Digital scholarship blog

90 posts categorized "Literature"

02 October 2023

Last chance to see the Digital Storytelling exhibition

All good things must come to an end, no I’m not talking about the collapse of a favourite high street chain store beginning with W, but the final few weeks of our Digital Storytelling exhibition, which closes on the 15th October 2023. If you haven’t seen it yet, then this is your last chance to book!

Digital Storytelling showcases eleven different born digital works, including interactive narratives that respond to user input, reading experiences personalised by data feeds, and immersive multimedia story worlds developed through audience participation. From thought provoking autobiographical hypertexts to data journalism, uncanny ghost stories to weather poetry, steampunk literary adaptation to quirky Elizabethan medical comedy. 

Digital Storytelling exhibition image with art from Astrologaster, Seed, 80 Days, and Zombies, Run!

If you want to hear more about this exhibition, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom will be giving two talks later this week. The first of these will be in-person on Thursday evening, 5th October, in Richmond Lending Library for the Richmond Reads season of events, celebrating the joys and benefits of reading. The second will be held online on Friday morning, 6th October, for the DARIAH-EU autumn 2023 Friday Frontiers series.

We are also delighted to share that there is a chapter about interactive digital books written by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications, in The Book by Design, which was recently launched by our colleagues in British Library Publishing. Giulia’s chapter discusses innovative Editions at Play publications, including Seed by Joanna Walsh and Breathe by Kate Pullinger, which are both currently displayed in Digital Storytelling.

Before the Digital Storytelling exhibition closes, we'd love you to join us for a party on the evening of Friday 13th October. For one night only, transmedia storyteller Yomi Ayeni will transform the British Library into the Clockwork Watch story world for an immersive steampunk late event.

Genre-bending DJ Sacha Dieu will be spinning the best in Balkan Gypsy, Electro Swing, and Global Beats. Professor Elemental will perform live for us, and we really hope he’ll sing I Love Libraries! You'll also be able to view the Digital Storytelling exhibition, and there will be quieter areas to explore 19th Century London in Minecraft, play board games including Great Scott! The Game of Mad Invention with games librarian Marion Tessier, and to discover poetry with the Itinerant Poetry Librarian.

If you plan to party with us, book your ticket here.

02 August 2023

Writing tools for Interactive Fiction - an updated list

In the spring of 2020, during the first UK lockdown, I wrote an article for the British Library English and Drama blog, titled ‘Writing tools for Interactive Fiction’. Quite a few things have changed since then and as the Library launched its first exhibition on Digital Storytelling this June, it seemed like the perfect time to update this list with a few additions.

Interactive fiction (IF), or interactive narrative/narration, is defined as “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.”

The British Library has been collecting examples of UK interactive fiction as part of the Emerging Formats Project, which is a collaborative effort from all six UK Legal Deposit Libraries to look at the collection management requirements of complex digital publications. Lynda Clark, the British Library Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction, built the Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive (UKWA) during her placement. Because of Legal Deposit Regulations, most of the items in the Interactive Narratives collection can only be accessed on Library premises – which also extends to other collections in the UK Web Archive, such as the New Media Writing Prize collection.

Lynda also conducted analysis on genres, interaction patterns and tools used to build these narratives.

 

Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it might be a useful overview of some of the tools currently available, if you’d like to start experimenting with writing your own interactive narrative. We are also very excited to be able to offer a week-long Interactive Fiction Summer School this August at the Library, running alongside the Digital Storytelling exhibition.

For an easier navigation, these are the tools included in this article:

 

Twine

Twine is an open-source tool to write text-based, non-linear narratives. Created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine is perfect to write Choose Your Own Adventure-like stories without knowing how to code. The output is an HTML file, which facilitates publishing and distribution, as it can be run on any computer with an Internet connection and a web browser. If you have any knowledge of CSS or Javascript it’s possible to add extra features and specific designs to your Twine story, but the standard Twine structure only requires you to type text and put brackets around the phrases that will become links in the story (linking to another passage or branching into different directions). There is an online version or a downloadable version that runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux. Twine has multiple story formats, with different features and ways to write the interactive bits of your story. The Twine Reference is a good place to start, but there is also a Twine Cookbook (containing ‘recipes’, instructions and examples to do a variety of things).

Example of text from Cat Simulator 3000. 'You dream of mice. You dream of trout. You dream of balls of yarn. You dream of world domination. You dream of opening your own bank account. You dream of the nature of sentience.' Followed by the prompt 'Wake up'.
Some quality cat dreams.
(from Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000)

 

As the most used tool in the UKWA collection, there are many examples of IF written in Twine, from cat and teatime simulators (Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000 and Damon L. Wakes’ Lovely Pleasant Teatime Simulator), to stories that include a mix of video, images and audio (Chris Godber’s Glitch), and horror games made for Gothic Novel Jam using the British Library’s Flickr collection of images (Freya Campbell’s The Tower – NB some content warnings apply). Lynda Clark also authored an original story as a conclusion to her placement: The Memory Archivist incorporates many of the themes emerged during her research and won The BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.

