THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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67 posts categorized "Literature"

25 November 2020

Early Circus in London: Astley's Amphitheatre by Professor Leith Davis

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Posted on behalf of Professor Leith Davis at Simon Fraser University, British Colombia, Canada by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

Astley-archive-Th.Cts.35
Picture of cutting taken from the Astley's newspaper clippings archive Th.Cts.35 (held at the British Library)

What do you think of when you hear the word “circus”? Lions, tigers, elephants? Ringmasters in coat-tails? Trapeze artists? In fact, most of the images that we commonly associate with circus derive from nineteenth-century examples of the genre. Circus when it first started out in the late eighteenth century was a different kind of entertainment altogether. Yes, there were animal acts, including equestrian riding stunts, and there were also acrobatics. But early circus also included automatons and air balloons, pantomime and fireworks, musical acts and re-enactments of events like the storming of the Bastille. In short, it was a microcosm of the Georgian world which served to re-present important political and cultural activities by re-mixing them with varieties of astonishing physical entertainments.

Ackermann-rudolph-microcosm-083720
Astley's Amphitheatre from Microcosm of London
Image taken from the British Library Archive

Unfortunately, partially as a result of the overpowering influence of the lions and tigers and ringmasters, and partially as a result of its having fallen through the cracks between academic disciplinary divisions, early circus has been largely forgotten.

The database that I created, “Reconstructing Early Circus: Entertainments at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1768-1833” (https://dhil.lib.sfu.ca/circus/), based on materials held by the British Library, aims to bring early circus back from offstage and to connect the ephemeral traces of this eighteenth-century entertainment with the concerns of our contemporary age.

Philip-Astley
Phillip Astley - Image Copyright 
National Portrait Gallery

The man credited with “inventing” the form of entertainment known now as circus was Philip Astley. Astley was certainly not the first person to perform popular equestrian entertainments for money, but he is acknowledged to have been the first person to have had the idea of using an enclosed space where he could present his equestrian shows to a paying audience. Over the years, Astley’s Amphitheatre and Riding School evolved to include both a ring and a stage. Astley was an astute businessman and was able to expand his enterprise to include circuses in Dublin and Paris. His success also encouraged other entertainment entrepreneurs to try their hand at the circus business. Sites of entertainment similar to Astley’s sprang up within London and other locations in the British archipelago as well as in Europe and North America, including Jones’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in Whitechapel (1786), Swan’s Amphitheatre in Birmingham (1787), the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus (1790), Ricketts's Equestrian Pantheon in Boston (1794) and Montreal (1797), and the Royal Circus, Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy in London (1782). Circus was not just as a type of entertainment in the metropolis; it was also a transnational phenomenon.

Pony race
Poney Race at Astley's Amphitheatre, image from V&A Museum

I drew the data for  “Reconstructing Early Circus” from the British Library’s “Astley’s Cuttings From Newspapers” (Th. Cts. 35-37). This source consists of three volumes of close to 3,000 newspaper advertisements of entertainments featured at Astley’s from 1768 to 1833, along with a few manuscript materials and a lock of Astley’s daughter’s hair. The clippings were collected by the theatre manager, James Winston, for a history of theatre which he never published. Working with my research assistant, Emma Pink, I photographed each of the clippings from the BL volumes in the reading room and got 4 undergraduate students to transcribe them. Then I worked with the personnel at Simon Fraser University’s Digital Humanities Research Lab to create the website. Users can browse through the sixty-year history of Astley’s or, using the search function, they can identify the frequency of particular acts or performers, for example. The materials represent a rich treasure trove for scholars of: Romantic-era cultural and media studies; British history; economic and business history; performance studies; fine arts; and cultural memory studies. 

As I continue to expand and improve on the site, I hope to use my database to explore connections between early circus and other popular entertainments of the day as well as to expand the site to examine circus locations in transatlantic locations. 

