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 email@example.com 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: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow my progress on my personal website.
Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!
The New Media Writing Prize is awarded annually to interactive works that use technology and digital tools in exciting and innovative ways. Organised by Bournemouth University, the prize is now in its 12th year and open for entries until 26th November 2021.
The British Library hosted a Digital Conversations event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the prize in 2019 and as part of our work on collecting and preserving emerging formats, last year we started building a special collection to archive all shortlisted and winning entries to the prize in the UK Web Archive. Thanks to Joan Francis for her valued support adding targets and metadata into the Annotation and Curation Tool, at the moment of writing, the collection stands at 226 websites, including not only all the works that were web-based and live at the moment of collection, but blog posts, press kits, online reviews and author’s websites as well. This kind of contextual information (like the data recorded on the ELMCIP Knowledge Base website) is especially valuable in those instances where the work itself couldn’t be captured, due to the limitations of web archiving tools, or the fact that it had already disappeared from the Internet. More information on how the collection was conceived and developed is available in the Collection Scoping Document on the British Library Research Repository.
In order to improve access to the collection and assure quality for the websites we captured, a PhD placement project started at the beginning of this June. Tegan Pyke, from Cardiff Metropolitan University, is working on the collection to identify best captures for each of these works and is also developing a creative response to the collection.
From the New Media Writing Prize shortlists, a total of 78 works have been captured, with each work averaging 13 instances to compare and contrast. Each instance represents a web crawl undertaken by the team from the Emerging Formats project.
A screenshot showing the instances collected for Serge Bouchardon’s 2011 Main Prize winning piece, "Loss of Grasp".
One of the most difficult aspects of this work has been deciding what, exactly, constitutes an ‘acceptable’ capture. By nature digital works are highly complex—featuring audio, visual, and kinetic assets—and using bespoke platforms, formats, and code. These attributes are heightened by the speed at which technology changes; what was acceptable a decade ago may be entirely defunct today, as is the case with Adobe removing their Flash Player support.
After an initial overview of the collection, I came to the conclusion that a strict set of criteria wouldn’t be appropriate. Nor would the capture of all aspects of a work, as many—such as Amira Hanafi’s What I’m Wearing and J R Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud—make use of external links or externally hosted image and video files. If these lie outside the UK Legal Deposit’s scope, capturing them in their entirety becomes more difficult and sometimes impossible.
Instead, I decided to focus on narrative, asking three questions as I approached each instance:
Can viewers complete the narrative?
Does the theme remain understandable?
Is the atmosphere (the overall mood of the piece) intact?
If an instance fulfils these questions, it’s acceptable, with the most complete of those captures being identified as suitable for display in the archive.
At this point, I’m half-way through comparing instances for the collection. Of the pieces captured, just less than half meet the criteria above. Out of these, most can be improved by additional crawls that capture the missing assets. Those that cannot be improved have, for the most part, been affected by software deprecation or EOL (end-of-life), where support has been completely removed.
I’m aiming to finish my review of the collection over the next couple of months, at which point I hope to provide further insight into the process. I’ve also started a collaboration with the BL's Wikimedian-in-Residence, Lucy Hinnie, to plan a Wikidata project related to the collection aiming to make use of contextual data points collected during its creation—I’m sure you’ll read about this work here soon!
This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari and Tegan Pyke, a PhD student at Cardiff Metropolitan University currently undertaking a placement in Contemporary British Published Collections at the British Library.
Researching how to collect, curate and preserve emerging formats is important work for us in the Library. Fortunately we aren't alone in our quest to understand how to manage born digital collections, we are active members of organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition and the Videogame Heritage Society, which are excellent networks and forums for us to share and learn from fellow GLAM professionals working in this area.
The Videogame Heritage Society (VHS) is a subject specialist network for digital game preservation, led by the National Videogame Museum (NVM), based in Sheffield. They provide advocacy, support and expertise on the preservation of digital games and digital game culture through a network of museums, heritage institutions, developers, publishers, private collectors and anyone with an interest in videogame history.
