Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


Tracking exciting developments at the intersection of libraries, scholarship and technology. Read more

20 May 2019

Palestine Open Maps: using open source tools for historic maps research

This guest post is by Majd Al-Shihabi, he is a systems design engineer and urban planning graduate student at the American University of Beirut. He is the inaugural recipient of the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship. You can find him on Twitter as @majdal.


On the 15th of May, Palestinians across the world commemorated Nakba Day, literally translating to “catastrophe”. It is the day where they remember the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their cities, towns and villages, and the destruction of the more than 500 localities, as a prelude to the creation of the State of Israel.

Often, those villages are completely erased. Take for example Lubya. Maps made by the British Society called Palestine Exploration Fund in 1870s mark Lubya on the map, with some farmland in the east and south of the village:

PEF map
1:63,000 (1 inch to the mile) scale PEF map showing Lubya


In the 1940s, in the last years of the British Mandate over Palestine, the mandate authorities created a set of “topo-cadastral” maps at scale 1:20,000, showing details of the village, including the location of the school, a shrine to El Khadr, and seasonal activities like the threshing floor.

mandate map
1930s 1:20,000 map showing Lubya’s detailed land use


Another set of maps, created in 1946, just before the Nakba, this British Mandate map shows Lubya, with the major road that connects Nazareth to Tiberias passing just north of it, as well as some minor roads leading to the village.

1946 map
1946 1:250,000 map showing Lubya


Just three years after the creation of the State of Israel, in 1951, an almost identical map is published, with one major difference: Lubya is literally erased from the map:

1951 map
1951 map showing the same major and minor roads, with the minor roads leading to nothing


This is what the village’s location looks like right now:

The bold spot among the trees is where the village’s houses used to stand.

The Palestine Open Maps project has been collecting those public domain maps and making them available as a tool for storytelling, to add nuance about life in pre-Nakba Palestine.

However, those maps have limited research value as static paper maps. That is why the Palestine Open Maps team is working on extracting the geographic data contained in those maps, making them available to researchers, academics, artists, and anyone who wants wants the data, under a permissive license. The team is using the open source tools of OpenStreetMap to vectorise the data. Those tools are optimised by years of open source community contributions for ease of use and collaboration.

The Palestine Open Maps team will be running a mapathon on Saturday the 8th of June at 14:00-17:00. Register here to reserve your spot. See you soon!


16 May 2019

Exploring with Sound Walks

Interested in literature, sound recordings, place, technology and walking? Then you may wish to attend our upcoming Exploring with Sound Walks event at the British Library on the afternoon of Friday 7th June. Places are free, but please book here;

Following on from our recent ‘Season of Place’, which was about all things digital mapping; at this Sound Walks event Mahendra Mahey from BL Labs will talk about the Library’s current Imaginary Cities exhibition, which showcases fantastical cityscapes created by the Library’s artist in residence Michael Takeo Magruder. Michael used cutting–edge digital technologies to remix images and live data from the Library’s digital collection of historic urban maps to create fictional and beautiful cityscapes, including an explorable algorithmically generated virtual reality work.

Imaginary Cities exhibition trailer

Bringing us back to exploring real world physical cities; Andrew Stuck, Founder of the Museum of Walking and podcaster at Talking Walking will talk about sound walks, explaining what they are and giving an overview of Sound Walk Sunday, which is scheduled for Sunday 1st September 2019 and the week following.

Sound walk sunday 2019

A sound walk is any walk that focuses on listening to the environment, or adds to the experience for example through the use of sound recordings; a scripted narrator, or choreographed score etc.

Sound Walk Sunday has a map and directory of sound walks on their website, and they facilitate a worldwide network of creatives, institutions and museums to share practices and knowledge around sound walks and walking pieces. Furthermore, this initiative curates a collaborative resource of educative materials, which is available to the public, empowering people to create their own sound walks.

To give examples of the types of works and digital technologies that can be used to create sound walks, there will be a series of short talks and videos by:

Trailer for Alastair Horne's creative audio project set in Brompton Cemetery

We are hoping the Exploring with Sound Walks event will encourage people to make entries for the current Sound Walk Sunday open call, which is inviting people to create outdoor audio, geo-located, immersive performances, listening walks and sound walks.

Furthermore, we would be delighted if any new sound walk works use our Wildlife Sounds. To explain more about these recordings, Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library will talk about this fabulous collection, giving examples of how they have been used creatively by sound artists and game designers, to sow some seeds of inspiration.

Hope to see you there! - Friday 7th June, British Library, book here;

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

24 April 2019

The ‘Season of Place’ – learning about all things digital mapping

This post by the British Library’s Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, reports on a training ‘season’ dedicated to digital mapping.