Examining the Astley archives allows us to learn more about leisure in the long eighteenth century as well as about the connections between popular entertainment and political and social concerns in Georgian times, and, by extension, in our own era. Lions and tigers and ringmasters you won’t find here, but check out the “little Learned Military Horse,” the trained bees, and, of course, the equestrian feats of Astley himself for more insight into this neglected popular entertainment from 200 years ago. 

(See also Leith Davis. "Between Archive and Repertoire: Astley's Amphitheatre, Early Circus, and Romantic-Era Song Culture." Studies in Romanticism 58, no. 4 (2019): 451-79).

Leith-davis
Leith Davis, Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada

Leith Davis is Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada where she researches and teaches eighteenth-century literature and media history. She is the author of Acts of Union: Scotland and the Negotiation of the British Nation (Stanford UP, 1998) and Music, Postcolonialism and Gender: The Construction of Irish Identity, 1724-1874 (Notre Dame UP, 2005) as well as co-editor of Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004) and Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (Ashgate, 2012). She is currently completing a monograph entitled Mediating Cultural Memory in Britain and Ireland, 1688-1745 which explores sites of cultural memory in the British archipelago within the context of the shifting media ecology of the eighteenth century.

BL Labs Public Awards 2020 - REMINDER - Entries close NOON (GMT) 30 November 2020

Inspired by this work that uses the British Library's digital archived cuttings? Have you done something innovative using the British Library's digital collections and data? Why not consider entering your work for a BL Labs Public Award 2020 and win fame, glory and even a bit of money?

This year's public awards 2020 are open for submission, the deadline for entry is NOON (GMT) Monday 30 November 2020

Whilst we welcome projects on any use of our digital collections and data (especially in research, artistic, educational and community categories), we are particularly interested in entries in our public awards that have focused on anti-racist work, about the pandemic or that are using computational methods such as the use of Jupyter Notebooks.

Work will be showcased at the online BL Labs Annual Symposium between 1400 - 1700 on Tuesday 15 December, for more information and a booking form please visit the BL Labs Symposium 2020 webpage.

13 November 2020

Reflections during International Games Week and Transgender Awareness Week

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This week is International Games Week in libraries - “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.”

As a volunteer, participant and collaborator on game events organised by Stella Wisdom in the British Library's Digital Scholarship Team, I’ve particularly enjoyed the International Games Week events held at the Library during previous years, including Adventure X and WordPlay. It’s fitting that a national library acknowledges the value of narratives in games and interactive fiction, as well as those held in books and other formats.

International Games Week logo with a games controller, 2 dice and a meeple

In this post, I wanted to highlight some things that cut across projects I’ve been involved in with the British Library. These include curating UK websites and running online game jams, in addition to the game events mentioned above.

Back in 2018, I co-organised the online Gothic Novel Jam with Stella. In terms of the gothic and supernatural, it’s appropriate that this blog post is published today on Friday the 13th! We’ve blogged about this jam previously, but in summary, the intention was to encourage participants to create games, interactive fiction and other creative outputs using the theme of the gothic novel and British Library Flickr images as inspiration. The response was fantastic, and resulted in a large number of great narrative games being created. I particularly liked As a Glow Brings Out a Haze for the creative reuse of British Library images.

In addition to co-running game jams, I'm a volunteer curator for the UK Web Archive, and as representative for CILIP’s LGBTQ+ Network, I’ve been co-lead on the LGBTQ+ Lives Online project with Steven Dryden from the British Library. This project has focused on identifying UK LGBTQ+ websites, blogs etc. for inclusion in the collection, as a way to preserve them for future generations. To a lesser extent, I’ve also been supporting the curation of the Video Games collection and also Interactive Narratives, which is part of the broader E-publishing trends/Emerging formats collection.

I find it interesting to see where different seemingly unrelated projects overlap, and in this instance, the overlap is an online game called The Tower created by Freya Campbell, which she originally created for Gothic Novel Jam. The game itself is a piece of interactive fiction combining both text and images. For me it was a great example of a narrative that is clearly gothic and dark, but takes a new focus to frame that genre. 