The VHS launch event on 21 February 2020 was one of the last physical events I attended before the first Covid-19 lockdown started. Due to the global pandemic, the NVM had to completely re-think how to deliver their programme of planned VHS events, and this has produced a new series of online events called VHS Tapes, which started in February 2021.
Lynda Clark, Giulia Carla Rossi and I will talk about the British Library’s research in collecting, curating and preserving emerging formats. Including eBook mobile apps, and web-based interactive works, such as those made with tools like Twine, which form the Interactive Narratives and New Media Writing Prize special collections in the UK Web Archive. We’ll discuss digital tools used to build these web archive collections, some of the content and themes of the interactive works collected, and the Library’s plans for the future. We hope to see you there!
I absolutely love the premise of the winning submission Frankenstein's Double Wedding, Or, The Modern P…romeo…ethius by WretchedBees (Will Binns). You need a deck of cards to play this solo or cooperative game. Playing as Dr. Frankenstein, with the help of both your monster and betrothed, the game’s aim is to organise a double wedding, arranging catering, a florist, a venue and inviting wedding guests. Not forgetting, that you also need to create a spouse for your monster, before you can both get wed.
Frankenstein's Double Wedding, Or, The Modern P…romeo…ethius by WretchedBees
Well deserved recognition also goes to the two runners up, these are The Open Wizarding Challenge by Suzini56, where to win, players navigate rooms and corridors of their wizarding school, dodging moving staircases and obstacles, aiming to be the first to reach the exit with their bag of collected items, picked up on the way. Also, Fortune of War: A game of Napoleonic era Naval Life by webcowgirl, which is based on Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander books. Writing about her submission she says “this game tries to capture the flavor of the books, with its humor and humanity. Winning isn't just about money, it is ultimately also about pride, honor, and dignity.” Something we would all do well to remember.
Fortune of War: A game of Napoleonic era Naval Life by webcowgirl
Other #NTSOWgamesjam submissions re-worked Pride and Prejudice, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener. You can check these out on the jam’s itch.io entries page. Being a Sandman graphic novels fan, I enjoyed looking at Of You by DarrenLEdwards, which has been structured so this tabletop roleplaying game could also be based on many other fantastical worlds such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials etc.
Before and during the Urban Tree Festival, game jammers can meet and chat with organisers and each other on our Discord Server: https://discord.gg/qWXH8NcjHE, so please join and say hello on there and use #gamesinthewoods on social media to share images and details of your work in progress.
Games in the Woods game jam
You are welcome to join alone or in a team to create digital and analogue games, interactive fiction, web comics, board games, escape games, card games – anything you want! The only constraints are time, the theme and your imagination. We especially encourage creative re-use of images from the British Library’s Flickr collection of digitised 19th century books, do check out these online Flora and Fauna galleries. There is also a fantastic curated selection of wildlife and environmental sound recordings picked by my colleague Cheryl Tipp, which you can use in your creations. These are available via this SoundCloud playlist.
Sue Thomas, Irini Papadimitriou and Cheryl Tipp
Cheryl is also speaking at a free Digital Nature online event next Monday, 10th May, 19:30 - 20:30. Chaired by Irini Papadimitriou, Creative Director at Future Everything, this event also features Ben Eaton from Invisible Flock (read more about their woodland work Faint Signalshere), and author of books on nature and technology Sue Thomas. This is part of the British Library’s springtime season of events The Natural Word, which explores nature writing and reflects on our need to reimagine our relationship with the environment. Hope to see you there.
In my experience game jams are a brilliant way of bringing historic and literary digital library and archive collections to life in a completely new way. I’ve ran a few at the British Library and I’m always keen to share what I’ve learned with other libraries, including contributing to Living Knowledge Network skills sharing events, such as one we held on the topic of games and playfulness in libraries, in November 2017 at Leeds Central Library, you can read more about this here.