One of the British Library Digital Scholarship team’s core purposes is to deliver training to BL staff on a wide variety of digital humanities skills, and we’ve been doing so for over seven years. Since last year, we’ve been experimenting with a new format to deliver our Digital Scholarship Training Programme (DSTP) – that would allow flexibility and adaptability through modularity. We offer a thematic series of talks, hands-on workshops and courses in different shapes and sizes. We call this series a ‘season’ or ‘strand’. Digital Curator Mia Ridge has succinctly described this experimental training format in her recent blog post.

Mia was the first to co-ordinate a series of training modules around a specific topic – content mining for digital scholarship with cultural heritage collections. I was next to organise a second series of training, which we called the ‘Season of Place’. With the help of colleagues such as Gethin Rees (Lead Curator for Digital Map Collections) and Magdalena Peszko (Curator for Map Collections), we’ve planned, co-ordinated and delivered a series of modules on digital mapping, running from December 2018 to the end of March 2019.

The ‘Season of Place’

Creating web maps, visualising collections spatially, and understanding the research potential of digital maps are all unsurprisingly very popular topics among BL staff. Our collection items are naturally rife with associated geographical information, whether place of publication/creation or the mention of place names in the text. Mapping collection items data, whether catalogue records or textual content, in isolation or in conjunction with other data, could offer fresh perspectives on heritage material, boost discovery and empower analysis and research.

The aim of the ‘Season of Place’ was therefore three-fold:

  • To demonstrate the importance of geographical information embedded within BL collections, and the applicability of geospatial tools and technologies to these collections.
  • To provide staff with the skills to use a set of online tools to perform actions such as mapping historical data, geoparsing content and enriching catalogue records with geographical data.
  • To spark inspiration through case studies and examples of cutting-edge visualisations and research using digital maps.

What did we cover?

Our training sessions included talks, courses and hands-on sessions delivered by internal and external experts covering topics such as cataloguing geospatial data, geoparsing, georeferencing, working with online mapping tools, digital research using online maps, and public engagement through interactive platforms and crowdsourcing.

Online tools and platforms included (but were not limited to):

  • Recogito: recently winning Best DH Tool Award, Recogito is an online platform for collaborative document annotation. It is maintained by Pelagios Commons, a Digital Humanities initiative aiming to foster better linkages between online resources documenting the past. Recogito provides a personal workspace where one can upload, collect and organise source materials – texts, images and tabular data – and collaborate in their annotation and interpretation. We had Dr Valeria Vitale deliver a fantastic workshop dedicated to this platform. 
  • Google My Maps: as Google Fusion Tables is shutting down in December 2019, we’ve decided to teach how to use this mapping tool instead. Google My Maps is a free tool that allows the creation of custom maps online in a straightforward way. A great BL case study is an interactive map created by Nick Dykes, visualising the spatial spread of hand-drawn maps and other documents from the War Office Archive.

  • Bounding Box: with this tool for metadata enrichment for catalogue records one can create basic geospatial metadata. This has been used, for example, in Qatar Digital Library catalogue records.
  • Palladio: this set of web-based tools, created by Stanford’s Humanities + Design Lab, can be used to create maps and network visualisations. It’s very useful for showing connections between various entities across time and space.
  • Georeferencer: this is a British Library platform created to crowdsource the georeferencing (assigning points on a map image to corresponding geographical coordinates) of over 50,000 digitised maps from the BL collection. This has been a massive hit, with many people helping us create digital geospatial data for these historic maps.



  • OpenRefine: Owen Stephens delivered his superb OpenRefine course, teaching BL staff the basic capabilities of this tool to clean and normalise data (e.g. in preparation to be mapped). However, this time Owen added some extra location-related topics: retrieving data from online sources (using Name Entity Recognition) and using ‘reconciliation’ services to match local data to external data sources. OpenRefine is a popular tool at the BL, and Graham Jevon from the Endangered Archives Programme is now working on a sequence of regular expressions to standardise EAP data.

We were honoured to have several external speakers coming to the BL and telling us about their ideas and projects. These included Sally Bushell and Rebecca Hutcheon (Lancaster University) talking about ‘Chronotopic Cartographies and Litcraft: Mapping Space and Time in Literature’; John Hessler (Library of Congress) presenting on ‘Machine and Deep Learning for Librarians: Designing Tools for Collections Discovery in the 21st Century’; Leif Isaksen (University of Exeter) on ‘How to Decide What to Where: Semantic Geo-annotation and the Pelagios Network’; and Sam Griffiths (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) talking about ‘Exploring the interface of political meeting places and urban space in Ancoats, Manchester c.1780-1860’.

This impressive line-up was complemented by a public ‘Digital Conversation’ talk and panel on ‘Data, Place and Digital Economies’, chaired by Ian Cooke and included Mark Birkin, Miranda Marcus, Jeremy Morley and Emmanouil Tranos.

What’s next?

My colleague Stella Wisdom has embarked on her promising ‘Season of Emerging Formats’ (based on the BL Emerging Formats project), looking at publication types that are a bit more challenging to curate and preserve. Nora McGregor also has a thing or two up her sleeve, so stay tuned!