This week is Transgender Awareness Week, and as more UK content is published online about transgender issues and experiences, these sites will be added to the UKWA LGBTQ+ Lives collection. The Tower includes subject matter that is particularly high profile in UK media discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ lives at the moment - transgender identities. As the creator of The Tower is based in the UK, this game is now part of the Interactive Narratives and LGBTQ+ Lives collections in the UK Web Archive.

Anyone can suggest UK published websites to be included in the UK Web Archive by filling in this online nominations form: https://www.webarchive.org.uk/en/ukwa/nominate. As part of both International Games Week and Transgender Awareness Week, why not nominate UK websites for inclusion in the Video GamesInteractive Narratives, and LGBTQ+ Lives Online collections. 

Another overlap connected to The Tower, is that Freya exhibited two other games (Perseids, and Super Lunary ep.1) at AdventureX, when it was held at the British Library during International Games Week in 2018 and 2019. Sadly AdventureX is cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19, but if you make games and interactive fiction, why not consider taking part in AdvXJam, which starts tomorrow.

This post is by Ash Green (@ggnewed) from the CILIP LGBTQ+ Network.

11 November 2020

BL Labs Online Symposium 2020 : Book your place for Tuesday 15-Dec-2020

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs

The BL Labs team are pleased to announce that the eighth annual British Library Labs Symposium 2020 will be held on Tuesday 15 December 2020, from 13:45 - 16:55* (see note below) online. The event is FREE, but 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, see more information here!

*Please note, that directly after the Symposium, we are organising an experimental online mingling networking session between 16:55 and 17:30!

The British Library Labs (BL Labs) Symposium is an annual event and awards ceremony showcasing innovative projects that use the British Library's digital collections and data. It provides a platform for highlighting and discussing the use of the Library’s digital collections for research, inspiration and enjoyment. The awards this year will recognise outstanding use of British Library's digital content in the categories of Research, Artistic, Educational, Community and British Library staff contributions.

This is our eighth annual symposium and you can see previous Symposia videos from 201920182017201620152014 and our launch event in 2013.

Dr Ruth Anhert, Professor of Literary History and Digital Humanities at Queen Mary University of London Principal Investigator on 'Living With Machines' at The Alan Turing Institute
Ruth Ahnert will be giving the BL Labs Symposium 2020 keynote this year.

We are very proud to announce that this year's keynote will be delivered by Ruth Ahnert, Professor of Literary History and Digital Humanities at Queen Mary University of London, and Principal Investigator on 'Living With Machines' at The Alan Turing Institute.

Her work focuses on Tudor culture, book history, and digital humanities. She is author of The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2013), editor of Re-forming the Psalms in Tudor England, as a special issue of Renaissance Studies (2015), and co-author of two further books: The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and Tudor Networks of Power (forthcoming with Oxford University Press). Recent collaborative work has taken place through AHRC-funded projects ‘Living with Machines’ and 'Networking the Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence, 1509-1714’. With Elaine Treharne she is series editor of the Stanford University Press’s Text Technologies series.

Ruth's keynote is entitled: Humanists Living with Machines: reflections on collaboration and computational history during a global pandemic

You can follow Ruth on Twitter.

There will be Awards announcements throughout the event for Research, Artistic, Community, Teaching & Learning and Staff Categories and this year we are going to get the audience to vote for their favourite project in those that were shortlisted, a people's BL Labs Award!

There will be a final talk near the end of the conference and we will announce the speaker for that session very soon.

So don't forget to book your place for the Symposium today as we predict it will be another full house again, the first one online and we don't want you to miss out, see more detailed information here

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

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

05 November 2020

World Digital Preservation Day 2020

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World Digital Preservation Day (WDPD) is held on the first Thursday of every November, providing an opportunity for the international digital preservation community to connect and celebrate the positive impact that digital preservation has. Follow #WDPD2020 for discussion throughout the day. Our colleagues in the UK Web Archive (UKWA) have already blogged earlier for WDPD about their Coronavirus Collection, which includes preservation of the ‘Children of Lockdown’ project website.