There are endless possibilities for adapting works of literature into games and interactive experiences. Earlier this year I attended an Oxford/London IF meetup group online event, where Emily Short gave a fascinating talk about the storylet game design process for creating Orwell’s Animal Farm an indie adventure game, which is based on George Orwell’s novel, where all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. There is a review of this game here.
Leeds Libraries have programmed a range of online events to inspire creativity, as part of their games jam. Last week I attended a thought provoking workshop led by Liz Cable on how to create literary escape rooms. It made me think of a very atmospheric Dracula inspired escape room called Carfax, situated in a sandstone cave system, which I had visited in Nottingham a few years ago. During the covid-19 pandemic Cave Escape have reworked this game into an online escape experience called Carfax - The Hunter, so anyone can play a version of this game from home.
Liz has a wealth of knowledge about all types of game making tools, apps and platforms, which she generously shares. I first met her at the MIX conference at Bath Spa University back in 2015, where she took me and a few other conference delegates to an escape room in Bath. This was the first time I had been to one; so it was Liz who opened my eyes to a new world of escape game experiences!
There are still more excellent Leeds Libraries Games Jam online events coming up this week:
The Novels that Shaped Our World jam itself is taking place over Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th April. Thanks to Libraries Connected and Arts Council England there is a £150 prize for the winner and two £50 prizes for the runners up. More information can be found here.
If you are considering taking part, but are unsure where to start, then you may also be interested in reading this Writing Tools for Interactive Fiction blog post by my colleague Giulia Carla Rossi, which describes a number of free online tools that don’t require any previous programming knowledge. I also recommend joining the jam's Facebook group, where participants can talk to each other and ask questions. Good luck if you make and submit a game, I’m looking forward to reading and playing the entries.
The works and worlds created by Shakespeare have an enduring appeal, his writing emotionally resonates with audiences today, despite being written over four hundred year's ago. This week is Shakespeare Week, and today is also the first day of the London Games Festival, so a perfect time to reflect on some interactive digital adaptations of the bard's plays.
Back in 2016 here in the British Library we ran a Shakespeare themed Off the Map competition, which set students a task of creating video games and virtual interactive environments using digitised British Library items, including maps, views, texts, book illustrations and recorded sounds as creative inspiration. The first place winning entry by Team Quattro from De Montfort University in Leicester, created an adaptation of The Tempest, you can see a flythrough video clip of their stunning work here.
In this competition, Tom Battey who was then a student at the London College of Communication was awarded second place with a game called Midsummer based on the characters in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream and which used digitised engravings from John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. This is a clever work, set in a magical woodland, where trees and bushes generate as the player wanders through the game. The player has the power to enchant and disenchant characters they meet to fall in love with each other, or not! The dialogue between these characters then changes depending on whether they are lovestruck, you can watch a demo of this game here.
Cake from MissionMaker Macbeth launch event at the British Library in 2019
Another digital Shakespeare project, which the Library has been involved in, is MissionMaker Macbeth, a game-authoring tool, developed by the MAGiCAL team, from D.A.R.E. enterprise at the UCL Knowledge Lab, which was launched at the British Library for the London Games Festival in 2019. Built using Unity, this software incorporates characters, landscapes, objects and even cauldron ingredients for children to make digital games based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For anyone wanting to read more about this project, Andrew Burn has written a book Literature, Videogames and Learning, which is due to be published on 20th July 2021.
If virtual woodland walks are your thing, although not Shakespeare related, you may want to explore Faint Signals, by Invisible Flock, this is an interactive website, where you can wander through the woodland as it changes through all four seasons, and evolves from day to night. Also, if you are reading this in time, you may be able to catch a live online performance of Dream, by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired 50-minute online event is set in a virtual midsummer forest, which offers participants a unique opportunity to directly influence the live performance, read more about this here.
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.