios Alpanis).

Hack Day Posters

In the final run up to 7th February, clear themes and patterns in our approach had already begun to emerge. As you will see below, many of us wanted to bring light to stories about women, empower the photographs of women who will forever remain nameless and bring focus to the idea of gender within the collection.

The Hacks

Both Rebecca Harris and Daniel Loveday created visuals to be used on social media platforms to replace profile pictures and banners during the build up to International Women’s Day. Dan used the International Women’s Day logo to create a GIF. Within the logo it flips through portraits of women we have very little information about from the archive. ‘I thought this would be a different way to explore how to empower our nameless women.’


Rebecca created a banner and five interactive photographs. ‘Both works are intended for use on Twitter and have been designed to draw traffic back towards the Qatar Digital Library and specifically the women found within it.’ Rebecca used the application ‘Thinglink’ to create the interactive photographs seen in the screenshot below. You can also see the banner in use on the @BLQatar Twitter page: 

Rebecca’s banner for social media

Screenshot of Rebecca’s interactive photographs

Jordi Clopes took a different approach and decided to focus on handwriting. Taking two letters written by Ms. Ruth Honor Hotblack, he extracted, resized and saved the individual characters to create the new and personalised ‘Ruth Honor Typography’. With some characters missing, Jordi created these in the style of Hotblack’s handwriting. Using the app ‘Calligraphr’ to create the font, Jordi wrote a piece of text and then superimposed it onto an image of an empty page from a book in the collection. You can see an example of the letters Jordi used and Jordi’s font in the images below.  

‘With more time and by using another female author more prolific in the collection, a nicer font could be created and, like the ‘Ruth Honor Typography’, could be installed onto any computer to be used in text editing software like Microsoft Word and Outlook.’

Letters from Ruth Honor Hotblack
India Office Records (IOR)/L/PS/12/3651 (Letters from Ruth Honor Hotblack regarding her cousin)

  The ‘Ruth Honor Typography’


Hannah Nagle chose to focus on data visualisations. Using the Qatar Digital Library, she collected a set of data on the reliability of the search engine to source photographs of women. Using this information Hannah created a zine called ‘She Was Here’. Its aim is to highlight photographs of women in the collection, particularly where the search engine has not given them appropriate prominence. The zine is also a collection of experimentations on representing data in imaginative ways. These include collages and manipulating photographs to highlight the women in the photographs. The first half of the zine explores the data through graphs and statistics while the second half is a creative exploration of the photographs of unnamed women from the search results. Hannah used visual techniques to comment on the lack of information recorded about them while giving them space and focus outside of the archive.




Melanie Taylor developed Instagram accounts for a range of Western Women who played a significant role in the British Imperialist efforts but who don’t typically appear in traditional studies of imperial history. These women include Lady Mary Curzon (the Vicereine of India), Gertrude Bell, Violet Dickson, Lady Anne Blunt and Lady Dorothy Mills. Melanie sourced archival material like letters, journals, articles, books and photographs held in British Library collections.

‘These women each took to the practice of letter and journal writing to record their day-to-day experiences - a highly mediated activity where the author wrote with their audience in mind and constructed their texts according to how they thought their lives should appear.’ In the future, Melanie wants to include interaction between these accounts to emulate the relationships these women would have had in real life via comments and likes. Melanie also wants to consider how these women would exploit social media platforms to fulfil their own personal missions. Watch this space and follow the link for more posts from Lady Curzon:

Matt Lee’s work for both this and the previous Hack Day explored alternative ways of drawing meaning from the collection items we digitise. ‘Since our first Imaging Hack Day, my aim has been to create a range of visual typologies from elements such as stamps, typography, colours and textures. By collecting and organising visual elements by general type I hope to provide a perspective of the collection items that we otherwise would not notice.’

For the second Hack Day, Matt created images that place, in sequence, every written description or mention of gender within randomly selected collection items. The result is a visual tapestry that shows the quantity and types of words that are used in reference to gender. To differentiate between the two genders one has been inverted.

Visual typology using IOR-L-PS-12-3951A

Visual typology using IOR-L-PS-12-3846

If you would like to explore the photographs and documents used in our Hack Day creations from the Qatar Digital Library or find out more about the India Office Records please follow the links below:


You can also read about our first Hack Day in the blog posts below:


The Imaging Team would like to thank Ruth Thompson, Ula Zeir, Serim Abboushi, Noemi Ortega-Raventos, Matt Griffin, Rolf Killius, Louis Allday, Francis Owtram, Richard Davies, Sotirios Alpanis and Renata Kaminska for their help and support.


This is a guest post by the Imaging Team from the British Library Qatar National Library Partnership. You can follow the British Library Qatar National Library Partnership on Twitter at @BLQatar and Imaging Team members Matthew Lee and Hannah Nagle at @_mattlee_ and @hannagle.


28 February 2019

The World Wide Lab: Building Library Labs - Part II

BL Flickr Copenhagen 1

We're setting sail for Denmark! Along with colleagues from the UK, Austria, Belgium, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Qatar, Spain, Sweden and the USA, we will be mooring at Copenhagen's Black Diamond, waterfront home to Denmark's Royal Library, for the second International Building Library Labs event: 4-5 March 2019.

Danish lib & BL logis

For some time now, leading national, state, university and public libraries around the world have been creating 'digital lab type environments'. The purpose of these 'laboratories' is to afford access to their institutions' digital content - the digitised and 'born digital' collections as well as data - and to provide a space where users can experiment and work with that content in creative, innovative and inspiring ways. Our shared ethos is to open up our collections for everyone: digital researchers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, and everyone in between.

BL Labs has been running in such a capacity for six years. In September 2018, we hosted a 2-day workshop at the British Library in London for invited participants from national, state and university libraries - the first event of its kind in the world. It was a resounding success, and it was decided that we should organise a second event, this time in collaboration with our colleagues in Copenhagen.

11248527023_2655ce2ceb_oNext week's participants, from over 30 institutions, will be sharing lessons learned, talking about innovative projects and services that have used their digital collections and data in clever ways, and continuing to establish the foundations for an international network of Library Labs. We aim to work together in the spirit of collaboration so that we can continue to build even better Library Labs for our users in the future.

Our packed programme is available to view on Eventbrite or as a Googledoc. We still have a few spaces left so if you are interested in coming along, you can still book here. As well as presentations and plenary debates, we will have eight lightning talks with topics ranging from how to handle big data to how to run a data visualisation lab. To accommodate our many delegates, with their own interests and specialisms, we will break out into 12 parallel discussion groups focusing on subjects such as how to set up a lab; how to get access to data; moving from 'project' lab to 'business as usual'; data curation; how to deal with large datasets; and using Labs & Makerspaces for data-driven research and innovation in creative industries. 

We will blog again after the event, and provide links to some of the presentations and outputs. Watch this space! 


Danish-themed images trawled from our British Library Flickr Images set: pages 37, 126, and 15 of Copenhagen, the Capital of Denmark, published by the Danish Tourist Society, 1898. Find the original book here.

Posted by Eleanor Cooper on behalf of BL Labs