THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

52 posts categorized "Literature"

03 February 2020

2019 Winners of the New Media Writing Prize

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On Wednesday 15 January 2020 it was the 10th Anniversary Awards Evening of the New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) at Bournemouth University. This international prize encourages and promotes the best in new media writing; showcasing innovative digital fiction, poetry and journalism. The types of interactive writing that we have been examining and researching in the emerging formats work at the Library.

NMWP logo
New Media Writing Prize logo

Before the NMWP winners were announced there was a fun hands-on session in the afternoon, for guests to experience Digital Fiction Curios. This is an immersive experience; re-imagining selected Flash-based digital fiction by the One to One Development Trust in Virtual Reality, made in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University. Here in the Library we are interested in their playful and innovative approach to preserving the experiences of reading their digital works, and last October the project team were invited to showcase this work to British Library staff for them to try in VR.

Dreaming Methods: Digital Fiction Curios Teaser from One to One Development Trust 

On to the main NMWP awards event, like in previous years, the 2019 competition had attracted strong entries from many parts of the world. With submissions from six continents, the event’s host Jim Pope pointed out that Antarctica was the only geographic area not to have participated yet.

Congratulations to all the 2019 winners:

  • The if:book UK New Media Writing Prize, the main category, was won by Maria Ivanova and her team of volunteers: Anna Gorovaya, Alexey Logvinov, Mike Stonelake, Anton Zayceve and Ekaterina Polyakova, from Belarus for ‘The Life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth’. A stunning biographical narrative, featuring open source archive photographs and quotations from the memoirs of generous philanthropist Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia. A granddaughter of English Queen Victoria, who lived during several key events in the history of Russia: including the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.She became one of the brightest philanthropists of Russia.
  • The Future Journalism award was won by Mahmoud El Wakea’s ‘Made in Prison’, an investigation of Jihadi radicalisation in Egypt.
  • The Unicorn Training Student award was won by Kenneth Sanchez for ‘Escaping the Chaos’. An emotive portrayal of Venezuelan migrants in Peru, with video footage of individuals telling their personal stories.
  • The Dot award for 2019 went to Clare Pollard, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, the award will enable them to digitise their magazine and to grow their magazine internationally.
The Life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth
Still image from 'The Life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth', Winner of the 2019 if:book UK New Media Writing Prize.

It was gratifying to see that Lynda Clark featured on the main prize shortlist for her work ‘The Memory Archivist’, which was made during her Innovation Placement at the British Library in 2019. Also previous Eccles Centre Fellow, J.R. Carpenter, for the hydro-graphic novel ‘The Pleasure of the Coast’, created in partnership with the Archives Nationales in Paris.

Full shortlists were: 

The 2019 if:book main prize shortlist:

 The Unicorn Student Award 2019 shortlist:

Escaping the Chaos
Still image from 'Escaping the Chaos', Winner of the 2019 Unicorn Training Student award

The Future Journalism Award 2019 shortlist for the best digital interactive journalism, awarded by Future PLC:

Made in Prison
Still image from 'Made in Prison', Winner of the 2019 Future Journalism award 

If reading this blog post is inspiring you to consider entering the Prize in 2020, please do keep your eyes peeled for their call for submissions later in the year. You can follow NMWP on twitter and Facebook. Also do check out the Competition Rules and the FAQs to make sure your creative output fits the competition's criteria. 

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

31 October 2019

Digital Conversation: Games, Literature and Learning

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Happy Halloween! If you aren't heading out trick or treating this evening, and prefer a quiet night in, then you may like to play some of the wonderful games and interactive fiction that were created in last year's Gothic Novel Jam. My personal favourite is The Lady's Book of Decency, by Sean S. LeBlanc. If you feel like a longer read, Lynda Clark's first novel Beyond Kidding is launched today, I can't wait to get my teeth into this!

It is also very nearly International Games Week (3-9 November 2019), this is an initiative run by volunteers from around the world to reconnect communities through their libraries around the educational, recreational, and social value of all types of games. Check out this map to see if there is an event near you!

If you are based in the UK and work in libraries, you may be interested in coming along to the next Game Library Camp, which is being held at Leeds Central Library on Saturday 9th November. More details can be found at https://librarycamp.game.blog/, I'll be there to lead a discussion for the session "I hope you like jammin’ too"; for sharing advice on running online interactive fiction writing jams. 

Here at the British Library we have a couple of International Games Week (IGW) events, we are excited to be hosting the narrative games convention AdventureX on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd November, all tickets are completely sold out, but the talks will be live streamed, online from http://adventurexpo.org/livestream/, check the schedule for times and watch from the comfort of your sofa.   

Continuing our IGW events at the British Library, on the evening of Monday 4th November we are holding a Digital Conversation on Games, Literature and Learning. This will be a panel discussion exploring how video games, such as Minecraft, can be used to engage learners of all ages with literature, libraries and museums.

Child playing Litcraft on an ipad
Child trying Litcraft at SPARK: The Science and Art of Creativity, a festival of ideas organised by the British Council in Hong Kong, image credit ATUM Images

Jordan Erica Webber will be our chair for the evening. Jordan is a writer and presenter, Co-author of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us, host of the Guardian's digital culture podcast Chips With Everything and resident games expert on The Gadget Show.

Our panellists include: 

  • Keith Stuart, Guardian journalist, writer and author of A Boy Made of Blocks, a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller. He has written about how Minecraft has helped his son Zac and will be talking from a parent’s perspective. Keith will also be available to sign books after the panel discussion.
Book cover for A Boy Made of Blocks
A Boy Made of Blocks, by Keith Stuart
  • Dr Lissa Holloway-Attaway and Dr Björn Berg Marklund from the University of Skövde in Sweden, whose whose research specialisms are digital game-based learning, educational games, 'Serious Games' and how games are used in classrooms. They have collaborated with museums and cultural organisations to run workshops with young people to co-create their communities within the Baltic Sea Region by constructing imaginative simulations of their cities and neighbourhoods in Minecraft. Another of their projects is the Augmented Reality, children's book app KLUB, which stands for Kiras och Luppes Bestiarium (Kiras and Luppes Bestiary) where mythical beings from books come to life in 3D.  
The Kiras och Luppes Bestiarium app being demonstrated on a smartphone
The Kiras och Luppes Bestiarium app 
  • Professor Sally Bushell from the Department of English Literature & Creative Writing at Lancaster University; Sally is the Principle Investigator on the Litcraft project, which uses the popular Minecraft gaming platform to build accurate scale models of authorial maps from classic works of literature. Impact is achieved by re-engaging children with literature in a model of positive reinforcement that makes works accessible in entirely new ways, combining the textual and the digital. Reading and writing are integrated with an immersive experience of the literary worlds.

Promotional video for the third Litcraft release - the first pairing of connected texts. This build features the original and iconic castaway tales: Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe.

The Digital Conversation event takes place in The Knowledge Centre at the British Library on Monday 4th November, 18.30- 20.30; for more details including booking, visit: https://www.bl.uk/events/digital-conversation-games-literature-and-learning. Hope to see you there. 

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom, on twitter as @miss_wisdom

03 October 2019

BL Labs Symposium (2019): Book your place for Mon 11-Nov-2019

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs

The BL Labs team are pleased to announce that the seventh annual British Library Labs Symposium will be held on Monday 11 November 2019, from 9:30 - 17:00* (see note below) in the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras. The event is FREE, and you must book a ticket in advance to reserve your place. Last year's event was the largest we have ever held, so please don't miss out and book early!

*Please note, that directly after the Symposium, we have teamed up with an interactive/immersive theatre company called 'Uninvited Guests' for a specially organised early evening event for Symposium attendees (the full cost is £13 with some concessions available). Read more at the bottom of this posting!

The Symposium showcases innovative and inspiring projects which have used the British Library’s digital content. Last year's Award winner's drew attention to artistic, research, teaching & learning, and commercial activities that used our digital collections.

The annual event provides a platform for the development of ideas and projects, facilitating collaboration, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field as well as being a focus on the creative reuse of the British Library's and other organisations' digital collections and data in many other sectors. Read what groups of Master's Library and Information Science students from City University London (#CityLIS) said about the Symposium last year.

We are very proud to announce that this year's keynote will be delivered by scientist Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College, London.

Armand Leroi
Professor Armand Leroi from Imperial College
will be giving the keynote at this year's BL Labs Symposium (2019)

Professor Armand Leroi is an author, broadcaster and evolutionary biologist.

He has written and presented several documentary series on Channel 4 and BBC Four. His latest documentary was The Secret Science of Pop for BBC Four (2017) presenting the results of the analysis of over 17,000 western pop music from 1960 to 2010 from the US Bill Board top 100 charts together with colleagues from Queen Mary University, with further work published by through the Royal Society. Armand has a special interest in how we can apply techniques from evolutionary biology to ask important questions about culture, humanities and what is unique about us as humans.

Previously, Armand presented Human Mutants, a three-part documentary series about human deformity for Channel 4 and as an award winning book, Mutants: On Genetic Variety and Human Body. He also wrote and presented a two part series What Makes Us Human also for Channel 4. On BBC Four Armand presented the documentaries What Darwin Didn't Know and Aristotle's Lagoon also releasing the book, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science looking at Aristotle's impact on Science as we know it today.

Armands' keynote will reflect on his interest and experience in applying techniques he has used over many years from evolutionary biology such as bioinformatics, data-mining and machine learning to ask meaningful 'big' questions about culture, humanities and what makes us human.

The title of his talk will be 'The New Science of Culture'. Armand will follow in the footsteps of previous prestigious BL Labs keynote speakers: Dan Pett (2018); Josie Fraser (2017); Melissa Terras (2016); David De Roure and George Oates (2015); Tim Hitchcock (2014); Bill Thompson and Andrew Prescott in 2013.

The symposium will be introduced by the British Library's new Chief Librarian Liz Jolly. The day will include an update and exciting news from Mahendra Mahey (BL Labs Manager at the British Library) about the work of BL Labs highlighting innovative collaborations BL Labs has been working on including how it is working with Labs around the world to share experiences and knowledge, lessons learned . There will be news from the Digital Scholarship team about the exciting projects they have been working on such as Living with Machines and other initiatives together with a special insight from the British Library’s Digital Preservation team into how they attempt to preserve our digital collections and data for future generations.

Throughout the day, there will be several announcements and presentations showcasing work from nominated projects for the BL Labs Awards 2019, which were recognised last year for work that used the British Library’s digital content in Artistic, Research, Educational and commercial activities.

There will also be a chance to find out who has been nominated and recognised for the British Library Staff Award 2019 which highlights the work of an outstanding individual (or team) at the British Library who has worked creatively and originally with the British Library's digital collections and data (nominations close midday 5 November 2019).

As is our tradition, the Symposium will have plenty of opportunities for networking throughout the day, culminating in a reception for delegates and British Library staff to mingle and chat over a drink and nibbles.

Finally, we have teamed up with the interactive/immersive theatre company 'Uninvited Guests' who will give a specially organised performance for BL Labs Symposium attendees, directly after the symposium. This participatory performance will take the audience on a journey through a world that is on the cusp of a technological disaster. Our period of history could vanish forever from human memory because digital information will be wiped out for good. How can we leave a trace of our existence to those born later? Don't miss out on a chance to book on this unique event at 5pm specially organised to coincide with the end of the BL Labs Symposium. For more information, and for booking (spaces are limited), please visit here (the full cost is £13 with some concessions available). Please note, if you are unfortunate in not being able to join the 5pm show, there will be another performance at 1945 the same evening (book here for that one).

So don't forget to book your place for the Symposium today as we predict it will be another full house again and we don't want you to miss out.

We look forward to seeing new faces and meeting old friends again!

For any further information, please contact labs@bl.uk

28 June 2019

Digital Conversations: Celebrating Ten Years of the New Media Writing Prize

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As part of our Digital Conversations series and the season of events accompanying the Library's Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition; we invite you to join us for an evening discussing the future of the ‘written’ word.  In partnership with Bournemouth University, if:book uk, and sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library; we are celebrating ten years of the New Media Writing Prize, by hosting a panel event on Thursday 18 July, 18:30 - 20:30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre. To book a ticket go here.

The New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) is an international award, which showcases exciting and inventive, interactive stories and poetry that integrate a variety of formats, platforms, and digital media. 