 A number of WDPD online events are taking place, including a book launch party for Electronic Legal Deposit Shaping the library collections of the future, for which our collaborative doctoral research student Linda Berube co-wrote chapter 9; Follow the Users: Assessing UK Non-Print Legal Deposit Within the Academic Discovery Environment

World Digital Preservation Day logo

WDPD is also when the annual Digital Preservation Awards are announced, #DPA2020, and we wish to offer our warmest congratulations to all today's winners, including our wonderful UKWA colleagues who have won the The National Archives Award for Safeguarding the Digital Legacy, recognising 15 years of web archiving work. You can read more about the UKWA's 15 year anniversary in 2020 here and watch a recording of the online Digital Preservation Awards ceremony in the video below.

Here in Digital Scholarship we enjoy collaborating with the British Library's Digital Preservation and UKWA teams. Last year we hosted a six month post-doctoral placement; ‘Emerging Formats: Discovering and Collecting Contemporary British Interactive Fiction’, where Lynda Clark created an Interactive Narratives UKWA collection and evaluated how crawlers captured web hosted works of interactive fiction.

This research project was part of the Library’s ongoing Emerging Formats work, which acknowledges that without intervention, many culturally valuable digital artefacts are at risk of being lost. Interactive narratives are particularly endangered due to the ‘hobbyist’ nature of many creators, meaning they do not necessarily subscribe to standardised practices. However, this also means that digital interactive fiction is created by and for a wide variety of creators and audiences, including various marginalised groups.

Two reports written by Lynda during her innovation placement are publicly available on the BL Research Repository; https://doi.org/10.23636/1192 and https://doi.org/10.23636/1193. Furthermore, a long paper about the Interactive Narratives collection is part of the proceedings of this week's International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS).[1] This event is a great opportunity to meet both scholars and creative practitioners who make digital stories. I was delighted to be a reviewer for the ICIDS 2020 online art exhibition, which has the theme "Texts of Discomfort" and presents some very thought provoking work.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom)

1. Clark L., Rossi G.C., Wisdom S. (2020) Archiving Interactive Narratives at the British Library. In: Bosser AG., Millard D.E., Hargood C. (eds) Interactive Storytelling. ICIDS 2020. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 12497. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62516-0_27  ↩︎

20 October 2020

The Botish Library: developing a poetry printing machine with Python

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This is a guest post by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications at the British Library. You can find her @giugimonogatari.

In June 2020 the Office for Students announced a campaign to fill 2,500 new places on artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses in universities across the UK. While I’m not planning to retrain in cyber, I was lucky enough to be in the cohort for the trial run of one of these courses: Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Data Science. The course started as a collaborative project between The British Library, The National Archives and Birkbeck University to develop a computing course aimed at professionals working in the cultural heritage sector. The trial run has now ended and the course is set to start in full from January 2021.

The course is designed for graduates who are new to computer science – which was perfect for me, as I had no previous coding knowledge besides some very basic HTML and CSS. It was a very steep learning curve, starting from scratch and ending with developing my own piece of software, but it was great to see how code could be applied to everyday issues to facilitate and automate parts of our workload. The fact that it was targeted at information professionals and that we could use existing datasets to learn from real life examples made it easier to integrate study with work. After a while, I started to look at the everyday tasks in my to-do list and wonder “Can this be solved with Python?”

After a taught module (Demystifying Computing with Python), students had to work on an individual project module and develop a software based on their work (to solve an issue, facilitate a task, re-use and analyse existing resources). I had an idea of the themes I wanted to explore – as Curator of Digital Publications, I’m interested in new media and platforms used to deliver content, and how text and stories are shaped by these tools. When I read about French company Short Édition and the short story vending machine in Canary Wharf I knew I had found my project.

My project is to build a stand-alone printer that prints random poems from a dataset of out-of-copyright texts. A little portable Bot-ish (sic!) Library to showcase the British Library collections and fill the world with more poetry.