 

ink/inky & inklewriter

Cambridge-based video game studio inkle is behind another IF tool – or two. Ink is the scripting language used to author many of inkle’s videogames – the idea behind it is to mark up “pure-text with flow in order to produce interactive scripts”. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge and the resulting scripts are relatively easy to read. Inky is the editor to write ink scripts in – it’s free to download and lets you test your narrative as you write it. Once you’re happy with your story, you can export it for the web, as well as a JSON file. There’s a quick tutorial to walk you through the basics, as well as a full manual on how to write in ink. ink was also used to write 80 Days, another work collected by the British Library as part of the emerging formats project and currently exhibited as part of the Digital Storytelling exhibition.

A side by side showing the back end and front end of what writing in ink looks like.
A page from 80 Days, written using ink. To read in full detail, please click on the image.

 

inklewriter is an open-source, ready-to-use, browser-based IF “sketch-pad”. It is meant to be used to sketch out narratives more than to author fully-developed stories. There is no download required and the fact that it is a simple and straightforward tool to experiment with IF makes it a good fit for educators. Tutorials are included within the platform itself so that you can learn while you write.

This year’s Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library will teach attendees how to write interactive fiction using ink, with a focus on dialogue and writing with the player in mind. Dr. Florencia Minuzzi will lead the 5-day course, together with a number of guest speakers whose work is featured in the Digital Storytelling exhibition – including Corey Brotherson, Destina Connor, Dan Hett and Meghna Jayanth. The school runs from Monday 21st to Friday 25th August – no previous coding experience necessary!

A screenshot from 80 Days Ⓒ inkle. Two men facing each other with the prompt 'begin conversation'.
A screenshot from 80 Days Ⓒ inkle.

 

Bitsy

Bitsy is a browser-based editor for mini games developed by Adam Le Doux in 2016. It operates within clear constraints (8x8 pixel tiles, a 3-colour palette, etc.), which is actually one of the reasons why it is so beloved. You can draw and animate your own characters within your pixel grid, write the dialogue and define how your avatar (your playable character) will interact with the surrounding scenery and with other non-playable characters. Again, no programming knowledge is necessary. Bitsy is especially good for short narratives and vignette games. After completing your game, you can download it as an HTML file and then share it however you prefer. There is Bitsy Docs, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.

GIF animation from the Bitsy game 'British Library Simulator'
Shout-out to the Emerging Formats Project
(from Giulia Carla Rossi’s The British Library Simulator)

 

To play (and read) a Bitsy work you should use your keyboard to move the avatar around and interact with the ‘sprites’ (interactive items, characters and scenery – usually recognisable as sporting a different colour from the non-interactive background). You can wander around a Zen garden reflecting on your impending wedding (Ben Bruce’s Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding), alight the village fires to welcome the midwinter spirits (Ash Green’s Midwinter Spirits), experience a love story through mixtapes (David Mowatt’s She Made Me A Mix Tape), or if you’re still craving a nice cuppa you can review some imaginary tea shops (Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep). You can even visit a pixelated version of the British Library and discover more about our contemporary and digital collections with The British Library Simulator.

 

Inform 7

While Twine allows you to write hypertext narratives (where readers can progress through the story by clicking on a link), Inform 7 lets you write parser-based interactive fiction. Parser-based IF requires the reader to type commands (sometimes full sentences) in order to interact with the story.

A how to guide showing what text options are available for playing text based explorer games in Inform. Helpful tips like 'Try the commands that make sense! Doors are for opening; buttons are for pushing; pie is for eating!'
How to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard)
<style="font-family: inherit;">Written by Andrew Plotkin -- design by Lea Albaugh. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

 

Inform 7 is a free-to-use, open-source (as of April 2022) tool to write interactive fiction. Originally created as Inform by Graham Nelson in 1993, the current Inform 7 was released in 2006 and uses natural language (based on the English language) to describe situations and interactions. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with Twine, but the natural language approach allows for users with no programming experience to write code in a simplified language that reads like English text. Inform 7 also has a Recipe Book and a series of well-documented tutorials. Inform also runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux and lets you output your game as HTML files.

While the current version of Inform is Inform 7, narratives using previous versions of the system are still available – Emily Short’s Galatea is always a good place to start. You could also explore mysterious ruins with your romantic interest (C.E.J. Pacian’s Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), play a gentleman thief (J.J. Guest’s  Alias, the Magpie) or make more tea (Joey Jones’ Strained Tea).

 

ChoiceScript

ChoiceScript is a javascript-based scripting language developed by Adam Strong-Morse and Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games. It can be used to write choice-based interactive narratives, in which the reader has to select among multiple choices to determine how the story will unfold. The simplicity of the language makes it possible to create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style stories without any prior coding knowledge. The ChoiceScript source is available to download for free on the Choice of Games website (it also requires writers to have Node.js installed on their machine). Once your story is complete, you can publish it for free online. Otherwise, Choice of Games offer the possibility of publishing your work with them (they publish to various platforms, including iOS, Android, Kindle and Steam) and earn royalties from it. There is a tutorial that covers the basics, including a Glossary of ChoiceScript terms. The Choice of Game blog also includes some articles with tips on how to design and write interactive stories, especially long ones.