NMWP logo

On the 18th July, we will have an fascinating discussion featuring previous prize winners and innovative writers from around the world. This event will be chaired by NMWP co-founder and organiser Jim Pope from Bournemouth University, and speaking on the panel will be:

  • Andy Campbell, Digital Director at the One to One Development Trust and the founder/lead author of Dreaming Methods, One to One’s award-winning in-house Virtual Reality, digital storytelling and games development studio. Andy has been a NMWP judge since the prize was launched in 2010, has witnessed innovations and developments in digital publishing and has predictions for what may come next.
Digital Fiction Curios Exterior
Digital Fiction Curios is a unique digital archive of early electronic literature designed in the style of a ‘curiosity shop’, by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston
  • Amira Hanafi is a writer and artist based in Cairo. Her work ‘A Dictionary of the Revolution’, an experiment in polyvocal storytelling, won the New Media Writing Prize in 2018. In 2014, she initiated conversations around keywords used to talk about the 2011 Egyptian uprising and its aftermath with nearly 200 people. The project was published as a website using data visualization to allow readers to navigate through 125 texts that are woven from transcription of this speech.
A Dictionary of the Revolution
A Dictionary of the Revolution, by Amira Hanafi
  • Kayt Lackie, winner of the 2018 NMWP Dot Award for The VESSEL Project in Northern Ontario, Canada. This is an alternate reality game set in a fictionalised version of Elliot Lake. A weekend-long festival where the town of Elliot Lake becomes the setting of a real-world ‘video game’ – where players, as themselves, solve puzzles/gather clues/overcome challenges while experiencing a story created and performed by community participants.
Photo of ephemra box
The Ephemera Box Storytelling Installation from the The Vessel Project
  • Christine Wilks, a digital writer, artist and developer of interactive narratives and playable media. Her digital fiction, 'Underbelly', won the very first New Media Writing Prize in 2010.  She is currently building her own platform for authoring and playing text-driven interactive digital narratives, which she is using to develop a psychological thriller for her practice-based PhD in Digital Writing at Bath Spa University.
Underbelly-Spin the Wheel
Underbelly, by Christine Wilks

We would be delighted to see you there to join our conversation, Thursday 18 July, 18:30 - 20:30, in the British Library Knowledge Centre, please book a ticket from: https://www.bl.uk/events/digital-conversations-celebrating-ten-years-of-the-new-media-writing-prize.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

19 June 2019

The Shape of Contemporary British Interactive Fiction

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When I started this Innovation Placement, I had no idea what I was doing. Six months on, and the main thing I’ve learned is that I know even less than I thought I did. Which is not to say that I haven’t learned a lot, just that archiving interactive narrative is an even more complex and varied task than I had imagined, as are the works of interactive fiction themselves.

One of my key goals was to explore how to preserve interactive works for future researchers. My first task was finding suitable works – they had to be web-based (no downloadable files), be recognisable as interactive narratives in some way and be identifiably created in the UK. Sites such as IFDB (the Interactive Fiction Database) and Sub-Q (the only commercial IF-focussed magazine) and competitions such as Spring Thing and IFComp were invaluable sources, but determining whether the authors were UK-based was more difficult. Some remained entirely anonymous, or gave no indication as to their location on their website or social media, which meant it was not possible to include them in this particular project.

Once found, capturing the works initially didn’t appear to be too much of a challenge. The UK Web Archive’s crawlers were able to get most hypertexts while Webrecorder made it possible to collect most other works. However, playback was where the difficulties crept in. Some works captured well, but wouldn’t play back. Or played back, but with errors. Or showed that actually, the works had still been pulling information from the live web, and when placed in the archive and severed from this outside contact, no longer worked. You can see the Webrecorder collection here, and the UKWA Collection here, although the latter is a work-in-progress. A full list of all works reviewed (some of which were not collectable for various reasons) can be found here.

If you’re a maker of interactive works, I strongly suggest that you submit your work to UKWA or make a copy on Webrecorder and download the WARC (Web ARChive) files it creates (or both), because it will likely be some time before libraries develop systematic collecting policies for these works due to the many challenges associated with collecting and sharing them. Having your work backed up in WARC format may help you stay ahead of the curve!

My other key goal was to get a sense of the ‘shape’ of contemporary British web-based interactive fiction. If I had to draw it, I’d probably do something like this:

An angular spiky shape

Or maybe even like this:

A squiggly spiraly shape

It’s messy and disruptive and gloriously so. But that’s not to say there aren’t some common threads running through the work. Some themes and motifs cropped up many times in many different guises.  Trains, cats, mental health and interactive fiction itself were all addressed by multiple creators, some taking on several of these topics at once in one work. Librarians and archivists were surprisingly well-represented as creators of interactive works, with a piece by the British Library’s own Andy Jackson included in the collection, and creators based at various other UK libraries also contributing works.

Naturally, I wrote some more formal reports on the types of works being created, the tools being used, and the methods used to collect them. However, I felt that the only way to truly summarise the experience of reading and playing and attempting to collect all these amazing works was to create a piece of interactive fiction that mimics the experience of reading and playing and attempting to capture all these amazing works. The result was The Memory Archivist which hopefully goes some way towards conveying the challenges faced by archivists of complex digital works, but also why tackling those challenges is important. I hope you enjoy it.

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

16 May 2019

Exploring with Sound Walks

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

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

Imaginary Cities exhibition trailer

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

Sound walk sunday 2019 logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you there! - Friday 7th June, British Library, book here; https://soundwalks.eventbrite.co.uk.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

18 April 2019

Collecting Emerging Formats

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The Emerging Formats project, started in 2017 by the British Library and the other five UK Legal Deposit Libraries, has been investigating the rise of new complex digital publications that could pose new challenges for libraries and other cultural institutions in terms of collection and preservation. In particular, this project has chosen to prioritise three formats: eBook mobile apps, web-based interactive narratives, and structured data.

These formats reflect the changes and developments in both technology and storytelling in contemporary digital culture. This project meets the Legal Deposit Libraries’ purpose to respond to innovation and to represent the changing nature and diversity of the UK publishing industry. It also fulfills the libraries’ role of long term preservation, as these formats are by their technical nature ephemeral and at risk of loss.

After holding a workshop last November to better define the challenges related to complex digital objects preservation, the British Library organised a series of user experience testing sessions, with the help of an external consultant, Bunnyfoot Ltd. A first round of interviews was carried out at the British Library and at the library of Trinity College Dublin and it identified a strong user interest in collecting and preserving emerging formats, which was later confirmed by two service design group workshops at Bunnyfoot Lab.

Female interacting with the 80 Days app for iPad
Interacting with the 80 Days app for iPad

We are now in the process of testing different collection management methods, using a number of publications selected during the scoping phase as case studies. For example, we are collecting Inkle’s eBook mobile app 80 Days in different file formats (Android app; PC version) and through different acquisition methods (file transfer; download via access code) to test their viability and the different implications they might have in terms of access and preservation. 80 Days is a narrative-based interactive adventure, which offers a unique take on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days – set in an alternative steampunk universe, the story requires the reader’s active participation in order to progress, with thousands of different routes and possible outcomes.

In the case of capturing web-based interactive fiction, two different web archiving tools have been tested – The British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) and Rhizome’s WebRecorder. While each tool has distinct characteristics which might make it more suitable to a specific type of interactive fiction, both tools proved effective in capturing web-based narrative to a degree. A collection around the topic of e-publishing trends and emerging formats is currently being developed on the UK Web Archive website, with the possibility of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.

As well as investigating collecting methods for complex objects, we are also exploring the requirements for access. At present, only the websites that we have collected using our ACT tool are available in the Library. We are also exploring the possibility of collecting contextual information around these publications. Collecting descriptive material around an object has been tried for time based digital media and digital games. Capturing and preserving sources of information such as websites, trailers, and press kits might prove invaluable in clarifying authorial intent and object use once a format is obsolete or cannot be accessed anymore.

To find out further information about the Emerging Formats project, please see our project page.

This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari.

18 February 2019

Updated Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

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The traditional, somewhat stereotypical image of the researcher of things past has not changed much in recent times. There is nothing easier than to imagine a scholar sitting at a scarcely illuminated wooden desk, surrounded by piles of old hardbound volumes, spending hours on end rummaging through the sheets in search of a clue.

In the field of eighteenth-century studies, this is certainly still the case. Scholars often go on a pilgrimage to prestigious repositories such as the British Library. However, in the last fifteen years or so, technology has started to offer attractive alternatives to the pleasure of travelling to London. Powered by Gale-Cengage, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (commonly referred to as ECCO) is a well-known resource that provides access to English-language and foreign-language publications printed in Britain, Ireland and the American colonies during the eighteenth century. This extensive collection contains over 180,000 titles (200,000 volumes) and allows full-text searching of some 32 million pages. These are digital editions based on the Eighteenth Century microfilming that started in 1981 and the English Short Title Catalogue.

New ECCO main screen
New ECCO home page

Moving away from its classic web-1.0 design, the Gale-Cengage team recently decided to revamp the layout of ECCO – indeed, of their entire portfolio of archive products, which include among others the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Burney Newspapers Collection. The aim is to make the Gale Primary Sources experience more consistent and intuitive for the user. At the head of this delicate operation are product managers Doran Steele and Megan Sullivan, who lead a nine-person team of software developers, content engineers, researchers and designers. Not quite the IT-only type of personnel, Doran and Megan are scholars themselves, respectively holding degrees in History and Information Science and a remarkable passion for all things past. They are responsible for the maintenance of the existing ECCO interface, as well as the development of the upcoming design refresh.

During a recent interview they gave to the authors of this post, Doran and Megan declared their objective of evolving ECCO in line ‘with user expectations of modern online research experiences’. Their driving force was stated very clearly as a bottom-up process. ‘This redesign’, they explained, ‘is informed by user feedback and market research’. A beta version of the new site has been available since the second half of 2018 to enable the Gale-Cengage team to gather feedback about the new design. The product managers specified that the final transition to the ‘new’ ECCO will only be completed once they feel confident that the new experience ‘successfully meets the needs of our users’. The final goal is a better user experience, ‘one that is faster and more intuitive’. To achieve this, a range of new features have been included, such as more filters on search results; results more relevant to the search queries; data visualization tools; improved subject indexing; more options for adjusting the image; and the ability to download in a text format the OCR (optical character recognition) version of a volume. The latter feature will be a particularly welcome innovation for scholars that often need to look up the occurrence of a single word or cut and paste long chunks of text.

ECCO search results
New ECCO search results screen

The options for adjusting the page view are another significant novelty. The beta version boasts new settings to quickly select the preferred zoom level, as well as sliders to increase or decrease the brightness and contrast of the page. These improvements are particularly welcome considering that the quality of the scans remains unchanged. The page quality is not directly related to ECCO. The portal simply allows the consultation of the digitised microfilms included in the first collection (also known as ECCO 1, comprising over 154.000 texts) and the digitisation of a second, smaller collection of books (ECCO 2, over 52.000 titles). This raises an important issue. A plethora of relatively unknown, yet precious eighteenth-century material remains difficult to consult because, on top of the uneven quality in the texts that came out of eighteenth-century printing presses, the original microfilming technology that was employed for the first collection yielded relatively low-resolution results. This causes some hiccups with OCR recognition, thus discouraging the use of quantitative methodologies. But the issue is all the more salient when the category of eighteenth-century visuals is taken into account. At a time when British engravers multiplied in numbers to illustrate the newly-discovered wonders of the natural world or the archaeological remains of Roman cities in England, illustrations became an essential aspect of the eighteenth-century book market and reading experience. While for essential texts such as William Stukeley’s Itinerarium curiosum (1724) or Eleazar Albin and William Derham’s A Natural History of Birds (1734) more refined scans can be found elsewhere, a large number of texts is digitally available only through ECCO 1. Scholars interested in images are either to focus on well-known texts that have been digitised by other providers – with serious consequences in terms of canonicity – or eventually need to plan a visit to major libraries to consult the relevant volumes in person, somehow defeating the very idea of digital reading. Either way, the study of visual culture is somewhat inhibited. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ ECCO promises to enhance the user experience and to offer even more opportunities to engage with outstanding repositories of primary material. If you already had a chance to use the new version, we encourage you to get in touch with Doran and Megan: as your feedback and suggestions can improve ECCO even further.

New ECCO text screen
New ECCO image viewer screen

This post is by Alessio Mattana, Teaching Assistant in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @mattanaless), and Dr Giacomo Savani, Teaching Assistant in Ancient History at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @GiacomoSavani).