This is a compilation of two images, a portable printer and a design sketch of the same by the author.
A Short Story Station in Canary Wharf, London and my own sketch of a printing machine. (photo by the author)

 

Finding poetry

For my project, I decided to use the British Library’s “Digitised printed books (18th-19th century)” collection. This comprises over 60,000 volumes of 18th and 19th century texts, digitised in partnership with Microsoft and made available under Public Domain Mark. My work focused on the metadata dataset and the dataset of OCR derived text (shout out to the Digital Research team for kindly providing me with this dataset, as its size far exceeded what my computer is able to download).

The British Library actively encourages researchers to use its “digital collection and data in exciting and innovative ways” and projects with similar goals to mine had been undertaken before. In 2017, Dr Jennifer Batt worked with staff at the British Library on a data mining project: her goal was to identify poetry within a dataset of 18th Century digitised newspapers from the British Library’s Burney Collection. In her research, Batt argued that employing a set of recurring words didn’t help her finding poetry within the dataset, as only very few of the poems included key terms like ‘stanza’ and ‘line’ – and none included the word ‘poem’. In my case, I chose to work with the metadata dataset first, as a way of filtering books based on their title, and while, as Batt proved, it’s unlikely that a poem itself includes a term defining its poetry style I was quite confident that such terms might appear in the title of a poetry collection.

My first step then was to identify books containing poetry, by searching through the metadata dataset using key words associated with poetry. My goal was not to find all the poetry in the dataset, but to identify books containing some form of poetry, that could be reused to create my printer dataset. I used the Poetry Foundation’s online “Glossary of Poetic Terms - Forms & Types of Poems” to identify key terms to use, eliminating the anachronisms (no poetry slam in the 19th century, I'm afraid) and ambiguous terms (“romance” returned too many results that weren’t relevant to my research). The result was 4580 book titles containing one or more poetry-related words.

 

A screenshot showing key terms defined as 'poem, sonnet, ballad, rhyme, verse etc.
My list of poetry terms used to search through the dataset

 

 

Creating verses: when coding meets grammar

I then wanted to extract individual poems from my dataset. The variety of book structures and poetry styles made it impossible to find a blanket rule that could be applied to all books. I chose to test my code out on books that I knew had one poem per page, so that I could extract pages and easily get my poems. Because of its relatively simple structure - and possibly because of some nostalgia for my secondary school Italian class - I started my experiments with Giacomo Pincherle’s 1865 translation of Dante’s sonnets, “In Omaggio a Dante. Dante's Memorial. [Containing five sonnets from Dante, Petrarch and Metastasio, with English versions by G. Pincherle, and five original sonnets in English by G. Pincherle.]

Once I solved the problem of extracting single poems, the issue was ‘reshaping’ the text to match the print edition. Line breaks are essential to the meaning of a poem and the OCR text was just one continuous string of text that completely disregarded the metric and rhythm of the original work. The rationale behind my choice of book was also that sonnets present a fairly regular structure, which I was hoping could be of use when reshaping the text. The idea of using the poem’s metre as a tool to determine line length seemed the most effective choice: by knowing the type of metre used (iambic pentameter, terza rima, etc.) it’s possible to anticipate the number of syllables for each line and where line breaks should occur.

So I created a function to count how many syllables a word has following English grammar rules. As it’s often the case with coding, someone has likely already encountered the same problem as you and, if you’re lucky, they have found a solution: I used a function found online as my base (thank you, StackOverflow), building on it in order to cover as many grammar rules (and exceptions) as I was aware of. I used the same model and adapted it to Italian grammar rules, in order to account for the Italian sonnets in the book as well. I then decided to combine the syllable count with the use of capitalisation at the beginning of a line. This increased the chances of a successful result in case the syllable count would return a wrong result (which might happen whenever typos appear in the OCR text).

