In August 2022 I started work on a project to investigate the legacies of curatorial voice in the descriptions of incunabula collections at the British Library and their future reuse. My research is funded by the collaborative AHRC-RLUK Professional Practice Fellowship Scheme for academic and research libraries which launched in 2021. As part of the first cohort of ten Fellows I embraced this opportunity to engage in practitioner research that benefits my institution and the wider sector, and to promote the role of library professionals as important research partners.
The overall aim of my Fellowship is to demonstrate new ways of working with digitised catalogues that would also improve the discoverability and usability of the collections they describe. The focus of my research is the Catalogue of books printed in the 15th century now at the British Museum (or BMC) published between 1908 and 2007 which describes over 12,700 volumes from the British Library incunabula collection. By using computational approaches and tools with the data derived from the catalogue I will gain new insights into and interpretations of this valuable resource and enable its reuse in contemporary online resources.
BMC volume 2 titlepage
This research idea was inspired by a recent collaboration with Dr James Baker, who is also my mentor for this Fellowship, and was further developed in conversations with Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator for Incunabula, Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections, and Alan Danskin, Collections Metadata Standards Manager, who support my research at the Library.
My Fellowship runs until July 2023 with Fridays being my main research days. I began by studying the history of the catalogue, its arrangement and the structure of the item descriptions and their relationship with different online resources. Overall, the main focus of this first phase has been on generating the text data required for the computational analysis and investigations into curatorial and cataloguing practice. This work involved new digitisation of the catalogue and a lot of experimentation using the Transkribus AI-empowered platform that proved best-suited for improving the layout and text recognition for the digitised images. During the last two months I have hugely benefited from the expertise of my colleague Tom Derrick, as we worked together on creating the training data and building structure models for the incunabula catalogue images.
Layout recognition output for pages with only two columns, including text baselines, viewed on Transkribus Lite
Text recognition output after applying the model trained with annotations for 2 columns on the page, viewed on Transkribus Lite
Layout recognition output for pages with mixed layout of single text block and text in columns, viewed on Transkribus Lite
Whilst the data preparation phase has taken longer than I had planned due to the varied layout of the catalogue, this has been an important part of the process as the project outcomes are dependent on using the best quality text data for the incunabula descriptions. The next phase of the research will involve the segmentation of the records and extraction of relevant information to use with a range of computational tools. I will report on the progress with this work and the next steps early next year. Watch this space and do get in touch if you would like to learn more about my research.
'This panel discusses how cultural institutions are engaging various communities to co-create academic research and/or object metadata in order to increase representation and access to collections; highlighting how this is done in different ways to engage specific audiences and goals, i.e. graduate student assistantships, museum interactive experiences, crowdsourcing, and professional action groups'.
Earlier this year we got together again to record a panel for the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference held in May 2022.
'As social justice movements challenge power structures, the ways in which public historians and cultural institutions create expert knowledge are also under scrutiny. Instead of using traditional top-down approaches to cataloguing, public historians and cultural institutions should be actively co-creating object metadata and research with the public. Discussion centers on how public involvement enriches the narratives we share, building transparency and trust within organizations and the surrounding communities. We hope to present various ways in which institutions are beginning this work and focus on a variety of audiences from graduate students and emerging professionals, to online citizen science communities and onsite museum audiences'.
"Collaboration and Citizen Science Approaches to Enriching Access to Scientific Collections," Jessica BrodeFrank, Adler Planetarium and University of London
"creating names together: homosaurus international thesaurus & the trans metadata collective," B.M. Watson, University of British Columbia iSchool; Homosaurus; Trans Metadata Collective
"Embedding Crowdsourcing in a Collaborative Data Science Project", Mia Ridge, British Library
Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge shares news from a collaboration between the British Library and Zooniverse that means you can more easily create crowdsourcing projects with cultural heritage collections. There's a related blog post on Zooniverse, Fun with IIIF.
IIIF manifests - text files that tell software how to display images, sound or video files alongside metadata and other information about them - might not sound exciting, but by linking to them, you can view and annotate collections from around the world. The IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) standard makes images (or audio, video or 3D files) more re-usable - they can be displayed on another site alongside the original metadata and information provided by the source institution. If an institution updates a manifest - perhaps adding information from updated cataloguing or crowdsourcing - any sites that display that image automatically gets the updated metadata.
Playbill showing the title after other large text
We've posted before about how we used IIIF manifests as the basis for our In the Spotlight crowdsourced tasks on LibCrowds.com. Playbills are great candidates for crowdsourcing because they are hard to transcribe automatically, and the layout and information present varies a lot. Using IIIF meant that we could access images of playbills directly from the British Library servers without needing server space and extra processing to make local copies. You didn't need technical knowledge to copy a manifest address and add a new volume of playbills to In the Spotlight. This worked well for a couple of years, but over time we'd found it difficult to maintain bespoke software for LibCrowds.
When we started looking for alternatives, the Zooniverse platform was an obvious option. Zooniverse hosts dozens of historical or cultural heritage projects, and hundreds of citizen science projects. It has millions of volunteers, and a 'project builder' that means anyone can create a crowdsourcing project - for free! We'd already started using Zooniverse for other Library crowdsourcing projects such as Living with Machines, which showed us how powerful the platform can be for reaching potential volunteers.
But that experience also showed us how complicated the process of getting images and metadata onto Zooniverse could be. Using Zooniverse for volumes of playbills for In the Spotlight would require some specialist knowledge. We'd need to download images from our servers, resize them, generate a 'manifest' list of images and metadata, then upload it all to Zooniverse; and repeat that for each of the dozens of volumes of digitised playbills.
Fast forward to summer 2021, when we had the opportunity to put a small amount of funding into some development work by Zooniverse. I'd already collaborated with Sam Blickhan at Zooniverse on the Collective Wisdom project, so it was easy to drop her a line and ask if they had any plans or interest in supporting IIIF. It turns out they had, but hadn't had the resources or an interested organisation necessary before.
We came up with a brief outline of what the work needed to do, taking the ability to recreate some of the functionality of In the Spotlight on Zooniverse as a goal. Therefore, 'the ability to add subject sets via IIIF manifest links' was key. ('Subject set' is Zooniverse-speak for 'set of images or other media' that are the basis of crowdsourcing tasks.) And of course we wanted the ability to set up some crowdsourcing tasks with those items… The Zooniverse developer, Jim O'Donnell, shared his work in progress on GitHub, and I was very easily able to set up a test project and ask people to help create sample data for further testing.
If you have a Zooniverse project and a IIIF address to hand, you can try out the import for yourself: add 'subject-sets/iiif?env=production' to your project builder URL. e.g. if your project is number #xxx then the URL to access the IIIF manifest import would be https://www.zooniverse.org/lab/xxx/subject-sets/iiif?env=production
Paste a manifest URL into the box. The platform parses the file to present a list of metadata fields, which you can flag as hidden or visible in the subject viewer (public task interface). When you're happy, you can click a button to upload the manifest as a new subject set (like a folder of items), and your images are imported. (Don't worry if it says '0 subjects).
Digital work in libraries is always collaborative, so I'd like to thank British Library colleagues in Finance, Procurement, Technology, Collection Metadata Services and various Collections departments; the Zooniverse volunteers who helped test our first task and of course the Zooniverse team, especially Sam, Jim and Chris for their work on this.
Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge writes, In case you need a break from whatever combination of weather, people and news is around you, here are some ways you can entertain yourself (or the kids!) while helping make collections of the British Library more findable, or help researchers understand our past. You might even learn something or make new discoveries along the way!
Mia Ridge writes: Living with Machines is a collaboration between the British Library and the Alan Turing Institute with partner universities. Help us understand the 'machine age' through the eyes of ordinary people who lived through it. Our refreshed task builds on our previous work, and includes fresh newspaper titles, such as the Cotton Factory Times.
Launched in July this year, Agents of Enslavement? is a research project which explores the ways in which colonial newspapers in the Caribbean facilitated and challenged the practice of slavery. One goal is to create a database of enslaved people identified within these newspapers. This benefits people researching their family history as well as those who simply want to understand more about the lives of enslaved people and their acts of resistance.
Some of the remaining maps are quite tricky to georeference and so if there is a perplexing map that you would like some guidance with do get in contact with myself and our curator for modern mapping by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we will try to help. Please do look forward to some exciting news maps being released on the platform in 2022!
Posted by Mahendra Mahey, former Manager of British Library Labs or "BL Labs" for short
[estimated reading time of around 15 minutes]
This is is my last day working as manager of BL Labs, and also my final posting on the Digital Scholarship blog. I thought I would take this chance to reflect on my journey of almost 9 years in helping to set up, maintain and enabling BL Labs to become a permanent fixture at the British Library (BL).
BL Labs was the first digital Lab in a national library, anywhere in the world, that gets people to experiment with its cultural heritage digital collections and data. There are now several Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum Labs or 'GLAM Labs' for short around the world, with an active community which I helped build, from 2018.
I am really proud I was there from the beginning to implement the original proposal which was written by several colleagues, but especially Adam Farquhar, former head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library (BL). The project was at first generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation through four rounds of funding as well as support from the BL. In April 2021, the project became a permanently funded fixture, helped very much by my new manager Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science.
The great news is that BL Labs is going to stay after I have left. The position of leading the Lab will soon be advertised. Hopefully, someone will get a chance to work with my helpful and supportive colleague Technical Lead of Labs, Dr Filipe Bento, bright, talented and very hard working Maja and other great colleagues in Digital Research and wider at the BL.
The beginnings, the BL and me!
I met Adam Farquhar and Aly Conteh (Former Head of Digital Research at the BL) in December 2012. They must have liked something about me because I started working on the project in January 2013, though I officially started in March 2013 to launch BL Labs.
I must admit, I had always felt a bit intimidated by the BL. My first visit was in the early 1980s before the St Pancras site was opened (in 1997) as a Psychology student. I remember coming up from Wolverhampton on the train to get a research paper about "Serotonin Pathways in Rats when sleeping" by Lidov, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. It felt like a place for 'really intelligent educated people' and for those who were one for the intellectual elites in society. It also felt for me a bit like it represented the British empire and its troubled history of colonialism, especially some of the collections which made me feel uncomfortable as to why they were there in the first place.
I remember thinking that the BL probably wasn't a place for some like me, a child of Indian Punjabi immigrants from humble beginnings who came to England in the 1960s. Actually, I felt like an imposter and not worthy of being there.
Nearly 9 years later, I can say I learned to respect and even cherish what was inside it, especially the incredible collections, though I also became more confident about expressing stronger views about the decolonisation of some of these. I became very fond of some of the people who work or use it, there are some really good kind-hearted souls at the BL. However, I never completely lost that 'imposter and being an outsider' feeling.
What I remember at that time, going for my interview, was having this thought, what will happen if I got the position and 'What would be the one thing I would try and change?'. It came easily to me, namely that I would try and get more new people through the doors literally or virtually by connecting them to the BL's collections (especially the digital). New people like me, who may have never set foot, or had been motivated to step into the building before. This has been one of the most important reasons for me to get up in the morning and go to work at BL Labs.
So what have been my highlights? Let's have a very quick pass through!
BL Labs Launch and Advisory Board
I launched BL Labs in March 2013, one week after I had started. It was at the launch event organised by my wonderfully supportive and innovative colleague, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom. I distinctly remember in the afternoon session (which I did alone), I had to present my 'ideas' of how I might launch the first BL Labs competition where we would be trying to get pioneering researchers to work with the BL's digital collections.
God it was a tough crowd! They asked pretty difficult questions, questions I myself was asking too which I still didn't know the answer too either.
My first gut feeling overall after the event was, this is going to be hard work. This feeling and reality remained a constant throughout my time at BL Labs.
In early May 2013, we launched the competition, which was a really quick and stressful turnaround as I had only officially started in mid March (one and a half months). I remember worrying as to whether anyone would even enter! All the final entries were pretty much submitted a few minutes before the deadline. I remember being alone that evening on deadline day near to midnight waiting by my laptop, thinking what happens if no one enters, it's going to be disaster and I will lose my job. Luckily that didn't happen, in the end, we received 26 entries.
I am a firm believer that we can help make our own luck, but sometimes luck can be quite random! Perhaps BL Labs had a bit of both!
After that, I never really looked back! BL Labs developed its own kind of pattern and momentum each year:
hunting around the BL for digital collections to make into datasets and make available
helping to make more digital collections openly licensed
having hundreds of conversations with people interested in connecting with the BL's digital collections in the BL and outside
working with some people more intensively to carry out experiments
developing ideas further into prototype projects
telling the world of successes and failures in person, meetings, events and social media
launching a competition and awards in April or May
roadshows before and after with invitations to speak at events around the world
the summer working with competition winners
late October/November the international symposium showcased things from the year
'Nothing interesting happens in the office' - Roadshows, Presentations, Workshops and Symposia!
One of the highlights of BL Labs was to go out to universities and other places to explain what the BL is and what BL Labs does. This ended up with me pretty much seeing the world (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and giving virtual talks in South America and Africa).
My greatest challenge in BL Labs was always to get people to truly and passionately 'connect' with the BL's digital collections and data in order to come up with cool ideas of what to actually do with them. What I learned from my very first trip was that telling people what you have is great, they definitely need to know what you have! However, once you do that, the hard work really begins as you often need to guide and inspire many of them, help and support them to use the collections creatively and meaningfully. It was also important to understand the back story of the digital collection and learn about the institutional culture of the BL if people also wanted to work with BL colleagues. For me and the researchers involved, inspirational engagement with digital collections required a lot of intellectual effort and emotional intelligence. Often this means asking the uncomfortable questions about research such as 'Why are we doing this?', 'What is the benefit to society in doing this?', 'Who cares?', 'How can computation help?' and 'Why is it necessary to even use computation?'.
Making those connections between people and data does feel like magic when it really works. It's incredibly exciting, suddenly everyone has goose bumps and is energised. This feeling, I will take away with me, it's the essence of my work at BL Labs!
A full list of over 200 presentations, roadshows, events and 9 annual symposia can be found here.
Competitions, Awards and Projects
Another significant way BL Labs has tried to connect people with data has been through Competitions (tell us what you would like to do, and we will choose an idea and work collaboratively with you on it to make it a reality), Awards (show us what you have already done) and Projects (collaborative working).
At the last count, we have supported and / or highlighted over 450 projects in research, artistic, entrepreneurial, educational, community based, activist and public categories most through competitions, awards and project collaborations.
We also set up awards for British Library Staff which has been a wonderful way to highlight the fantastic work our staff do with digital collections and give them the recognition they deserve. I have noticed over the years that the number of staff who have been working on digital projects has increased significantly. Sometimes this was with the help of BL Labs but often because of the significant Digital Scholarship Training Programme, run by my Digital Curator colleagues in Digital Research for staff to understand that the BL isn't just about physical things but digital items too.
Browse through our project archive to get inspiration of the various projects BL Labs has been involved in or highlighted.
Putting the digital collections 'where the light is' - British Library platforms and others
When I started at BL Labs it was clear that we needed to make a fundamental decision about how we saw digital collections. Quite early on, we decided we should treat collections as data to harness the power of computational tools to work with each collection, especially for research purposes. Each collection should have a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so researchers can cite them in publications. Any new datasets generated from them will also have DOIs, allowing us to understand the ecosystem through DOIs of what happens to data when you get it out there for people to use.
However, BL Labs has not stopped there! We always believed that it's important to put our digital collections where others are likely to discover them (we can't assume that researchers will want to come to BL platforms), 'where the light is' so to speak. We were very open and able to put them on other platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, not forgetting that we still needed to do the hard work to connect data to people after they have discovered them, if they needed that support.
Our greatest success by far was placing 1 million largely undescribed images that were digitally snipped from 65,000 digitised public domain books from the 19th Century on Flickr Commons in 2013. The number of images on the platform have grown since then by another 50 to 60 thousand from collections elsewhere in the BL. There has been significant interaction from the public to generate crowdsourced tags to help to make it easier to find the specific images. The number of views we have had have reached over a staggering 2 billion over this time. There have also been an incredible array of projects which have used the images, from artistic use to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify them. It's my favourite collection, probably because there are no restrictions in using it.
Read the most popular blog post the BL has ever published by my former BL Labs colleague, the brilliant and inspirational Ben O'Steen, a million first steps and the 'Mechanical Curator' which describes how we told the world why and how we had put 1 million images online for anyone to use freely.
It is wonderful to know that George Oates, the founder of Flickr Commons and still a BL Labs Advisory Board member, has been involved in the creation of the Flickr Foundation which was announced a few days ago! Long live Flickr Commons! We loved it because it also offered a computational way to access the collections, critical for powerful and efficient computational experiments, through its Application Programming Interface (API).
I loved working with artists, its my passion! They are so creative and often not restricted by academic thinking, see the work of Mario Klingemann for example! You can browse through our archives for various artistic projects that used the BL's digital collections, it's inspiring.
I am really proud of helping to create the international GLAM Labs community with over 250 members, established in 2018 and still active today. I affectionately call them the GLAM Labbers, and I often ask people to explore their inner 'Labber' when I give presentations. What is a Labber? It's the experimental and playful part of us we all had as children and unfortunately many have lost when becoming an adult. It's the ability to be fearless, having the audacity and perhaps even naivety to try crazy things even if they are likely to fail! Unfortunately society values success more than it does failure. In my opinion, we need to recognise, respect and revere those that have the courage to try but failed. That courage to experiment should be honoured and embraced and should become the bedrock of our educational systems from the very outset.
Two years ago, many of us Labbers 'ate our own dog food' or 'practised what we preached' when me and 15 other colleagues came together for 5 days to produce a book through a booksprint, probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life. The book is about how to set up, maintain, sustain and even close a GLAM Lab and is called 'Open a GLAM Lab'. It is available as public domain content and I encourage you to read it.
Online drop-in goodbye - today!
I organised a 30 minute ‘online farewell drop-in’ on Wednesday 29 September 2021, 1330 BST (London), 1430 (Paris, Amsterdam), 2200 (Adelaide), 0830 (New York) on my very last day at the British Library. It was heart-warming that the session was 'maxed out' at one point with participants from all over the world. I honestly didn't expect over 100 colleagues to show up. I guess when you leave an organisation you get to find out who you actually made an impact on, who shows up, and who tells you, otherwise you may never know.
Those that know me well know that I would have much rather had a farewell do ‘in person’, over a pint and praying for the ‘chip god’ to deliver a huge portion of chips with salt/vinegar and tomato sauce’ magically and mysteriously to the table. The pub would have been Mc'Glynns (http://www.mcglynnsfreehouse.com/) near the British Library in London. I wonder who the chip god was? I never found out ;)
The answer to who the chip god was is in text following this sentence on white on white text...you will be very shocked to know who it was!- s
Spoiler alert it was me after all, my alter ego
Mahendra's online farewell to BL Labs, Wednesday 29 September, 1330 BST, 2021. Left: Flowers and wine from the GLAM Labbers arrived in Tallinn, 20 mins before the meeting! Right: Some of the participants of the online farewell
Leave a message of good will to see me off on my voyage!
It would be wonderful if you would like to leave me your good wishes, comments, memories, thoughts, scans of handwritten messages, pictures, photographs etc. on the following Google doc:
I will leave it open for a week or so after I have left. Reading positive sincere heartfelt messages from colleagues and collaborators over the years have already lifted my spirits. For me it provides evidence that you perhaps did actually make a difference to somone's life. I will definitely be re-reading them during the cold dark Baltic nights in Tallinn.
I would love to hear from you and find out what you are doing, or if you prefer, you can email me, the details are at the end of this post.
BL Labs Sailor and Captain Signing Off!
It's been a blast and lots of fun! Of course there is a tinge of sadness in leaving! For me, it's also been intellectually and emotionally challenging as well as exhausting, with many ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’ or choppy waters, some professional and others personal.
I have learned so much about myself and there are so many things I am really really proud of. There are other things of course I wish I had done better. Most of all, I learned to embrace failure, my best teacher!
I think I did meet my original wish of wanting to help to open up the BL to as many new people who perhaps would have never engaged in the Library before. That was either by using digital collections and data for cool projects and/or simply walking through the doors of the BL in London or Boston Spa and having a look around and being inspired to do something because of it.
I wish the person who takes over my position lots of success! My only piece of advice is if you care, you will be fine!
Anyhow, what a time this has been for us all on this planet? I have definitely struggled at times. I, like many others, have lost loved ones and thought deeply about life and it's true meaning. I have also managed to find the courage to know what’s important and act accordingly, even if that has been a bit terrifying and difficult at times. Leaving the BL for example was not an easy decision for me, and I wish perhaps things had turned out differently, but I know I am doing the right thing for me, my future and my loved ones.
Though there have been a few dark times for me both professionally and personally, I hope you will be happy to know that I have also found peace and happiness too. I am in a really good place.
I would like to thank former alumni of BL Labs, Ben O'Steen - Technical Lead for BL Labs from 2013 to 2018, Hana Lewis (2016 - 2018) and Eleanor Cooper (2018-2019) both BL Labs Project Officers and many other people I worked through BL Labs and wider in the Library and outside it in my journey.
Where I am off to and what am I doing?
My professional plans are 'evolving', but one thing is certain, I will be moving country!
To Estonia to be precise!
I plan to live, settle down with my family and work there. I was never a fan of Brexit, and this way I get to stay a European.
I would like to finish with this final sweet video created by writer and filmaker Ling Low and her team in 2016, entitled 'Hey there Young Sailor' which they all made as volunteers for the Malaysian band, the 'Impatient Sisters'. It won the BL Labs Artistic Award in 2016. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Ling over a lovely lunch in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia, where I had also given a talk at the National Library about my work and looked for remanants of my grandfather who had settled there many years ago.
I wish all of you well, and if you are interested in keeping in touch with me, working with me or just saying hello, you can contact me via my personal email address: email@example.com or follow my progress on my personal website.
Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!
One of the best bits of working in digital scholarship is the variety of learning, training and knowledge exchange we can participate in. I have come to my post as a Wikimedian with a background in digital humanities and voluntary experience, and the opportunity to solidify my skills through training courses is really exciting.
Shortly after I started at the library, I had the chance to participate in the Library Juice Academy’s course ‘Introduction to Metadata’. Metadata has always fascinated me: as someone who can still remember when the internet was installed in their house, by means of numerous AOL compact discs, the way digital information has developed is something I have had direct experience of, even if I didn’t realise it.
Metadata, simply put, is data about data. It tells us information about resource you might find in a library or museum: the author of a book, the composer of a song, the artist behind a painting. In analogue terms, this is like the title page in a novel. In digital terms, it sits alongside the content of the resource, in attached records or headers. In the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative format, one of the most common ways of expressing metadata, there are fifteen separate ‘elements’ you can apply to describe a resource, such as title, date, format and publisher.
Wikidata houses an amazing amount of data, which is unusual as it is not bounded by a set number of ‘elements’. There are many different ways of describing the items on Wikidata, and many properties and statements can be added to each item. There have been initiatives to integrate Wikidata and metadata in a meaningful way, such as the WikiProject Source Metadata and WikiCite. I have certainly found it very useful to have a sound understanding of metadata and its function, in order to utilise Wikidata effectively.
The Library Juice Academy course was asynchronous and highly useful. Over four weeks, we completed modules involving self-selected readings, discussion forum posts and video seminars. I particularly enjoyed the varied selection of readings: the group of participants came from a breadth of backgrounds and experiences, and the readings reflected this. The balance between theoretical reading and practical application was excellent, and I enjoyed getting to work with MARCEdit for the first time.
I completed the course in May 2021, and was delighted to receive my certificate by email. I have a much stronger handle on the professional standard of metadata in the GLAM sector and how this intersects with the potential of the vast array of data descriptors available in Wikidata. It was also a great opportunity to think about the room for nuance, subjectivity and bias in data. During Week One, we considered ‘Misinformation and Bias in Data Processing’ by Thornburg and Oskins. I said the following in our forum discussion:
“What I have taken from this piece is a real sense of the hard work that goes into the preparation of resources, and the many different forms bias can take, often inadvertently. It has made me think about and appreciate the difficult decisions that have to be made, and the processes that underlie these practices.”
Overall, participating in this course and expanding my skills into more traditional librarianship fields was fascinating, and left me eager to learn more about metadata and start working more closely with our collections and Wikidata.
Keen followers of this blog may remember a post from last December, which shared details of a virtual workshop about AI and Archives: Current Challenges and Prospects of Digital and Born-digital archives. This topic was one of three workshop themes identified by the Archives in the UK/Republic of Ireland & AI (AURA) network, which is a forum promoting discussions on how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied to cultural heritage archives, and to explore issues with providing access to born digital and hybrid digital/physical collections.
Here at the British Library, we teamed up with our friends at The National Archives to curate the second AURA workshop exploring the current challenges and prospects of born-digital archives, this took place online on 28-29 January 2021. The first day of the workshop held on 28 January was organised by The National Archives, you can read more about this day here, and the following day, 29 January, was organised by the BL, videos and slides for this can be found on the AURA blog and I've included them in this post.
The format for both days of the second AURA workshop comprised of four short presentations, two interactive breakout room sessions and a wider round-table discussion. The aim being that the event would generate dialogue around key challenges that professionals across all sectors are grappling with, with a view to identifying possible solutions.
The first day covered issues of access both from infrastructural and user’s perspectives, plus the ethical implications of the use of AI and advanced computational approaches to archival practices and research. The second day discussed challenges of access to email archives, and also issues relating to web archives and emerging format collections, including web-based interactive narratives. A round-up of the second day is below, including recorded videos of the presentations for anyone unable to attend on the day.
Kicking off day two, a warm welcome to the workshop attendees was given by Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, Larry Stapleton, Senior academic and international consultant from the Waterford Institute of Technology and Mathieu d’ Aquin, Professor of Informatics at the National University of Ireland Galway.
The morning session on Email Archives: challenges of access and collaborative initiatives was chaired by David Kirsch, Associate Professor, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. This featured two presentations:
The first of these was about Working with ePADD: processes, challenges and collaborative solutions in working with email archives, by Callum McKean, Curator for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives, British Library and Jessica Smith, Creative Arts Archivist, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. Their slides can be viewed here and here. Apologies that the recording of Callum's talk is clipped, this was due to connectivity issues on the day.
The second presentation was Finding Light in Dark Archives: Using AI to connect context and content in email collections by Stephanie Decker, Professor of History and Strategy, University of Bristol and Santhilata Venkata, Digital Preservation Specialist & Researcher at The National Archives in the UK.
After their talks, the speakers proposed questions and challenges that attendees could discuss in smaller break-out rooms. Questions given by speakers of the morning session were:
Are there any other appraisal or collaborative considerations that might improve our practices and offer ways forward?
What do we lose by emphasizing usability for researchers?
Should we start with how researchers want to use email archives now and in the future, rather than just on preservation?
Potentialities of email archives as organizational, not just individual?
These questions led to discussions about, file formats, collection sizes, metadata standards and ways to interpret large data sets. There was interest in how email archives might allow researchers to reconstruct corporate archives, e.g. understand social dynamics of the office and understand decision making processes. It was felt that there is a need to understand the extent to which email represents organisation-level context. More questions were raised including:
To what extent is it part of the organisational records and how should it be treated?
How do you manage the relationship between constant organisational functions and structure (a CEO) and changing individuals?
Who will be looking at organisational email in the future and how?
It was mentioned that there is a need to distinguish between email as data and email as an artifact, as the use-cases and preservation needs may be markedly different.
Duties of care that exist between depositors, tool designers, archivists and researchers was discussed and a question was asked about how we balance these?
Managing human burden
Differing levels of embargo
There was discussion of the research potential for comparing email and social media collections, e.g. tweet archives and also the difficulties researchers face in getting access to data sets. The monetary value of email archives was also raised and it was mentioned that perceived value, hasn’t been translated into monetary value.
Researcher needs and metadata was another topic brought up by attendees, it was suggested that the information about collections in online catalogues needs to be descriptive enough for researchers to decide if they wish to visit an institution, to view digital collections on a dedicated terminal. It was also suggested that archives and libraries need to make access restrictions, and the reasoning for these, very clear to users. This would help to manage expectations, so that researchers will know when to visit on-site because remote access is not possible. It was mentioned that it is challenging to identify use cases, but it was noted that without deeper understanding of researcher needs, it can be hard to make decisions about access provision.
It was acknowledged that the demands on human-processing are still high for born digital archives, and the relationship between tools and professionals still emergent. So there was a question about whether researchers could be involved in collaborations more, and to what extent will there be an onus on their responsibilities and liabilities in relation to usage of born digital archives?
Lots of food for thought before the break for lunch!
The afternoon session chaired by Nicole Basaraba, Postdoctoral Researcher, Studio Europa, Maastricht University, discussed Emerging Formats, Interactive Narratives and Socio-Cultural Questions in AI.
The first afternoon presentation Collecting Emerging Formats: Capturing Interactive Narratives in the UK Web Archive was given by Lynda Clark, Post-doctoral research fellow in Narrative and Play at InGAME: Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise, University of Dundee, and Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications, British Library. Their slides can be viewed here.
The second afternoon session was Women Reclaiming AI: a collectively designed AI Voice Assistant by Coral Manton, Lecturer in Creative Computing, Bath Spa University, her slides can be seen here.
Following the same format as in the morning, after these presentations, the speakers proposed questions and challenges that attendees could discuss in smaller break-out rooms. Questions given by speakers of the afternoon session were:
Should we be collecting examples of AIs, as well as using AI to preserve collections? What are the Implications of this
How do we get more people to feel that they can ask questions about AI?
How do we use AI to think about the complexity of what identity is and how do we engineer it so that technologies work for the benefit of everyone?
There was a general consensus, which acknowledged that AI is becoming a significant and pervasive part of our life. However it was felt that there are many aspects we don't fully understand. In the breakout groups workshop participants raised more questions, including:
Where would AI-based items sit in collections?
Why do we want it?
How to collect?
What do we want to collect? User interactions? The underlying technology? Many are patented technologies owned by corporations, so this makes it challenging.
What would make AI more accessible?
Some research outputs may be AI-based - do we need to collect all the code, or just the end experience produced? If the latter, could this be similar to documenting evidence e.g. video/sound recordings or transcripts.
Could or should we use AI to collect? Who’s behind the AI? Who gets to decide what to archive and how? Who’s responsible for mistakes/misrepresentations made by the AI?
There was debate about how to define AI in terms of a publication/collection item, it was felt that an understanding of this would help to decide what archives and libraries should be collecting, and understand what is not being collected currently. It was mentioned that a need for user input is a critical factor in answering questions like this. A number of challenges of collecting using AI were raised in the group discussions, including:
Lack of standardisation in formats and metadata
Questions of authorship and copyright
Engagement with creators/developers
It was suggested that full scale automation is not completely desirable and some kind of human element is required for specialist collections. However, AI might be useful for speeding up manual human work.
There was discussion of problems of bias in data, that existing prejudices are baked into datasets and algorithms. This led to more questions about:
Is there is a role for curators in defining and designing unbiased and more representative data sets to more fairly reflect society?
Should archives collect training data, to understand underlying biases?
Who is the author of AI created text and dialogue? Who is the legally responsible person/orgnisation?
What opportunities are there for libraries and archives to teach people about digital safety through understanding datasets and how they are used?
Participants also questioned:
Why do we humanise AI?
Why do we give AI a gender?
Is society ready for a genderless AI?
Could the next progress in AI be a combination of human/AI? A biological advancement? Human with AI “components” - would that make us think of AIs as fallible?
With so many questions and a lack of answers, it was felt that fiction may also help us to better understand some of these issues, and Rachel Foss ended the roundtable discussion by saying that she is looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, about an artificial being called Klara who longs to find a human owner, which is due to be published next month by Faber.
Thanks to everyone who spoke at and participated in this AURA workshop, to make it a lively and productive event. Extra special thanks to Deirdre Sullivan for helping to run the online event smoothly. Looking ahead, the third workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Archives: What comes next? is being organised by the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the AURA project team, and is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 16 March 2021. Please do join the AURA mailing list and follow #AURA_network on social media to be part of the network's ongoing discussions.
In this post, Dr Mia Ridge and others celebrate our award-winning contributors and share progress reports from a range of crowdsourcing projects at the British Library.
Despite significant challenges, 2020 was a year of remarkable achievements for crowdsourcing at the British Library. Read on for some highlights.
A quarter of a million contributions on LibCrowds
The LibCrowds platform, which hosts our In the Spotlight project and previously hosted Convert-a-Card, reached an incredible milestone in mid-December - a quarter of a million contributions! Our heartfelt thanks to the nearly 3000 registered volunteers, and countless anonymous others who contributed to this fantastic achievement via our projects.
Building on the lessons learnt from earlier experiments, in early December we launched two new crowdsourcing projects with data scientists from the Living with Machines project. These projects aimed to integrate linguistic research questions with tasks that encouraged volunteers to engage with social and technological history in the pages of 19th century newspapers. We learnt a lot and tweaked the project after the feedback from Zooniverse volunteers, and were delighted to be recognised as an official Zooniverse project.
Thanks to the mighty power of Zooniverse volunteers, the tasks were completed within a few days. Analysing the results will keep us busy in the first few months of 2021.
In the Spotlight and Georeferencer contributors are award-winning!
Earlier this year, digital volunteers on the British Library's In the Spotlight and Georeferencer projects were nominated in the Community category of the British Library Labs awards. You can watch the 30 second videos about the nominations for In the Spotlight and Georeferencer on YouTube. Awards winners are decided by BL Labs and other Library staff with the BL Labs Advisory Board, and we're delighted to say that both projects won with a joint award for first place!
Congratulations to all our contributors for this recognition of your work with our crowdsourcing tasks, and for discussing our collections and sharing your insights with us and others.
In the Spotlight
In addition to the 255,000+ contributions above, volunteers have completed tasks on 148 volumes of historical playbills. We continue to work with our Metadata Services team to integrate these transcriptions into British Library systems. The project has a remarkable international reach, with visitors to the project from 1736 cities in 104 countries. Whether you're from Accra, Hanoi, London, Moscow, San Antonio or Zagreb - thank you!
Dr Gethin Rees, Lead Curator for Digital Map Collections, writes:
In 2014 the British Library released over 50,000 images of maps onto the Georeferencer that had been extracted from the millions of Flickr images from 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century books with the help of volunteers. Ever since then the volunteers have been hard at work adding coordinate data on the Georeferencer platform and I am delighted to announce that the collection has now been effectively completed. The upgraded Georeferencer and the time we have all had to spend indoors over the last months appear to have provided the project with a new impetus, well done to all!
The work of Georeferencer volunteers on this Flickr collection of maps has been invaluable to the Library; the addition of coordinate data from the Flickr collection to the British Library's Aleph catalogue has offered a new metadata perspective for our collections. The Flickr maps can be browsed using an interactive web map allowing the public to easily discover maps of areas where they live or are interested in. We are intending on making the georeferenced maps available as GeoTIFFs on the British Library's Research Repository. A huge thank you to maurice, Janet H, Nigel Slack, Martin Whitton, Benjamin G, John Herridge, Singout, H Barber, Jheald and Michael Ammon and all the Georeferencer community for their amazing work on the platform and feedback over the years.
Following the completion of the Flickr work, we released just under 8000 images from the K. Top collection onto the BL's Georeferencer. The maps are part of a larger collection of 18,000 digital images of historic maps, views and texts from the Topographical Collection of King George III that have been released into the public domain. The collection has been digitised as part of a seven-year project to catalogue, conserve and digitise the collection which was presented to the Nation in 1823 by King George IV. The images are made available on the image sharing site Flickr, which links to fully searchable catalogue records on Explore the British Library. The Georeferencers have been making short work of these maps: they were added back in early October and 54% have already been completed. This initial 8000 is the first of two planned Georeferencer releases.
In 2021, we are looking forward to processing the results in order to enhance the online catalogue and also to begin an exciting new research project based on the tags you have created - we hope to be able to share more news on this in the coming months!
Meanwhile, Russian curators Katya Rogatchevskaia and Katie McElvanney have been working hard behind the scenes on this project. One of the fruits of this work has been the translation of the Zooniverse platform terms into Russian. This will help enable any future crowdsourcing projects to publish their projects on Zooniverse in Russian as well as English.
Nominate a case study for the 'Collective Wisdom' project
This AHRC-funded project led by Dr Mia Ridge aims to foster an international community of practice and set a research agenda for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. In March 20201 we'll collaboratively write a book on the state of the art in crowdsourcing in cultural heritage through two intensive week-long 'book sprint' sessions. We'd like to include case studies from a range of projects that include crowdsourcing, online volunteering or digital participation - please get in touch if you'd like to find out more or would like to suggest a project for inclusion.