Genres of works built using ChoiceScript are again quite varied – from sci-fi stories exploring the relationships between writers and readers (Lynda Clark’s Writers Are Not Strangers), to crime/romantic dramas (Toni Owen-Blue’s Double/Cross) and fantasy adventures (Thom Baylay’s Evertree Inn).

 

Downpour

Downpour is a game-making tool for phones currently in development. Created by v buckenham, Downpour is a tool that will allow users to make interactive games in minutes, only using their phone’s camera and linking images together. There is no expectation of previous programming knowledge and by removing the need to access a computer, Downpour promises to be a very approachable tool. Release is currently planned for 2023 on iOS and Android – if you want to be notified when it launches you can sign up here.

Downpour banner (purple writing over pink background)
Downpour banner.

 

More resources

As I mentioned before, this is in no way a comprehensive list – there are a lot of other tools and platforms to write IF, both mainstream as well as slightly more obscure ones (Ren’Py, Quest, StoryNexus, Raconteur, Genarrator, just to mention a few). Try different tools, find the one that works best for you or use a mix of them if you prefer! Experiment as much as you like.

If you’d like to discover even more tools to build your interactive project, Everest Pipkin has an excellent list of Open source, experimental, and tiny tools.

Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling blog also offers a round-up of very interesting links about interactive narratives.

If you want to be inspired by more independent games and interactive stories, Indiepocalypse offers a curated selection of video and/or physical games in the form of a monthly anthology.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote by Anna Anthropy from her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters:

“Every game that you and I make right now [...] makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness. And new voices are important in an art form that has been dominated for so long by a single perspective. [...]

There’s nothing to stop us from making our voices heard now. And there will be plenty of voices. Among those voices, there will be plenty of mediocrity, and plenty of games that have no meaning to anyone outside the author and maybe her friends. But [...] imagine what we’ll gain: real diversity, a plethora of voices and experiences, and a new avenue for human beings to tell their stories and connect with other human beings.”

This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications

22 June 2023

Explore Windrush Tales in our Digital Storytelling exhibition

On the 22nd June in 1948 the HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex, bringing people from the Caribbean who had been invited to help rebuild "the motherland" after the devastation of the Second World War.

Seventy-five years later, stories from the Windrush generation are shared in a ground breaking illustrated text-based interactive narrative from 3-Fold Games. Windrush Tales is still in development, but a preview can be read exclusively in the British Library’s current Digital Storytelling exhibition, which is open until 15 October 2023.

Illustration of a boat and story choices
Windrush Tales art by Naima Ramanan © 3-Fold Games

Windrush Tales tells the stories of characters Rose, an aspiring nurse, and her older brother Vernon, through a beautiful illustrated interactive photo album and branching narrative, allowing choices within the game to lead to one of many endings. Apprehensive but tenacious, Rose joins her brother in England with the intention to start work as a nurse in the newly formed NHS. Vernon has been in Britain for several years but, unknown to his sister, has struggled to find and stay in employment. Through his photography, he documents how they adapt to their new life, from grassroots arts and activism, to church and social clubs.

Illustration of a photograph showing the faces of a man and a woman
Windrush Tales art by Naima Ramanan © 3-Fold Games

As part of their extensive research process to develop the game's story lines, creative director Chella Ramanan and writer Corey Brotherson, both descendants of the Windrush generation, have drawn upon their families' experiences, news coverage, books, and exhibitions. They also consulted with people who emigrated from the Caribbean to Britain during the Windrush period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, and their families, via a workshop organised in collaboration with Jennifer Allsopp, from the University of Birmingham.

Windrush Tales is one of eleven showcased narratives in Digital Storytelling, the first exhibition of its kind at the Library. Curators worked closely with writers, artists and creators to display a range of innovative publications, which reflect the rapidly evolving field of interactive writing, stories that are dynamic, responsive, personalised and immersive.

To accompany this exhibition there is a season of in-person events at the Library. Writer Corey Brotherson from the Windrush Tales team will be speaking about another of his projects, the Clockwork Watch story world at MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media, a one-day conference exploring the intersection of writing and technology on Friday 7 July 2023. Corey is also a guest tutor at the Fiction as Dialogue, Interactive Fiction Summer School, which runs from 21st to the 25th August 2023.

06 February 2023

A Year In Three Wikithons: The Lord Chamberlain's Plays

The second year of the Wikimedia residency has allowed us to pay specific attention to the work being done on the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, specifically the excellent research project work by Professor Kate Dossett (University of Leeds). Kate teaches American History at the University of Leeds, and is currently working on ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories: Archives of Surveillance and Black Transnational Theatre’, a project supported by an Independent Social Research Foundation Fellowship and a Fellowship from the Eccles Centre. Her work focuses on the understudied area of Black theatre history in the first half of the twentieth century, and when we had the chance to collaborate, we leapt on it!

One of the things we wanted to do was run a series of three Wikithons, each celebrating a different aspect of the collection: in this case, the role of women; the ways in which censorship impacted creativity for Black theatre makers and the political surveillance of Black creatives. Alongside these Wikithons, we are developing a Wikibase structure to enable users to search the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays index cards from anywhere in the world. A blog on this work is forthcoming.

What transpired from our Wikithon dream was a series of three excellent events, interactions and collaborative work with a number of exceptional researchers and historians, all mixed in with a year of administrative tumult as we felt the impact of numerous strikes (academic and transport), the Royal funeral and the ongoing implications of the pandemic. 

This was an important learning opportunity for us to examine the role and impact of Wikithons, and consider different methods of delivery and engagement, tying into bigger conversations happening around Wikipedia on an international scale. It was a year in three Wikithons!

Event One (March 2022)

Our first event took place in March 2022. Having only just gotten over the dreaded Covid myself, the long-term impact of the pandemic was sorely felt: we were just out of some winter restrictions, and we felt it was best to hold this event as an online session, due to the uncertainty of the months ahead. Further to this, we had to look at dates that would not interrupt or clash with the ongoing University and College Union strikes. Once we had this in hand, we were ready to open the (virtual) doors to Black Theatre and the Archive: Making Women Visible, 1900-1950

We were lucky to have speakers from the Library, Alexander Lock and Laura Walker, to talk about and contextualise the materials, while Kate herself offered a thematic and political overview of the importance of the work we were to embark upon. Despite the strikes, the pandemic and the demands of early 2022, 9 editors added over 1600 words, 21 references and 84 total edits. Changes made on this day have now been viewed over 25000 times. For a small batch of changes, that is a significant impact! Articles edited included Elisabeth Welch, Anna Lucasta and Edric Connor. I was grateful to Stuart Prior and Dr Francesca Allfrey for the training support at this event, and to Heather Pascall from the News Reference Team who offered her expertise on the day. The British Newspaper Archive also gave us access to their online resource for this event, which was both generous and very helpful.

Image of Pauline Henriques, BBC UK Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Pauline Henriques, BBC UK Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Event Two (November 2022)

After a summer of political upheaval, a royal funeral and further transport strikes, we finally made it to Leeds Playhouse on the 7th of November 2022. As luck would have it, there was a train strike running that day, but as most of our participants were local to Leeds, there was thankfully very little impact on our numbers. Leeds Playhouse was the perfect home for this Wikithon: Furnace Producer Rio Matchett was a fantastic ambassador for the venue, and made sure we were fed and watered in style. Hope Miyoba was there to support me in training both sessions and I am so grateful to her for her support, particularly as my laptop wasn’t working!

We took over the Playhouse for the full day, running Wikithon sessions in the morning and afternoon, with a lunchtime talk by Joe Williams of Heritage Corner Leeds which was attended by morning and afternoon attendees, as well as some members of the public. Joe’s talk on Sankofa Yorkshire was a brilliant overview of Black creativity in the Leeds area throughout history, and informed a lot of our conversation around the politics and practicalities of Wiki editing in an equitable way. Articles edited included Una Marson, a central figure in Kate’s research and the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

It was fantastic to be in person again, and to meet the excellent community of creatives at Leeds Playhouse. Joe’s talk was inspirational and the questions it provoked regarding the way in which the Wikimedia guidelines for notability can negatively impact the prevalence of Black creatives on Wiki were a much needed point of discussion.

Image of Leeds Playhouse illuminated at night
Anthony Robling, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Event Three (January 2023)

Our arrival at the iconic National Archives building at Kew was long awaited and months in the planning. Drs Jo Pugh and Kevin Searle were exceptionally helpful and supportive as we planned our way to the ‘Black Theater Making and Surveillance’ event in January 2023. We were delighted to be in the building, and even happier to welcome Perry Blankson of the Young Historians Project to present his work on The Secret War on Black Power in Britain and the Caribbean. Gathering in a central space in the Archives, Dr Searle curated an amazing selection of archival materials for participants to view and utilise, including documents from the Information Research Department.

Some of the documents on display at Kew, image by the author
Some of the documents on display at Kew, image by the author

Our conversations on this day turned towards the idea of Wiki notability and the use of primary sources in establishing authority on Wikipedia in particular. I was grateful once again to Stuart Prior and Dr Francesca Allfrey for their support and training assistance, and moreover for the thoughtful and important conversations we fostered around the ways in which the politics of the present day can cloud and impact what happens on Wiki and how events and politics can be reported. A truly breathtaking moment was when Dr Searle and his colleagues allowed us to look at the Windrush manifest, a material reminder of a significant and hugely important moment in modern Britain. It was wonderful, also, to welcome Dr Cara Rodway, Head of Research Development and Philip Abraham, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre, to join us in seeing this final event in the Wikithon series.

Image of the National Archives building in Kew on a sunny day
The National Archives, Kew by Christopher Hilton, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

Despite a year of unforeseeable events, disruption and obstacles, I am immensely proud of what this series of Wikithons achieved, bringing aspects of modern society into direct conversation with our literary archives, asking questions about race, equality and diversity in Britain. We were lucky to work with creative practitioners and speakers like Joe Williams and Perry Blankson, and to be afforded the chance to really think about what it is to edit Wiki, and to try to improve the world in this way. It has allowed me to think more deeply about the wider Wiki conversations around how best to engage with and train new Wiki editors, and how to look at collections in new and impactful ways. I am very grateful to the American Trust for the British Library and the Eccles Centre for American studies for their support in achieving this work.

This blogpost is by Dr Lucy Hinnie, Wikimedian in Residence, British Library. She is on Twitter @BL_Wikimedian.