 

An image showing the poem 'To My Father', both written as a string of lines, and in its original form
The same sonnet restructured so that each line is a new string (above), and matches the line breaks in the print edition (below)

 

It was very helpful that all books in the datasets were digitised and are available to access remotely (you can search for them on the British Library catalogue by using the search term “blmsd”), so I could check and compare my results to the print editions from home even during lockdown. I also tested my functions on sonnets from Henry Thomas Mackenzie Bell’s “Old Year Leaves Being old verses revived. [With the addition of two sonnets.]” and Welbore Saint Clair Baddeley’s “Legend of the Death of Antar, an eastern romance. Also lyrical poems, songs, and sonnets.

Another image showing a poem, this time a sonnet, written as both a string of lines, and in its original form
Example of sonnet from Legend of the Death of Antar, an eastern romance. The function that divides the poems into lines could be adapted to accommodate breaks between stanzas as well.

 

Main challenges and gaps in research

  • Typos in the OCR text: Errors and typos were introduced when the books in the collection were first digitised, which translated into exceptions to the rules I devised for identifying and restructuring poems. In order to ensure the text of every poem has been correctly captured and that typos have been fixed, some degree of manual intervention might be required.
  • Scalability: The variety of poetry styles and book structures, paired with the lack of tagging around verse text, make it impossible to find a single formula that can be applied to all cases. What I created is quite dependent on a book having one poem per page, and using capitalisation in a certain way.
  • Time constraint: the time limit we had to deliver the project - and my very-recently-acquired-and-still-very-much-developing skill set - meant I had to focus on a limited number of books and had to prioritise writing the software over building the printer itself.

 

Next steps

One of the outputs of this project is a JSON file containing a dictionary of poetry books. After searching for poetry terms, I paired the poetry titles and relative metadata with their pages from the OCR dataset, so the resulting file combines useful data from the two original datasets (book IDs, titles, authors’ names and the OCR text of each book). It’s also slightly easier to navigate compared to the OCR dataset as books can be retrieved by ID, and each page is an item in a list that can be easily called. One of the next steps will be to upload this onto the British Library data repository, in the hope that people might be encouraged to use it and conduct further research around this data collection.

Another, very obvious, next step is: building the printer! The individual components have already been purchased (Adafruit IoT Pi Printer Project Pack and Raspberry Pi 3). I will then have to build the thermal printer with Raspberry Pi and connect it to my poetry dataset. It’s interesting to note that other higher education institutions and libraries have been experimenting with similar ideas - like the University of Idaho Library’s Vandal Poem of the Day Bot and the University of British Columbia’s randomised book recommendations printer for libraries.

A photograph of technical components
Component parts of the Adafruit IoT Pi Printer Project Pack. (photo by the author)

My aim when working on this project was for the printer to be used to showcase British Library collections; the idea was for it to be located in a public area in the Library, to reach new audiences that might not necessarily be there for research purposes. The printer could also be reprogrammed to print different genres and be customised for different occasions (e.g. exhibitions, anniversary celebrations, etc.) All of this was planned before Covid-19 happened, so it might be necessary to slightly adapt things now - and any suggestions in merit are very welcome! :)

Finally, none of this would have been possible without Nora McGregor, Stelios Sotiriadis, Peter Wood, the Digital Scholarship and BL Labs teams, and the support of my line manager and my team.

19 October 2020

The 2020 British Library Labs Staff Award - Nominations Open!

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Looking for entries now!

A set of 4 light bulbs presented next to each other, the third light bulb is switched on. The image is supposed to a metaphor to represent an 'idea'
Nominate an existing British Library staff member or a team that has done something exciting, innovative and cool with the British Library’s digital collections or data.

The 2020 British Library Labs Staff Award, now in its fifth year, gives recognition to current British Library staff who have created something brilliant using the Library’s digital collections or data.

Perhaps you know of a project that developed new forms of knowledge, or an activity that delivered commercial value to the library. Did the person or team create an artistic work that inspired, stimulated, amazed and provoked? Do you know of a project developed by the Library where quality learning experiences were generated using the Library’s digital content? 

