THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

29 posts categorized "LIS research"

20 August 2019

Innovation Labs and the digital divide

Add comment

Guest posting by Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies UCL Qatar with contributions from Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA) and Fidelity Phiri, Visiting Researcher, UCL Qatar.

Can you recall seeing an interesting digital cultural heritage object from Zambia lately? If you search the Europeana Collections portal, you will find some 2500 digital objects coming from European heritage institutions. Alongside these items, you can enjoy the sound recording of a grunting and splashing Hippopotamus captured on 2 July 1985 on Luangwa river in Zambia. This object was aggregated from the British Library’s sound collection

Digitisation efforts of various Zambian institutions date back to 2002; for example, at the National Archives of Zambia (which does not have its own website at the time of writing this post), finding digital content originating from Zambian institutions is currently a challenge, unless you are visiting these institutions in person. One possible reason is that institutions in Zambia digitise for the purposes of internal collection management, preservation, and on-site use, like many other organisations. A rare exception is the digitised collection of the records of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia, which was created in 2007 in collaboration with the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library. While it cannot be accessed on any Zambian digital platform, it is available on the website of the British Library.

Is this situation (of very little accessible digital material online in the archives) common for all cultural sectors? Let us have a look at museums. In this domain, the Livingstone Museum was the first to carry out digitisation activities in 2009. The National Museum Board of Zambia, an umbrella organisation for 5 national and 2 community museums, also has an online presence with digitised images. However, trying to explore the Photo gallery or Audio/video files in the Multimedia section on the website returns the ominous 404 Page not found error although the Board definitely has plenty of objects to share. 

Certainly, one could argue that the poor institutional online digital presence is to be expected in a country within the Global South where a digital divide still exists.  After all, even finding data to assess the scale of this digital divide is a challenge, and the body of publications on digital divide in Africa had been quite limited with some 100 identified works over 12-year period (2000-2012). There is also a lack of recent estimates on the state of technological use in museums. Back in 2002, Lorna Abungu suggested that "[a]t present, out of 357 known museums throughout the African continent (including the Indian Ocean islands), only seventy-five have – on an institutional level – at least basic Internet access for e-mail." 

And, while tackling the digital divide is one of the big challenges of the Global South, when we look at it specifically from the digital cultural heritage perspective it has a global effect. Those within the divide are not able to use modern information and communication technologies to their full advantage. This is one of the reasons digitisation is either delayed or caters only for on-site use in Zambia, for example. But for those on the other side of the divide it results in impaired access to the digital heritage currently being accumulated in the regions affected by the digital divide. This is why the users searching for the sounds of hippopotamus splashing will have a chance to discover them only if they are deposited in a collection on the other side of the divide. 

To foster a change within this current situation of a lack of accessibility to the digital cultural heritage of Zambia, UCL Qatar joined forces with the National Museums Board of Zambia to deliver a day-long workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum. You can read more about this event , in a 'Reflections from the First Sub-Saharan African Workshop on Digital Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions' blog post.

Fig. 4. Workshop participants
Fig. 1. After discussing how to overcome some of the disadvantages of the digital divide:
Participants in the Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum

There was a clear message from Mahendra Mahey, of British Library Labs that innovation in user engagement can start small, with the use of open source tools and popular web platforms. This event provided useful insights on the questions newcomers to the Innovation Lab community have to ask. In September, a Book Sprint to develop the first guide for setting up, running and maintaining a Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs will be held in Doha, Qatar. 

Here are some of these interesting questions for the wider labs community:

  • Keeping in mind how the level of technological innovation is different on both sides of the divide; what should an innovation lab within the divide offer? Incremental innovation to the state of technology around or advanced innovation to match the global leaders?
  • How much can open platforms support innovation for these labs?
  • Can the route of using predominantly open tools and platforms for innovation labs be used also as a way to enhance open science in the Global South? 

Until a shift in the digital access happens, we will continue browsing some digital content on Zambian heritage coming from other cultural heritage organisations outside Zambia, beyond the digital divide.