13 January 2023

Digital Storytelling in 2023: A New Year of New Media

Here in Digital Scholarship we are looking forward to the Library’s upcoming exhibitions in 2023, including Digital Storytelling (2 June – 15 October 2023), which we are curating with colleagues in Contemporary British Collections and Digital Preservation. This display will explore the ways technology provides opportunities to transform and enhance the way writers write and readers engage. Drawing on the Library’s collection of contemporary digital publications and emerging formats to highlight the work of innovative and experimental writers. It will feature interactive works that invite and respond to user input, reading experiences influenced by data feeds, and immersive story worlds created using multiple platforms and audience participation.

A number of the selected works for this exhibition have been previous shortlisted and winning entries of the New Media Writing Prize (NMWP). An annual international award, which celebrates exciting and inventive born digital stories and poetry that integrate a variety of formats, platforms, and media. In recent years the Library has been working with the prize organisers to collect and preserve entries in the UK Web Archive (UKWA) New Media Writing Prize collection, which is the topic of this recently published Electronic British Library Journal article:

G.C. Rossi, T. Pyke, J. Pope, R.L. Skains and S. Wisdom, ‘The New Media Writing Prize Special Collection’, Electronic British Library Journal (2022), art. 8, pp. 1-19, https://doi.org/10.23636/kw7j-0274

New Media Writing Prize logo of a lightbulb with a smartphone, a pot of pens, a pair of headphones and a microphone inside the outline of the bulb

The NMWP UKWA collection is an ongoing initiative with works added from each year’s prize. To hear more about the 2022 shortlist entries, Library curators will be virtually attending the upcoming Awards Evening on Wednesday 18 January 2023. This online event is free and open to all, if you would like to attend please book a place here. Writer Deena Larsen will give a keynote lecture and winners will be announced for the 2022 Chris Meade Memorial Main Prize, the FIPP Digital Journalism Prize, the Writing Magazine Student Prize and the Wonderbox Opening Up (People's Choice) Prize, which celebrates all eligible entries submitted to the Main and Student Prizes. Opening Up does not affect the shortlist/winners in the other categories, but provides an opportunity for a public vote for a favourite; you can browse entries and vote for your favourite here, the deadline is 11:59pm GMT on Sunday 15 January 2023.  NMWP organisers are also holding a virtual two day Digital Literature for Social Good Unconference on 17-18 January 2023.

Image of the MIX 2023 conference partner organisation logos, these are Bath Spa University's Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries, The Writing Platform, British Library and MyWorld

Looking ahead to summer, we are collaborating with Bath Spa University to host the MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media conference at the Library on Friday 7 July 2023. This event will provide an opportunity for scholars and practitioners to share current research and practice in the rapidly developing field of storytelling in immersive environments.

MIX 2023 themes include storytelling with AI, interactive and locative works, digital and film poetry, narrative games, digital preservation, archiving, and enhanced curation. The call for presentations and papers is open until Monday 13 February 2023. Proposals are invited for 15 minute papers or presentations and 6 minute lightning talks from technologists, artists, creative writers and poets working in the digital realm, as well as academic researchers and independent scholars, submissions focused on teaching and pedagogy are also welcome. After the conference there will be an opportunity to publish papers on The Writing Platform, an online magazine for sharing knowledge and expertise around digital innovation in publishing and storytelling. If you have any questions about the MIX 2023 conference please email [email protected] for more information. 

20 September 2022

Learn more about what AI means for us at Living with Machines events this autumn

Digital Curator, and Living with Machines Co-Investigator Dr Mia Ridge writes…

The Living with Machines research project is a collaboration between the British Library, The Alan Turing Institute and various partner universities. Our free exhibition at Leeds City Museum, Living with Machines: Human stories from the industrial age, opened at the end of July. Read on for information about adult events around the exhibition…

AI evening panels and workshop, September 2022

We’ve put together some great panels with expert speakers guaranteed to get you thinking about the impact of AI with their thought-provoking examples and questions. You'll have a chance to ask your own questions in the Q&A, and to mingle with other attendees over drinks.

We’ve also collaborated with AI Tech North to offer an exclusive workshop looking at the practical aspects of ethics in AI. If you’re using or considering AI-based services or tools, this might be for you. Our events are also part of the jam-packed programme of the Leeds Digital Festival #LeedsDigi22, where we’re in great company.

The role of AI in Creative and Cultural Industries

Thu, Sep 22, 17:30 – 19:45 BST

Leeds City Museum • Free but booking required

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-role-of-ai-in-creative-and-cultural-industries-tickets-395003043737

How will AI change what we wear, the TV and films we watch, what we read? 

Join our fabulous Chair Zillah Watson (independent consultant, ex-BBC) and panellists Rebecca O’Higgins (Founder KI-AH-NA), Laura Ellis (Head of Technology Forecasting, BBC) and Maja Maricevic, (Head of Higher Education and Science, British Library) for an evening that'll help you understand the future of these industries for audiences and professionals alike. 

Maja's written a blog post on The role of AI in creative and cultural industries with more background on this event.

 

Workshop: Developing ethical and fair AI for society and business

Thu, Sep 29, 13:30 - 17:00 BST

Leeds City Museum • Free but booking required

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/workshop-developing-ethical-and-fair-ai-for-society-and-business-tickets-400345623537

 

Panel: Developing ethical and fair AI for society and business

Thu, Sep 29, 17:30 – 19:45 BST

Leeds City Museum • Free but booking required

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panel-developing-ethical-and-fair-ai-for-society-and-business-tickets-395020706567

AI is coming, so how do we live and work with it? What can we all do to develop ethical approaches to AI to help ensure a more equal and just society? 

Our expert Chair, Timandra Harkness, and panellists Sherin Mathew (Founder & CEO of AI Tech UK), Robbie Stamp (author and CEO at Bioss International), Keely Crockett (Professor in Computational Intelligence, Manchester Metropolitan University) and Andrew Dyson (Global Co-Chair of DLA Piper’s Data Protection, Privacy and Security Group) will present a range of perspectives on this important topic.

If you missed our autumn events, we also have a study day and Wikipedia editathon this winter. You can find out more about our exhibition on the Living with Machines website.

Lwm800x400

18 July 2022

UK Digital Comics: More of the same but different? [1]

This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at [email protected].

When I last wrote a post for the Digital Scholarship blog in 2020 (Berube, 2020), I was a fairly new PhD student, fresh out of the starting blocks, taking on the challenge of UK digital comics research.  My research involves an analysis of the systems and processes of UK digital comics publishing as a means of understanding how digital technology has affected, maybe transformed them. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London).

Little did I, or the rest world for that matter, know the transformations to daily life brought on by pandemic that were to come. There was no less of an impact felt in the publishing sector, and certainly in comics publishing. Still, despite all the obstacles to meetings, people from traditional[2] large and small press publishers, media and video game companies publishing comics, as well as creators and self-publishers gave generously of their time to discuss comics with me. I am currently speaking with comics readers and observing their reading practices, again all via remote meetings. To all these people, this PhD student owes a debt of gratitude for their enthusiastic participation.

British Comics Publishing: It’s where we’re at

Digital technology has had a significant impact on British comics publishing, but not as pervasively as expected from initial prognostications by scholars and the comics press. Back in 2020, I observed:

  This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280, for example). (Berube, 2020).

But ‘retrenchment’ might be a strong word. According to my research findings to date, and in keeping with those of the broader publishing sector (Thompson, 2010; 2021), the comics publishing process has most definitely been ‘revolutionized’ by digital technology. All comics begin life as digital files until they are published in print. Even those creators who still draw by hand must convert their work to digital versions that can be sent to a publisher or uploaded to a website or publishing platform. And, while print comics have by no means been completely supplanted by digital comics (in fact a significant number of those interviewed voiced a preference for print), reading on digital devices-laptops, tablets, smartphones-has become popular enough for publishers to provide access through ebook and app technology. Even those publishers I interviewed who were most resistant to digital felt compelled ‘to dabble in digital comics’ (according to one small press publisher) by at least providing pdf versions on Gumroad or some other storefront. The restrictions on print distribution and sales through bookstores resulting from Covid lockdown compelled some of the publishers not only to provide more access to digital versions, but some went as far to sell digital-exclusive versions, in other words comics only offered digitally.

Everywhere you look, a comic

The visibility of digital comics across sectors including health, economics, education, literacy and even the hard sciences was immediately obvious from a mapping exercise of UK comics publishers, producers and platforms as well as through interviews. What this means is that comics-the creation and reading of them-are used to teach and to learn about multiple topics, including archiving (specifically UK Legal Deposit) (Figure 1) and Anthropology (specifically Smartphones and Smart Ageing) (Figure 2):

Cartoon drawing of two people surrounded by comics and zines
Figure 1: Panel from 'The Legal Deposit and You', by Olivia Hicks (British Library, 2018). Reproduced with permission from the British Library.

 

Cartoon drawing of two women sitting on a sofa looking at and discussing content on a smartphone
Figure 2: Haapio-Kirk, L., Murariu, G., and Hahn, A. (artist) (2022) 'Beyond Anthropomorphism Palestine', Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) Blog. Based on Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho’s research in Al-Quds (East Jerusalem). Available at: https://wwwdepts-live.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/assa/discoveries/beyond-anthropomorphism/ . Reproduced with permission.

Moreover, comics in their incarnation as graphic novels have grabbed literary prizes, for example Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth (Jonathan Cape, 2001) by Chris Ware won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, and Sabrina (Granta, 2018) by Nick Drnaso was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 (somewhat controversially, see Nally, 2018).

Just Like Reading a Book, But Not…

But by extending the definition of digital comics[3] to include graphic novels mostly produced as ebooks, the ‘same-ness” of reading in print became evident over the course of interviews with publishers and creators. Publishing a comic in pdf format, whether that be on a website, on a publishing platform, or as a book is just the easiest, most cost-effective way to do it:

  We’re print first in our digital workflow—Outside of graphic novels, with other types of books we occasionally have the opportunity to work with the digital version as a consideration at the outset, in which case the tagging/classes are a factored in at the beginning stages (a good example would be a recent straight -to-digital reflowable ebook). This is the exception though, and also does not apply to graphic novels, which are all print-led. (Interview with publisher, December 2020)

Traditional book publishers have not been the only ones taking up comics - gaming and media companies have acquired the rights to comics, comics brands previously published in print. For more and different sectors, comics increasingly have become an attractive option especially for their multimedia appeal. However, what they do with the comics is a mixture of the same, for instance being print-led as described in the above comment, and different, for example through conversion to digital interactive versions as well as providing apps with more functionality than the ebook format.

It's How You Read Them

Comics formatted especially for reading on apps, such as 2000 AD, ComiXology, and Marvel Unlimited, can be variable in the types of reading experiences they offer to readers. While some have retained the ‘multi-panel display’ experience of reading a print comic book, others have gone beyond the ‘reads like a book’ experience. ComiXology, a digital distribution platform for comics owned by Amazon, pioneered the “guided view” technology now used by the likes of Marvel and DC, where readers view one panel at a time. Some of the comics readers I have interviewed refer to this reading experience as ‘the cinematic experience’. Readers page through the comic one panel or scene at a time, yes, as if watching it on film or TV.

These reading technologies do tend to work better on a tablet than on a smartphone. The act of scrolling required to read webcomics on the WEBTOON app (and others, such as Tapas), designed to be read on smartphones, produces that same kind of ‘cinematic’ effect: readers of comics on both the ComiXology and Web Toon apps I have interviewed describe the exact same experience: the build-up of “anticipation”, “tension”,  “on the edge of my seat” as they page or scroll down to the next scene/panel. WEBTOON creators employ certain techniques in order to create that tension in the vertical format, for example the use of white space between panels: the more space, the more scrolling, the more “edge of the seat” experience. Major comics publishers have started creating ‘vertical’ (scrolling on phones) comics: Marvel launched its Infinity Comics to appeal to the smartphone webcomics reader.

So, it would seem that good old-fashioned comics pacing combined with publishing through apps designed for digital devices provide a different, but same reading experience:  a uniquely digital reading experience.

Same But Different: I’m still here

So, here I am, still a PhD student currently conducting research with comics readers, as part of my research and as part of a secondment with the BL supported by AHRC Additional Student Development funding. This additional funding has afforded me the opportunity to employ UX (user behaviour/experience) techniques with readers, primarily through conducting reading observation sessions and activities. I will be following up this blog with an update on this research as well as a call for participation into more reader research.

References 

Berube, L. (2020) ‘Not Just for Kids: UK Digital Comics, from creation to consumption’, British Library Digital Scholarship Blog”, 24 August 2020. Available at: https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/2020/08/not-just-for-kids-uk-digital-comics-from-creation-to-consumption.html

Drnaso, N. (2018) Sabrina. London, England: Granta Books.

McCloud, Scott (2000) Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form.  New York, N.Y: Paradox Press. 

Nally, C. (2018) ‘Graphic Novels Are Novels: Why the Booker Prize Judges Were Right to Choose One for Its Longlist’, The Conversation, 26 July. Available at: https://theconversation.com/graphic-novels-are-novels-why-the-booker-prize-judges-were-right-to-choose-one-for-its-longlist-100562.

Priego, E. (2011) The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction. [Thesis] University College London. Available at: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.754575.v4, pp278-280.

Ware, C. (2001) Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth. London, England: Jonathan Cape.

Notes

[1] “More of the same but different”, a phrase used by a comics creator I interviewed in reference to what comics readers want to read.↩︎

[2] By ‘traditional’, I am referring to publishers who contract with comics creators to undertake the producing, publishing, distribution, selling of a comic, retaining rights for a certain period of time and paying the creator royalties. In my research, publishers who transacted business in this way included multinational and small press publishers. Self-publishing is where the creator owns all the rights and royalties, but also performs the production, publishing, distribution work, or pays for a third-party to do so. ↩︎

[3] For this research, digital comics include a diverse selection of what is produced electronically or online: webcomics, manga, applied comics, experimental comics, as well as graphic novels [ebooks].  I have omitted animation. ↩︎

14 March 2022

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project: the collaborative work between the Heritage Made Digital team and the International Dunhuang Project team

Digitisation has become one of the key tasks for the curatorial roles within the British Library. This is supported by two main pillars: the accessibility of the collection items to everybody around the world and the preservation of unique and sometimes, very fragile, items. Digitisation involves many different teams and workflow stages including retrieval, conservation, curatorial management, copyright assessment, imaging, workflow management, quality control, and the final publication to online platforms.

The Heritage Made Digital (HMD) team works across the Library to assist with digitisation projects. An excellent example of the collaborative nature of the relationship between the HMD and International Dunhuang Project (IDP) teams is the quality control (QC) of the Lotus Sutra Project’s digital files. It is crucial that images meet the quality standards of the digital process. As a Digitisation Officer in HMD, I am in charge of QC for the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project, which is currently conserving and digitising nearly 800 Chinese Lotus Sutra manuscripts to make them freely available on the IDP website. The manuscripts were acquired by Sir Aurel Stein after they were discovered  in a hidden cave in Dunhuang, China in 1900. They are thought to have been sealed there at the beginning of the 11th century. They are now part of the Stein Collection at the British Library and, together with the international partners of the IDP, we are working to make them available digitally.

The majority of the Lotus Sutra manuscripts are scrolls and, after they have been treated by our dedicated Digitisation Conservators, our expert Senior Imaging Technician Isabelle does an outstanding job of imaging the fragile manuscripts. My job is then to prepare the images for publication online. This includes checking that they have the correct technical metadata such as image resolution and colour profile, are an accurate visual representation of the physical object and that the text can be clearly read and interpreted by researchers. After nearly 1000 years in a cave, it would be a shame to make the manuscripts accessible to the public for the first time only to be obscured by a blurry image or a wayward piece of fluff!

With the scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long, most are too long to be imaged in one go. They are instead shot in individual panels, which our Senior Imaging Technicians digitally “stitch” together to form one big image. This gives online viewers a sense of the physical scroll as a whole, in a way that would not be possible in real life for those scrolls that are more than two panels in length unless you have a really big table and a lot of specially trained people to help you roll it out. 

Photo showing the three individual panels of Or.8210S/1530R with breaks in between
Or.8210/S.1530: individual panels
Photo showing the three panels of Or.8210S/1530R as one continuous image
Or.8210/S.1530: stitched image

 

This post-processing can create issues, however. Sometimes an error in the stitching process can cause a scroll to appear warped or wonky. In the stitched image for Or.8210/S.6711, the ruled lines across the top of the scroll appeared wavy and misaligned. But when I compared this with the images of the individual panels, I could see that the lines on the scroll itself were straight and unbroken. It is important that the digital images faithfully represent the physical object as far as possible; we don’t want anyone thinking these flaws are in the physical item and writing a research paper about ‘Wonky lines on Buddhist Lotus Sutra scrolls in the British Library’. Therefore, I asked the Senior Imaging Technician to restitch the images together: no more wonky lines. However, we accept that the stitched images cannot be completely accurate digital surrogates, as they are created by the Imaging Technician to represent the item as it would be seen if it were to be unrolled fully.

 

Or.8210/S.6711: distortion from stitching. The ruled line across the top of the scroll is bowed and misaligned
Or.8210/S.6711: distortion from stitching. The ruled line across the top of the scroll is bowed and misaligned

 

Similarly, our Senior Imaging Technician applies ‘digital black’ to make the image background a uniform colour. This is to hide any dust or uneven background and ensure the object is clear. If this is accidentally overused, it can make it appear that a chunk has been cut out of the scroll. Luckily this is easy to spot and correct, since we retain the unedited TIFFs and RAW files to work from.

 

Or.8210/S.3661, panel 8: overuse of digital black when filling in tear in scroll. It appears to have a large black line down the centre of the image.
Or.8210/S.3661, panel 8: overuse of digital black when filling in tear in scroll

 

Sometimes the scrolls are wonky, or dirty or incomplete. They are hundreds of years old, and this is where it can become tricky to work out whether there is an issue with the images or the scroll itself. The stains, tears and dirt shown in the images below are part of the scrolls and their material history. They give clues to how the manuscripts were made, stored, and used. This is all of interest to researchers and we want to make sure to preserve and display these features in the digital versions. The best part of my job is finding interesting things like this. The fourth image below shows a fossilised insect covering the text of the scroll!

 

Black stains: Or.8210/S.2814, panel 9
Black stains: Or.8210/S.2814, panel 9
Torn and fragmentary panel: Or.8210/S.1669, panel 1
Torn and fragmentary panel: Or.8210/S.1669, panel 1
Insect droppings obscuring the text: Or.8210/S.2043, panel 1
Insect droppings obscuring the text: Or.8210/S.2043, panel 1
Fossilised insect covering text: Or.8210/S.6457, panel 5
Fossilised insect covering text: Or.8210/S.6457, panel 5

 

We want to minimise the handling of the scrolls as much as possible, so we will only reshoot an image if it is absolutely necessary. For example, I would ask a Senior Imaging Technician to reshoot an image if debris is covering the text and makes it unreadable - but only after inspecting the scroll to ensure it can be safely removed and is not stuck to the surface. However, if some debris such as a small piece of fluff, paper or hair, appears on the scroll’s surface but is not obscuring any text, then I would not ask for a reshoot. If it does not affect the readability of the text, or any potential future OCR (Optical Character Recognition) or handwriting analysis, it is not worth the risk of damage that could be caused by extra handling. 

Reshoot: Or.8210/S.6501: debris over text  /  No reshoot: Or.8210/S.4599: debris not covering text.
Reshoot: Or.8210/S.6501: debris over text  /  No reshoot: Or.8210/S.4599: debris not covering text.

 

These are a few examples of the things to which the HMD Digitisation Officers pay close attention during QC. Only through this careful process, can we ensure that the digital images accurately reflect the physicality of the scrolls and represent their original features. By developing a QC process that applies the best techniques and procedures, working to defined standards and guidelines, we succeed in making these incredible items accessible to the world.

Read more about Lotus Sutra Project here: IDP Blog

IDP website: IDP.BL.UK

And IDP twitter: @IDP_UK

Dr Francisco Perez-Garcia

Digitisation Officer, Heritage Made Digital: Asian and African Collections

Follow us @BL_MadeDigital

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