You may nominate a current member of British Library staff, a team, or yourself (if you are a member of staff), for the Staff Award using this form.

The deadline for submission is NOON (GMT), Monday 30 November 2020.

Nominees will be highlighted on Tuesday 15 December 2020 at the online British Library Labs Annual Symposium where some (winners and runners-up) will also be asked to talk about their projects (everyone is welcome to attend, you just need to register).

You can see the projects submitted by members of staff and public for the awards in our online archive.

In 2019, last year's winner focused on the brilliant work of the Imaging Team for the 'Qatar Foundation Partnership Project Hack Days', which were sessions organised for the team to experiment with the Library's digital collections. 

The runner-up for the BL Labs Staff Award in 2019 was the Heritage Made Digital team and their social media campaign to promote the British Library's digital collections one language a week from letters 'A' to 'U' #AToUnknown).

In the public Awards, last year's winners (2019) drew attention to artisticresearchteaching & learning, and community activities that used our data and / or digital collections.

British Library Labs is a project within the Digital Scholarship department at the British Library that supports and inspires the use of the Library's digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways. It was previously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is now solely funded by the British Library.

If you have any questions, please contact us at labs@bl.uk.

12 October 2020

Fiction Readers Wanted for PhD Research Study

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This a guest post is by British Library collaborative doctoral student Carol Butler, you can follow her on twitter as @fantomascarol.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020).

In 2016 I started a PhD project in partnership with the British Library and the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design (CHCID) at City, University of London. My research has focused on the phenomena of fiction authors interacting with readers through online media, such as websites, forums and social media, to promote and discuss their work. My aim is to identify potential avenues for redesigning or introducing new technology to better support authors and readers. I am now in my fourth and final year, aiming to complete my research this winter.

The internet has impacted how society interacts with almost everything, and literature has been no exception. It’s often thought that if a person or a business is not online, they are effectively invisible, and over the last ten years or so it has become increasingly common – expected, even - for authors to have an online presence allowing readers, globally, to connect with them.

Opportunities for authors and readers to interact together existed long before the internet, through events such as readings, signings, and festivals. The internet does not replace these – indeed, festivals have grown in popularity in recent years, and many have embraced technology to broaden their engagement outside of the event itself. However, unlike organised events, readers and authors can potentially interact online far more directly, outside of formal mediation. Perceived benefits from this disintermediation are commonly hailed – i.e. that it can break down access barriers for readers (e.g. geography and time, so they can more easily learn about the books they enjoy and the person behind the story), and help authors to better understand their market and the reception to their books. However, being a relatively new phenomenon, we don’t know much yet about how interacting with each other online may differ to doing so at a festival or event, and what complications the new environment may introduce to the experience, or even exacerbate. It is this research gap that my work has been addressing.

Early in my research, I conducted interviews with fiction authors and readers who use different online technologies (e.g. social media such as Twitter and Facebook, forums such as Reddit, or literary-specific sites such as GoodReads) to interact with other readers and authors. All participants generously shared their honest, open accounts about what they do, where and why, and where they encounter problems. It became clear that, although the benefits to being online are widely accepted and everyone had good experiences to report, in reality, people’s reasons for being online were riddled with contradictions, and, in some cases, it was debatable whether the positives outweighed the negatives, or whether the practice served a meaningful purpose at all. Ultimately – it’s complex, and not everything we thought we knew is necessarily as clear cut as it’s often perceived. 

This led me to make a U-turn in my research. Before working out how to improve technology to better support interactions as they currently stand, I needed to find out more about people’s motivations to be online, and to question whether we were focused on the right problem in the first place. From this I’ve been working to reframe how we, in the research field of Human-Computer Interaction, may understand the dynamics between authors and readers, by building a broader picture of context and influences in the literary field.