Fig. 4. Workshop participants Dr Milena Dobreva-McPherson, is Associate Professor Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar with international experience of working in Bulgaria, Scotland and Malta. Since graduating M.Sc. (Hons) in Informatics in 1991, Milena specialized in digital humanities and digital cultural heritage in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she earned her PhD in 1999 in Informatics and Applied Mathematics and served as the Founding Head of the first Digitisation Centre in Bulgaria (2004); she was also a member of the Executive Board of the National Commission of UNESCO. Milena’s research interests are in the areas of innovation diffusion in the cultural heritage sector; citizen science; and users of digital libraries. Milena is a member of the editorial board of the IFLA Journal - Sage, and of the International Journal on Digital Libraries (IJDL) - Springer and a member of the steering committed of the three biggest conference series in digital libraries, IJDL, TPDL and ICADL. Consultant of the Europeana Task Force on Research Requirements.  

Tuesday Mr Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA). He holds a Master’s Degree in Information Science from China. In addition, Mr. Bwalya has received training in India and Belgium in Library Automation with Free and Open Source Library Management Systems such as Koha and ABCD. His research interests include free and open source library management systems; open access publishing; database systems; web development; records management; cataloguing and classification.

Fidelity Fidelity Phiri is currently employed as Librarian at Moto Moto Museum and a visiting researcher at UCL Qatar. He has worked for National Museums Board of Zambia since 2001. He  holds a Bachelor's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Zambia. Fidelity  also graduated in April 2019 from UCL Qatar and  is a holder of a Master’s degree in Library and Information studies. His research interests are in bibliometrics studies and digital humanities/units  that provide access to digital collections.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Fred Nyambe for the photos and Dania Jalees for the editing.

29 July 2019

Invitation to join ‘Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs Book Sprint’, Doha, Qatar, 23-27 September 2019

Add comment

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs and Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies UCL Qatar.

Laboratory Greyscale 3 resized 1600 x 900
Building Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs

Calling all of you that work in and/or do research in Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs! Join us in Doha, Qatar 23-27 September 2019 for a week long Book Sprint!

Apply now by midnight 5 August 2019 for one of the fully funded trips to take part!

We want to create a new guide for setting up, running and maintaining a Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Lab. Let’s share our experiences (both awesome and challenging) far and wide so that other organisations don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

This is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to a legacy for the Cultural Heritage sector that is bigger than any of us individually. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but it will also be a fun, creative, and rewarding process!

The idea for the sprint came from the Building Library Labs event we held at the British Library in September 2018, work which we built on in Copenhagen (March, 2019).

The event is generously sponsored by UCL Qatar, Qatar University Library and Books Sprint Ltd.

We will let applicants know by 8 August 2019 if they have been successful.

If you are not chosen, or simply can’t make it, don’t worry! We will find other ways to get you involved after the book is published.  We intend to promote the work as part of ‘International Open access week’ which will take place between 21-27 October 2019. We also want to make sure the book is a ‘living publication’ that will be constantly updated and amended online to ensure its continued relevance and usefulness to the broader cultural heritage sector and possibly further.

If you have any specific questions before you apply, please feel free to email me at mahendra.mahey@bl.uk or Milena at m.dobreva@ucl.ac.uk

26 June 2019

BL Labs Awards 2019: enter before midday on Monday 9th September!

Add comment

The BL Labs Awards formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been created using the British Library’s digital collections and data.

The closing date for entering the BL Labs Awards (2019) is 12:00 noon (BST) on Monday 9th September. Submit your entry, and help us spread the word to all interested parties over the next few months or so. This will ensure we have another year of fantastic digital-based projects highlighted by the Awards!

This year, BL Labs is commending work in four key areas:

  • Research - A project or activity that shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Commercial - An activity that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the Library's digital content.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour that inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Teaching / Learning - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.

After the submission deadline of noon BST on Monday 9th September 2019 for entering the BL Labs Awards has passed, the entries will be shortlisted. Selected shortlisted entrants will be notified via email by midnight BST on Thursday 10th October 2019. 

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and £100 to the runner up in each Awards category at the BL Labs Symposium on 11th November 2019 at the British Library, St Pancras, London.

The talent of the BL Labs Awards winners and runners up over the last four years has led to the production of a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects. In 2018, the Awards commended work in four main categories – Research, Artistic, Commercial and Teaching & Learning:

2018-BL-Labs-Award-Winners
BL Labs Award Winners 2018
(Top left - Delius Catalogue of Works, Top right - Another Intelligence Sings, Bottom right - The British Library Fashion Collection and Bottom right - Pocket Miscellanies)
  • Research category Award (2018) winner: The Delius Catalogue of Works: the production of a comprehensive catalogue of works by the composer Delius, based on research using (and integrated with) the BL’s Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue by Joanna Bullivant, Daniel Grimley, David Lewis and Kevin Page from Oxford University’s Music department.
  • Artistic Award (2018) winner: Another Intelligence Sings (AI Sings): an interactive, immersive sound-art installation, which uses AI to transform environmental sound recordings from the BL’s sound archive by Amanda Baum, Rose Leahy and Rob Walker independent artists and experience designers.
  • Commercial Award (2018) winner: Fashion presentation for London Fashion Week by Nabil Nayal: the Library collection - a fashion collection inspired by digitised Elizabethan-era manuscripts from the BL, culminating in several fashion shows/events/commissions including one at the BL in London.
  • Teaching and Learning (2018) winner: Pocket Miscellanies: ten online pocket-book ‘zines’ featuring images taken from the BL digitised medieval manuscripts collection by Jonah Coman, PhD student at Glasgow School of Art.

For further information about BL Labs or our Awards, please contact us at labs@bl.uk.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of of British Library Labs.

10 June 2019

Collaborative Digital Scholarship in Action: A Case Study in Designing Impactful Student Learning Partnerships

Add comment

The Arts and Sciences (BASc) department at University College London has been at the forefront of pioneering a renascence of liberal arts and sciences degrees in the UK. As part of its Core modules offering, students select an interdisciplinary elective in Year 2 of their academic programme – from a range of modules specially designed for the department by University College London academics and researchers.

When creating my own module – Information Through the Ages (BASC0033) – as part of this elective set, I was keen to ensure that the student learning experience was both supported and developed in tandem with professional practices and standards, knowing that enabling students to progress their skills developed on the module beyond the module’s own assignments would aid them not only in their own unique academic degree programmes but also provide substantial evidence to future employers of their employability and skills base. Partnering with the British Library, therefore, in designing a data science and data curation project as part of the module’s core assignments, seemed to me to provide an excellent opportunity to enable both a research-based educative framework for students as well as a valuable chance for them to engage in a real-world collaboration, as providing students with external industry partners to collaborate with can contribute an important fillip to their motivation and the learning experience overall – by seeing their assessed work move beyond the confines of the academy to have an impact out in the wider world.

Through discussions with my British Library co-collaborators, Mahendra Mahey and Stella Wisdom, we alighted on the Microsoft Books/BL 19th Century collection dataset as providing excellent potential for student groups to work with for their data curation projects. With its 60,000 public domain volumes, associated metadata and 1 million+ extracted images, it presented as exciting, undiscovered territory across which our student groups might roam and rove, with the results of their work having the potential to benefit future British Library researchers.

Structuring the group project around wrangling a subset of this data: discovering, researching, cleaning and refining it, with the output from each group a curated version of the original dataset we therefore felt presented a number of significant benefits. Students were enabled to explore and develop technical skills such as data curation, software knowledge, archival research, report writing, project development and collaborative working practices, alongside experiencing a real world, digital scholarship learning experience – with the outcomes in turn supporting the British Library’s Digital Scholarship remit regards enabling innovative research based on the British Library digital collections.

Students observed that “working with the data did give me more practical insight to the field of work involved with digitisation work, and it was an enriching experience”, including how they “appreciated how involved and hands-on the projects were, as this is something that I particularly enjoy”. Data curation training was provided on site at the British Library, with the session focused on the use of OpenRefine, “a powerful tool for working with messy data: cleaning it; transforming it from one format into another; and extending it with web services and external data.”[1] Student feedback also told us that we could have provided further software training, and more guided dataset exploration/navigation resources, with groups keen to learn more nuanced data curation techniques – something we will aim to respond to in future iterations of the module – but overall, as one student succinctly noted, “I had no idea of the digitalization process and I learned a lot about data science. The training was very useful and I acquired new skills about data cleaning.”

Overall, we had five student groups wrangling the BL 19th Century collection, producing final data subsets in the following areas: Christian and Christian-related texts; Queens of Britain 1510-1946; female authors, 1800-1900 (here's a heatmap this student group produced of the spread of published titles by female authors in the 19th century); Shakespearean works, other author’s adaptations on those works, and any commentary on Shakespeare or his writing; and travel-related books.

In particular, it was excellent to see students fully engaging with the research process around their chosen data subset – exploring its cultural and institutional contexts, as well as navigating metadata/data schemas, requirements and standards.

For example, the Christian texts group considered the issue of different languages as part of their data subset of texts, following this up with textual content analysis to enable accurate record querying and selection. In their project report they noted that “[u]sing our dataset and visualisations as aids, we hope that researchers studying the Bible and Christianity can discover insights into the geographical and temporal spread of Christian-related texts. Furthermore, we hope that they can also glean new information regarding the people behind the translations of Bibles as well as those who wrote about Christianity.”

Similarly, the student group focused on travel-related texts discussed in their team project summary that “[t]he particular value of this curated dataset is that future researchers may be able to use it in the analysis of international points of view. In these works, many cities and nations are being written about from an outside perspective. This perspective is one that can be valuable in understanding historical relations and frames of reference between groups around the world: for instance, the work “Travels in France and Italy, in 1817 and 1818”, published in New York, likely provides an American perspective of Europe, while “Four Months in Persia, and a Visit to Trans-Caspia”, published in London, might detail an extended visit of a European in Persia, both revealing unique perspectives about different groups of people. A comparable work, that may have utilized or benefitted from such a collection, is Hahner’s (1998) “Women Through Women’s Eyes:Latin American Women in Nineteenth Century Travel Accounts.” In it, Hahner explores nineteenth century literature written to unearth the perspectives on Latin American women, specifically noting that the primarily European author’s writings should be understood in the context of their Eurocentric view, entrenched in “patriarchy” and “colonialism” (Hahner, 1998:21). Authors and researchers with a similar intent may use [our] curated British Library dataset comparably – that is, to locate such works.”

Data visualisation by travel books group
Data visualisation by travel books group
Data visualisation by travel books group
Data visualisation by travel books group

Over the ten weeks of the module, alongside their group data curation projects, students covered lecture topics as varied as Is a Star a Document?, "Truthiness" and Truth in a Post-Truth World, Organising Information: Classification, Taxonomies and Beyond!, and Information & Power; worked on an individual archival GIF project which drew on an institutional archival collection to create (and publish on social media) an animated GIF; and spent time in classroom discussions considering questions such as What happens when information is used for dis-informing or mis-informing purposes?; How do the technologies available to us in the 21st century potentially impact on the (data) collection process and its outputs and outcomes?; How might ideas about collections and collecting be transformed in a digital context?; What exactly do we mean by the concepts of Data and Information?; How we choose to classify or group something first requires we have a series of "rules" or instructions which determine the grouping process – but who decides on what the rules are and how might such decisions in fact influence our very understandings of the information the system is supposedly designed to facilitate access to? These dialogues were all situated within the context of both "traditional" collections systems and atypical sites of information storage and collection, with the module aiming to enable students to gain an in-depth knowledge, understanding and critical appreciation of the concept of information, from historical antecedents to digital scientific and cultural heritage forms, in the context of libraries, archives, galleries and museums (including alternative, atypical and emergent sources), and how technological, social, cultural and other changes fundamentally affect our concept of “information.”

“I think this module was particularly helpful in making me look at things in an interdisciplinary light”, one student observed in module evaluation feedback, with others going on to note that “I think the different formats of work we had to do was engaging and made the coursework much more interesting than just papers or just a project … the collaboration with the British Library deeply enriched the experience by providing a direct and visible outlet for any energies expended on the module. It made the material seem more applicable and the coursework more enjoyable … I loved that this module offered different ways of assessment. Having papers, projects, presentations, and creative multimedia work made this course engaging.”

Situating the module’s assessments within such contexts I hope encouraged students to understand the critical, interdisciplinary focus of the field of information studies, in particular the use of information in the context of empire-making and consolidation, and how histories of information, knowledge and power intersect. Combined with a collaborative, interdisciplinary curriculum design approach, which encouraged and supported students to gain technical abilities and navigate teamwork practices, we hope this module can point some useful ways forward in creating and developing engaging learning experiences, which have real world impact.

This blog post is by Sara Wingate-Gray (UCL Senior Teaching Fellow & BASC0033 module leader), Mahendra Mahey (BL Labs Manager) and Stella Wisdom (BL Digital Curator for Contemporary British Collections).

12 April 2019

The British Library’s new Collection Metadata Strategy

Add comment

“Our vision is that by 2023 the Library’s collection metadata assets will be unified on a single, sustainable, standards-based infrastructure offering improved options for access, collaboration and open reuse”

Foundations for the Future
Fig. 1: The front cover of the new Collection Metadata Strategy 2019-2023

April 2019 sees the launch of the British Library’s latest Collection Metadata Strategy Foundations for the Future .

Metadata word cloud
Fig. 2: A collection metadata tag cloud

‘Collection metadata’ is an umbrella term for structured data capturing the key properties, relationships and holdings supporting collection management. The British Library’s collection metadata evolved from simple inventory lists to encompass all information required to access, preserve and coordinate resources. Efficient exploitation of metadata underpins user services in a networked world. It is therefore a key resource requiring dedicated management to maximise its potential. 

Unlocking the Value
Fig. 3: The front cover of the original Collection Metadata Strategy 2015-2018

The British Library formally acknowledged metadata’s importance in 2015 with the publication of its first collection metadata strategy. Unlocking the Value described the foundational principles required to manage metadata as an asset in its own right rather than as a by-product of other activities. This concept proved influential for other national and state libraries with several developing similar strategies. The first strategy period saw great progress in centralising management and support of metadata policy and best practice but also included other notable achievements, including creation of:

  • Automated workflows to upgrade publisher eBook metadata to library standards with minimal intervention
  • Software tools to convert print catalogues to contemporary metadata formats and to automatically enhance over 1 million older catalogue records
  • Open metadata services used by over 2150 institutions in 127 countries
Heatmap
Fig. 4: British Library open metadata users by country – 2019

‘Foundations for the Future’ will build on such achievements to ensure collection metadata becomes even more accessible, relevant and useful by addressing key challenges and new opportunities including:

Increasing Volume and Complexity -Traditional methods of metadata generation, management and dissemination are not scalable or appropriate to an era of rapid digital change, rising expectations and diminishing resources.

New Metadata Creation Options -The changing information landscape presents many new opportunities. Open web resources, automated metadata generation from full text and crowdsourcing offer interesting possibilities requiring exploration.

Improving Visibility - If collection metadata is unavailable, the resources described are effectively invisible. A programme of metadata creation is required to improve visibility of any ‘hidden’ content and enable use.

Metadata users
Fig 5: Users of British Library Collection Metadata

Rights Management – To manage increasingly diverse and dynamic options for hybrid print/digital and local/remote access to content, we must create an equally sophisticated rights metadata infrastructure.

Preservation Metadata – The long-term future of digital collections can only be secured by good preservation metadata. Only by accurately recording key content properties to recognised metadata standards will it be possible to offer current digital content to future users.

Unifying Infrastructure – Collection metadata’s potential is constrained by the requirement to address contemporary challenges with outdated systems, standards and practices. The new strategy proposes the creation of an integrated standards and systems infrastructure capable of unifying and presenting collection metadata in a way unachievable since the British Library’s foundation.

Metadata roadmap
Fig. 6: The Collection Metadata Strategy Roadmap, 2019-2023

A summary roadmap has been created to show the steps planned to address these challenges and ensure that by 2023:

  • The complexity of the British Library’s collection metadata infrastructure will be reduced by convergence on an agreed set of supported standards and systems
  • The unified collection metadata infrastructure will offer new access and processing options enabling improved user services
  • Efficient, sustainable collection metadata workflows will match the increasing scale and complexity of collection content via implementation of new techniques for record creation and exploitation of external data sources

Through the achievement of these goals ‘Foundations for the Future’ will ensure The British Library’s collection metadata will complete its evolution from passive descriptor to active agent, supporting sustainable and relevant services to new generations.

This is a guest post by Neil Wilson, Head of Collection Metadata at the British Library.

30 January 2019

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

Add comment

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.

35000books
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'

Add comment

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.

PocketMisc fig 1

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.

PocketMisc fig 2

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. 

PocketMisc fig 3

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.

PocketMisc fig 4

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'

Add comment

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.