I’m going to write another blog post in the coming months to talk about what I’ve found, and what I think we need to focus on in the near future. In particular, I think it is important to improve support for authors, as many find themselves in a tricky position because of the expectation that they are available and public-facing, effectively 24/7. However, before I expand on that, I am about to embark on one final study to address some outstanding questions I have about the needs of their market – fiction readers. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be recruiting people who read fiction – whether they interact online about reading or not - to join me for what I am informally referring to as ‘an interview with props’. This study is happening a few months later than I’d originally intended, as restrictions in relation to Covid-19 required me to change my original plans (e.g. to meet people face-to-face). My study has ‘gone digital’, changing how I can facilitate the sessions, and what I can realistically expect from them.

I will be asking people to join me to chat online, using Zoom, to reflect on a series of sketched interface design ideas I have created, and to discuss their current thoughts about authors being available online. The design sketches represent deviations from the technology currently in common use - some significant, and some subtle. The designs are not being tested on behalf of any affiliated company, and neither do I necessarily anticipate any of them to be developed into working technology in the future. Ultimately, they are probes to get us talking about broader issues surrounding author and reader interactions, and I’m hoping that by getting peoples perspectives about them, I’ll learn more about why the designs *don’t* work, moreover why they do, to help inform future research and design work.

I’ve been ‘umming and ahhing’ about how best to share these designs with participants through a digital platform. Sitting together in the same room, as I’d originally planned, we could all move them around, pick them up, take a red pen to them, make notes on post-its, and sketch alternative ideas on paper. There are fantastic online technologies available these days, which have proved invaluable during this pandemic. But they can’t provide the same experience that being physically present together can (a predicament which, perhaps ironically, is fitting with the research problem itself!).

A screen image of the Miro platform, showing a drawing of a person wearing glasses, with a text box underneath saying Favourite Author
A sneaky peek at a sketch in the making, on Miro

I have decided to use a website called Miro.com to facilitate the study – an interactive whiteboard tool that allows participants to add digital post-it notes, doodles, and more. I’ve never used it before now, and to my knowledge there is no published research out there (yet) by others in my research field who have used it with participants, for me to learn from their experience. I think I must prepare myself for a few technical glitches! But I am hopeful that participants will enjoy the experience, which will be informal, encouraging, and in no way a judgement of their abilities with the technology. I am confident that their contribution will greatly help my work – and future work which will help authors and readers in the real world.

If anyone who is reading this is interested in participating, please do get in touch. Information about the study and how to contact me can be found here or please email carol.butler@city.ac.uk.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020). Thanks to everyone who has applied.

05 October 2020

2020 New Media Writing Prize is Open

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The New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) is in an annual international award, which 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, researching and tentatively collecting in our emerging formats work at the Library.

Last year we celebrated ten years of the prize, looking back over previous winning entries, with a Digital Conversation event at the British Library. Now we are looking forward to seeing what types of work will be entered into this year's prize.

NMWP logo, with a game controller on the N, a microphone on the M, headphones on the W and a pen pot on the P

If you are a writer of interactive works, then you may be interested to know that the 2020 New Media Writing prize is currently open for entries. You can nominate works via the online entry form at https://newmediawritingprize.co.uk/enter/. This year, there is only one category, the if:book UK New Media Writing prize. However, you can enter fiction, poetry, journalism, games, anything as long as it is interactive and makes use of digital media. The deadline is Friday 27th November 2020, 12 noon GMT, or for student entries, these must be entered by Friday 18th December 2020, 12 noon GMT. The organisers are especially encouraging entries from students and will give special consideration to entries from students at undergraduate or postgraduate level. 

There is one award of £1000 for the winner, and there will be commendations for shortlisted works, which the judges feel are deserving of a special mention. All the rules are here, and please do read the FAQs section of the NMWP website, which has more details about what the judges are looking for in entries. If you have a question that is not covered by the FAQ, then you can email the organisers at entries2020@newmediawritingprize.co.uk. You may also want to check out the winners and shortlisted entries from the 2019 prize, which I blogged about here, for inspiration. If you do enter, then good luck!

A laptop and an old fashioned typewriter facing each other

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom).