THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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10 posts categorized "Medieval history"

31 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Staff Award Winner: 'The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200'

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A guest blog by our colleague Tuija Ainonen, describing the project which won the 2018 BL Labs staff award.

The collections of medieval manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) rank amongst the finest and most important in the world. Together they have particularly strong holdings of manuscripts made in France and England before 1200.

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Scenes from Genesis from the Canterbury or Anglo-Catalan Psalter, Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century: BnF MS Latin 8846, f. 1v.

In the summer of 2016, the two Libraries joined forces to digitise and promote access to 800 medieval manuscripts. 400 manuscripts from each Library were fully digitised in the project that was made possible by generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. The successful completion of this ground-breaking international project in November 2018 required the collaboration of a large number of specialists from various fields: curators, cataloguers, conservators, and imaging and information technology specialists from both libraries worked together closely through a programme of knowledge exchange and collaborative workshops.

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An angel leads St Peter out of prison, from the Caligula Troper, England, 2nd half of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 22r.

The result of this collaboration now allows anyone around the world to explore and compare these beautiful and historically important manuscripts, which were previously available principally to scholars using the reading rooms of the British Library in London and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and in occasional exhibitions.

Two web resources

All 800 manuscripts are now available on an innovative website hosted by the BnF, France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200. The website allows users to search manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to view and compare manuscripts side-by-side using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. Images can be annotated and downloaded either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. Annotations can also be downloaded in a data-interchange JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) format and shared.

Image4_Website France et Angleterre
The website France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 provides full access to all 800 project manuscripts. It is searchable in English, French and Italian.

The team at the British Library tackled the processes required to transform the images and catalogue records into an IIIF format. For example, cataloguing in the Library’s Integrated Archives and Manuscripts System (IAMS) required expansion of the use of the authority files, including a systematic application of International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) and Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) numbers, all of which facilitated the work toward multilingual search functionality for author and place information. The incorporation of authority files also allowed the author and place information to be present in the IIIF manifests, and thus to be displayed in the IIIF viewer. Collaboration with the Heritage Made Digital team and the Technology department’s Architecture and Design team allowed us to ingest 400 medieval manuscripts in the new IIIF format. In some ways, the project constituted a pilot project paving the way for the continuation of the transformation of the thousands of manuscripts that are currently available through the Digitised Manuscripts website in a pre-IIIF format. The project’s contribution in this respect was both pioneering and transformative.

Image5_Website France et Angleterre MSSCompared
Side-by-side display of three manuscripts from Winchester: British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r, BnF Latin 987, f. 31r, and British Library Arundel MS 60, f. 13r, all in same IIIF compatible viewer.

The other innovative resource, the British Library-hosted Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website, presents a curated selection of these manuscripts, highlighting different topics and manuscripts in both English and French. Curiously minded people with a more general interest are able to explore themes such as medieval art, history and science on this website by reading articles and immersing themselves in the beautiful images that showcase some of the most spectacular highlights of the collections. Further, a number of short videos reveal how manuscripts were made and what they can tell us about the cultural exchange between England and France during the early Middle Ages.

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The curated website Medieval England and France, 700–1200 is an online exhibition presenting medieval manuscripts and their significance through videos, articles, and short manuscript descriptions.

How did we do it? Preservation, cataloguing and digitisation

Here at the British Library the digitisation and cataloguing workflows proceeded in tandem for almost two years, and were joined by the web curation workflow for the final year of the project. A conservator checked each manuscript before it was photographed and any necessary preservation work was performed to ensure that all manuscripts could be digitised safely. Two photographers, expert in handling rare manuscript material, worked for a year and a half to produce over 125,000 images. An imaging officer checked each image and processed them for display in two image viewers (Digitised Manuscripts and the IIIF compatible project viewer).

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One stage of the project team (left to right), front row: Emilia Henderson, Alison Ray, Tuija Ainonen, Jessica Pollard; back row: Clarck Drieshen, Carl Norman, Neil McCowlen; furthest back: Cristian Ispir.

All of the manuscripts were newly catalogued to include an up-to-date bibliography, the identification of texts and provenance, and descriptions of the artwork. Soon after the project began, the web curation joined the workflow, involving collaboration with a large number of external contractors, including article authors, a filmmaker, and a translator. Two project interns helped at various stages and gained valuable insight into the workings of a large international digitisation and curation project.

Team at the British Library

The Core team at the British Library (in alphabetical order): Tuija Ainonen (Project Curator and Manager), Calum Cockburn (Intern), Clarck Drieshen (Cataloguer), Andy Irving (Solutions Architect), Cristian Ispir (Cataloguer), Amy Jeffs (Intern), Neil McCowlen (Senior Imaging Technician), Laure Miolo (Cataloguer), Carl Norman (Senior Imaging Technician), Jessica Pollard (Conservator), Alison Ray (Imaging Officer and Curatorial Web Officer), and Kate Thomas (Imaging Officer).

Image1_BL_Labs_Staff_Award_Polonsky_team_winners
From left: David Sparling congratulating Tuija Ainonen, Kate Thomas, Cristian Ispir, Calum Cockburn, and Clarck Drieshen who accepted the BL Labs Staff Award 2018 on behalf of the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project team at the British Library.

In addition to these, many British Library staff members were involved at various stages of the delivery, and we wish to extend our gratitude to Jo Harrop, Lulu Paul, Mia Ridge, Nicolas Moretto and Sandra Tuppen who helped us to actualise and improve the technical workflows along the way. We wish to thank also Alison Hudson, Chantry Westwell, and Emilia Henderson who provided valuable content and comments at various stages of the project. Special thanks are due to the many staff members at the British Library who had the vision, gave their support and guided the team all along the way, and especially to the members of the internal and joint project boards of (in alphabetical order) Claire Breay, Michele Burton, Paul Clements, Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Gabrielle, Karl Harris, Kristian Jensen, Scot McKendrick, Cordelia Rogerson, and Ben Sanderson.

The project was made possible thanks to the vision and support of The Polonsky Foundation as part of its mission to provide and improve access to our shared cultural heritage.

Tuija Ainonen

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.

28 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Winner: 'Pocket Miscellanies'

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This guest blog is by the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award winner, Jonah Coman.

Pocket Miscellanies were born as a response to a cluster of problems posed by digitisation and access to medieval content. Medieval images are rarely seen by non-medievalists and members of the general public outside of meme-based content. Offline and analog, the medievalist has no freely-available tools to educate or illustrate to a non-specialist what their research is about. The digital and physical zines showcase close-reading snippets of the digitised medieval manuscripts held by the British Library, as well as over 70 other institutions.

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Figure 1. Leather binder with the first ten issues of Pocket Miscellanies. Photo © Eleanor May Baker.

Teaching and learning resource

The Pocket Miscellany choice of topics was selected to showcase the diversity of human representation in medieval manuscripts. This project is as political as it is educational. The first ten little volumes (#1 Adam, #2 Eve, #3 Temptation by the Snake, #4 Sex, #5 Sodom, #6 Trans bodies, #7 People of colour, #8 Racism #9 Disability and #10 Mobility aids) set up the political project of this ongoing collection, concentrating on disenfranchised communities, such as people of colour, LGBTQ people and disability in medieval visual culture. To date, there are ten published zines, but the project is expanded to include over 80 topics to be gradually released in the future.

The Pocket Miscellanies are distributed both online and offline as pocket-sized concertina books (usually distributed as collections), so that learners from different communities outwith most obvious user groups (researchers, teachers, educators) gain access to digital content provided by national, regional and university libraries with comprehensive medieval digital content.

Publication DIY: online and offline

From a feminist medievalist position, the format of the zine was the obvious choice for distributable political scholarship. Zines (short from magazines) are DIY radical publications that elide strictures of book publishing. Zine distribution models rely on sharing via social interaction: a zine can be a reminder of a discussion or political statement. Zines democratise knowledge that mainstream works might be afraid to tackle, or might be suppressed by mainstream publication systems concerned with sales rather than radical ideas. The small, folded formats native to zines are also reminiscent to the materiality and physical formats of medieval and early modern books created for English readers, such as the Sarum books of hours and the folding almanac.

The Pocket Miscellanies have two pathways to impact: the digital version has been shared with medievalist and historian teachers and educators via the Issuu publication platform, garnering nearly a thousand unique readers in the months they have been online. The paper copy, of very small size, can and was distributed at conferences (Bodies Ignored in Leeds, Permeable Bodies in London), other public events (Edinburgh Pride, Glasgow and Dundee Zine Fest, Edinburgh book art and comic book conventions) and to non-specialists in casual conversation. Over 3000 paper copies were printed and distributed for free since August. Both of these impact pathways have the advantage of accessibility - they are quick-and-dirty guides for non-specialists to learn about the most common depictions of a specific motif – as well as a history within DIY teaching community.

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Figure 2. Poster and zine display at the BL Labs Symposium, 11 Nov 2018. Photo © Ash.

The online version of the zines links to the digitised source hosted on the library’s own website, and is easily editable/correctable. After the initial publication of the online zines. Due to their digital form, each individual zine is permanently undergoing improvement via the open loop of online feedback and consumption facilitated by Twitter and Issuu. I use crowd-sourced information about the specific themes and amended the content to reflect spearheading scholarship in the field - information that has not been published yet, nor, sometimes, may be published in the future. This way, state-of-the-art research can be integrated in a quick publication and distribution circuit. 

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Figure 3. Screenshot from the Issuu.com/MxComan online library.

The paper copies are easily distributable in offline, analog spaces and provide a physical token of the learning experience. I use an independent publishing method historically widespread in queer communities, the zine, to create an analog version to 'viral content'. Zines are bricolage-fuelled, cheaply-printed, freely distributed and easily discarded methods of teaching and information. Using the independent publishing medium of the zine I created small chapbooks that can be printed at home, mixed and shared, carried in a pocket and left in community spaces and flier racks.

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Figure 4. A bundle of the ten original zines. Photo (c) Ana Hine.

Rip-and-mix: how copyright can the enemy of knowledge

Working with digitised content from tens of libraries across the world has proved frustrating because of the diversity of copyright policies. Modern libraries and research centres have a lot of power as gatekeepers of historical material. Texts and images that would be long out of copyright (virtually anything produced in the middle ages) is protected by many institutions under copy rights, prohibiting (esp. commercial) reproduction. This affects what images researchers choose to present to wider public; most academic publications will never be able to include the amount of colour illustrations that the self-published zine format allows. The collaborative and radical DIY ethics of zine-making allows Pocket Miscellanies to be a disruptive alternative to mainstream publication industry, bringing cutting-edge research in print (and full-colour illustration) right now, at very small costs and an extremely agile pace.

The whole issue of copyright is where zines have been historically and still are so radical. Reproduction rights are different than publication rights; strict reproduction and redistribution rights are essentially violated by any dissemination of an image anywhere else but on its origin website. Attaching a ‘medieval reaction’ image to a tweet or Facebook post, as well as pining it on a Pinterest board, are essentially in violation with the most museums’ and auction houses’ extremely strict CC-BY-NC-ND+ rules. On the other side, 'publication' rights are eschewed by zines since, technically, zines are not publications. Unlike magazines, journals or books, zines do not have ISBNs, cannot count towards REFs etc so are essentially outlaws in terms of publication rights. Unlike mainstream publications, zines are predicated on anarchist, bootleg, rip-and-mix aesthetic.

The Pocket Miscellany zines posed hard choices: do I follow the anarchic, disruptive and historically radical tradition of the zine, and use any digitised image that I can find, disregarding the copyright statements and challenging the hegemonical hold institutions have over historical images via aberrant legalities, or do I create a series of zines only with images obtained by legitimate venues, choosing academic strictures for the advantage of being able to share them far and wide without breaking copyright terms? In the end, the content of the zines, showing collections of the same visual motif in a context of continuity, dictated my choice: having as varied examples of one image as possible was more important than being able to sell these zines in bookshops and gift-shops. At the same time, I chose to only use images that are ok to use in a non-commercial capacity, so none from libraries with ‘non-derivatives’ policies. These choices (half-punk, half-tame) made selling these zines in any form and at any price point impossible, so their production relies on donations

The Pocket Miscellanies are an ongoing project. As I mentioned, I have over 80 topics planned, and half a dozen collaborations in the works. If you would want to share your expertise on a specific topic, please get in touch via Twitter @MxComan; if you want to support the project, as well as get your hands on some paper goodies, you can do so on Patreon. If you are organising a conference and you want to distribute any of the zines related to the conference, or even better, have me deliver an impact, public engagement and zine-making workshop at your conference, get in touch and we can discuss it further.

Watch Jonah receiving the winning award for Teaching and Learning, and talking about Pocket Miscellanies on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 10.32):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.

30 December 2017

The Flitch of Bacon: An Unexpected Journey Through the Collections of the British Library

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Digital Curator Dr. Mia Ridge writes: we're excited to feature this guest post from an In the Spotlight participant. Edward Mills is a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on Anglo-Norman didactic literature. He also runs his own (somewhat sporadic) blog, ‘Anglo-Normantics’, and can be found Tweeting, rather more frequently, at @edward_mills.

Many readers of [Edward's] blog will doubtless be familiar with the work being done by the Digital Scholarship team, of which one particularly remarkable example is the ‘In the Spotlight‘ project. The idea behind the project, for anyone who may have missed it, is absolutely fascinating: to create crowd-sourced transcriptions of part of the Library’s enormous collection of playbills. The part of the project that I’ve been most involved with so far is concerned with titles, and it’s a two-part process; first, the title is identified out of the (numerous) lines of text on the page, and once this has been verified by multiple volunteers, it is then fed back into the database as an item for transcription.

PlaybillsPizarro
In the Spotlight interface

Often, though, the titles alone are more than sufficient to pique my interest. One such intriguing morsel came to light during a recent transcribing stint, when I found myself faced with a title that raised even more questions than Love, Law, & Physic:

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Playbill for a performance of The Flitch of Bacon

In my day-job, I’m actually a medievalist, which meant that any play entitled The Flitch of Bacon was bound to pique my interest. The ‘flitch’ refers to an ancient – and certainly medieval –  custom in Dunmow, Essex, wherein couples who could prove that they had never once regretted their marriage in a year and a day would be awarded a ‘flitch’ (side) of bacon in recognition of their fidelity. I first came across the custom of these ‘flitch trials’ while watching an episode of the excellent Citation Needed podcast, and was intrigued to learn from there that references to the trials existed as far back as Chaucer (more on which later). The trials have an unbroken tradition stretching back centuries, and videos from 1925, 1952 and 2012 go some way towards demonstrating their continuing popularity. What the British Library project revealed, however, was that the flitch also served as the driver for artistic creation in its own right. A little bit of digging revealed that the libretto to the 1776 Flitch of Bacon farce has been digitised as part of the British Library’s own collections, and the lyrics are every bit as spectacular as one might expect them to be.

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Rev. Henry Bate, The Flitch of Bacon: A Comic Opera in Two Acts (London: T. Evans, 1779), p. 24.

So far, so … unique. But, of course, the medievalist that dwells deep within me couldn’t resist digging into the history of the tradition, and once again the British Library’s collections came up trumps. The official website for the Dunmow Flitch Trials (because of course such a thing exists) proudly asserts that ‘a reference … can even be found within Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales‘, which of course can easily be checked with a quick skim through the Library’s wonderful catalogue of digitised manuscripts. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue opens with the titular wife describing her attitude towards her first three husbands, whom she ‘hadde […] hoolly in myn honde’. She keeps them so busy that they soon come to regret their marriage to her, forfeiting their right to ‘the bacoun …that som men fecche in Essex an Donmowe’ in the process:

image from https://s3.amazonaws.com/feather-client-files-aviary-prod-us-east-1/2017-12-21/8e410cff-7b1c-4413-ae03-635c2f58fac9.png
‘The bacoun was nought fet for hem I trowe / That som men fecche in Essex an Donmowe’. From the Wife of Bath’s Tale (British Library, MS Harley 7334, fol. 89r).

Chaucer’s reference to the flitch custom is frequently taken, along with William Langland’s allusion in Piers Plowman to couples who ‘do hem to Donemowe […] To folwe for the fliche’, to be the earliest reference to the tradition that can be found in English literature. Once again, though, the British Library’s collections can help us to put this particular statement to the test; as you’ve probably guessed by now, they show that there is indeed an earlier reference to the custom waiting to be found.

Baconanglonorman

Our source for this precocious French-language reference is MS Harley 4657. Like many surviving medieval manuscripts, this codex is often described as a ‘miscellany’: that is, a collection of shorter works brought together into a single volume. In the case of Harley 4657, the book appears to have been designed as a coherent whole, with the texts copied together at around the same time and sharing quires with each other; this is perhaps explained by the fact that the texts contained within it are all devotional and didactic in nature. (Miscellanies that were, by contrast, put together at a later date are known as recueils factices – another useful term, along with the ‘flitch of bacon’, to slip into conversation with friends and family members.) The bulk of the book is taken up by the Manuel des pechez, a guide to confession that was later translated into English by Robert Manning as Handling Synne. It’s in this text that the flitch custom makes an appearance, as part of a description of how many couples do not deserve any recompense for loyalty on account of their mutual mistrust (fol. 21):

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04 August 2017

BL Labs Awards (2017): enter before midnight Wednesday 11th October!

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of of British Library Labs.

The BL Labs Awards formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been created using the British Library’s digital collections and data.

The closing date for entering the BL Labs Awards (2017) is midnight BST on Wednesday 11th October. Submit your entry, and help us spread the word to all interested parties over the next few months or so. This will ensure we have another year of fantastic digital-based projects highlighted by the Awards!

This year, BL Labs is commending work in four key areas:

  • Research - A project or activity which shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Commercial - An activity that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the Library's digital content.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour which inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Teaching / Learning - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.

After the submission deadline of midnight BST on Wednesday 11th October for entering the BL Labs Awards has past, the entries will be shortlisted. Selected shortlisted entrants will be notified via email by midnight BST on Friday 20th October 2017. 

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and £100 to the runner up of each Awards category at the BL Labs Symposium on 30th October 2017 at the British Library, St Pancras, London.

The talent of the BL Labs Awards winners and runners up over the last two years has led to the production of a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects. In 2016, the Awards commended work in four main categories – Research, Artistic, Commercial and Teaching & Learning:

  • Research category Award (2016) winner: 'Scissors and Paste', by M. H. Beals. Scissors and Paste utilises the 1800-1900 digitised British Library Newspapers, collection to explore the possibilities of mining large-scale newspaper databases for reprinted and repurposed news content.
  • Artistic Award (2016) winner: 'Hey There, Young Sailor', written and directed by Ling Low with visual art by Lyn Ong. Hey There, Young Sailor combines live action with animation, hand-drawn artwork and found archive images to tell a love story set at sea. The video draws on late 19th century and early 20th century images from the British Library's Flickr collection for its collages and tableaux and was commissioned by Malaysian indie folk band The Impatient Sisters and independently produced by a Malaysian and Indonesian team.
BL Labs Award Winners 2016
Image: 'Scissors and Paste', by M. H. Beals (Top-left)
'Curating Digital Collections to Go Mobile', by Mitchell Davis; (Top-right)
 'Hey There, Young Sailor',
written and directed by Ling Low with visual art by Lyn Ong; (Bottom-left)
'Library Carpentry', founded by James Baker and involving the international Library Carpentry team;
(Bottom-right) 
  • Commercial Award (2016) winner: 'Curating Digital Collections to Go Mobile', by Mitchell Davis. BiblioBoard, is an award-winning e-Content delivery platform, and online curatorial and multimedia publishing tools to support it to make it simple for subject area experts to create visually stunning multi-media exhibits for the web and mobile devices without any technical expertise, the example used a collection of digitised 19th Century books.
  • Teaching and Learning (2016) winner: 'Library Carpentry', founded by James Baker and involving the international Library Carpentry team. Library Carpentry is software skills training aimed at the needs and requirements of library professionals taking the form of a series of modules that are available online for self-directed study or for adaption and reuse by library professionals in face-to-face workshops using British Library data / collections. Library Carpentry is in the commons and for the commons: it is not tied to any institution or person. For more information, see http://librarycarpentry.github.io/.
  • Jury’s Special Mention Award (2016): 'Top Geo-referencer -Maurice Nicholson' . Maurice leads the effort to Georeference over 50,000 maps that were identified through Flickr Commons, read more about his work here.

For further information about BL Labs or our Awards, please contact us at labs@bl.uk.

16 December 2016

Re-imagining a catalogue of illuminated manuscripts - from search to browse

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In this guest post, Thomas Evans discusses his work with Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge to re-imagine the interface to the British Library's popular Online Catalogue of Illuminated manuscripts.

The original Catalogue was built using an Access 2003 database, and allows users to create detailed searches from amongst 20 fields (such as date, title, origin, and decoration) or follow 'virtual exhibitions' to view manuscripts. Search-based interfaces can be ideal for specialists who already know what they're looking for, but the need to think of a search term likely to yield interesting results can be an issue for people unfamiliar with a catalogue. 'Generous interfaces' are designed as rich, browsable experiences that highlight the scope and composition of a particular collection by loading the page with images linked to specific items or further categories. Mia asked Thomas to apply faceted browsing and 'generous' styles to help first-time visitors discover digitised illuminated manuscripts. In this post Thomas explains the steps he took to turn the catalogue data supplied into a more 'generous' browsing interface. An archived version of his interface is available on the Internet Archive.

With over 4,300 manuscripts, written in a variety of languages and created in countries across Europe over a period of about a thousand years, the British Library's collection of illuminated manuscripts contains a diverse treasure trove of information and imagery for both the keen enthusiast and the total novice.

As the final project for my Masters in Computer Science at UCL, I worked with the British Library to design and start to implement alternative ways of exploring the collection. This project had some constraints in time, knowledge and resources. The final deadline for submission was only four months after receiving the project outline and the success of the project rested on the knowledge, experience and research of a fresh-faced rookie (me) using whatever tools I had the wherewithal to cobble together (open source software running on a virtual machine server hosted by UCL).

Rather than showing visitors an empty search box when they first arrive, a generous interface will show them everything available. However, taken literally, displaying 'everything' means details for over 4,300 manuscripts and around 40,000 images would have to be displayed on one page. While this approach would offer visitors a way to explore the entire catalogue, it could be quite unwieldy.

One way to reduce the number of manuscripts loaded onto the screen is to allow visitors to filter out some items, for example limiting the 'date' field to between 519 and 927 or the 'region' field to England. This is 'faceted' browsing, and it makes exploration more manageable. Presenting the list of available values for region or language, etc., also gives you a sense of the collection's diversity. It also means that 'quirky' members of the collection are less likely to be overlooked.

Screenshot of filters in Thomas CIM interface II
An example of 'date' facets providing an instant overview of the temporal range of the Catalogue

For example, if you were to examine 30 random manuscripts from the British Library's collection, you might find 20 written in Latin, three each in French and English, and perhaps one each in Greek, Hebrew or Italian. You would almost certainly miss that the Catalogue contains a manuscript written in Cornish, another in Portuguese and another in Icelandic. These languages might be of interest precisely because they are hard to come by in the British Library's catalogue. Listing all the available languages (as well as their frequencies) exposes the exceptional parts of the collection where an unfaceted generous interface would hide them in plain sight.

Once I understood the project's goals and completed some high-level planning and design sketches, it was time to get to grips with implementation. Being fairly inexperienced, I found some tasks took much longer than expected. A few examples which stick in the mind are properly configuring the web server, debugging errant server-side scripts (which have a habit of failing either silently or with an unhelpful error message) and transforming Library's database into a form which I could use.

Being the work of many hands over the years, the database inevitably contained some tiny differences in the way entries were recorded, which Mia informs me is not uncommon for a long-standing database in a collecting institution. These small inconsistencies - for example, the use of an en-dash in some cases and a hyphen in others - look fine to us, but confuse a computer. I worked around these where I could, 'cleaning' the records only when I was certain of my correction.

Being new to web design, I built the interface iteratively, component by component, consulting periodically with Mia for feedback. Thankfully, frameworks exist for responsive web design and page templating. Nevertheless, there was a small learning curve and some thought was required to properly separate application logic from presentation logic.

There were some ambitions for the project which were ultimately not pursued due to time (and knowledge!) constraints, but this iterative process made other improvements possible over the course of my project. To make exploration of the catalogue easier, the page listing a manuscript's details also contained links to related manuscripts. For instance, Ioannes Rhosos is attributed as the scribe of Harley 5699, so, on that manuscript's page, users could click on his name to see a list of all manuscripts by him. They could then apply further filters if desired. This made links between manuscripts much more clear than the old interface, but it is limited to direct links which were explicitly recorded in the database.

An example of a relevant feature not explicitly recorded in the database is genre - only by reading manuscript descriptions can you determine whether it is religious, historical, medical etc. in its subject matter. Two possible techniques for revealing such features were considered: applying natural language processing to manuscript descriptions in order to classify them, or analysing data about which manuscripts were viewed by which users to build a recommendation system. Both of these turned out to require more in-depth knowledge than I was able to acquire within the time limit of the project.

I enjoyed working out how to transform all the possible inputs to the webpage into queries which could be run against the database, dealing with missing/invalid inputs by providing appropriate defaults etc. There was a quiet satisfaction to be had when tests of the interface went well - seeing something work and thinking 'I made that!'. It was also a pleasure to work with data about such an engaging topic.

Hopefully, this project will have proved that exploration of British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has the potential to become a richer experience. Relationships between manuscripts which are currently not widely known could be revealed to more visitors and, if the machine learning techniques were to be implemented, perhaps new relationships would be revealed and related manuscripts could be recommended. My project showed the potential for applying new computational methods to better reveal the character of collections and connections between their elements. Although the interface I delivered has some way to go before it can achieve this goal, I earnestly hope that it is a first step in that direction.

Thomas' Catalogue interface
Thomas' Catalogue interface

28 January 2016

Book Now! Nottingham @BL_Labs Roadshow event - Wed 3 Feb (12.30pm-4pm)

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Do you live in or near Nottingham and are you available on Wednesday 3 Feb between 1230 - 1600? Come along to the FREE UK @BL_Labs Roadshow event at GameCity and The National Video Game Arcade, Nottingham (we have some places left and booking is essential for anyone interested).

 

BL Labs Roadshow in Nottingham - Wed 3 Feb (1200 - 1600)
BL Labs Roadshow at GameCity and The National Video Game Arcade, Nottingham, hosted by the Digital Humanities and Arts (DHA) Praxis project based at the University of Nottingham, Wed 3 Feb (1230 - 1600)
  • Discover the digital collections the British Library has, understand some of the challenges of using them and even take some away with you.
  • Learn how researchers found and revived forgotten Victorian jokes and Political meetings from our digital archives.
  • Understand how special games and computer code have been developed to help tag un-described images and make new art.
  • Find out about a tool that links digitised handwritten manuscripts to transcribed texts and one that creates statistically representative samples from the British Library’s book collections.
  • Consider how the intuitions of a DJ could be used to mix and perform the Library's digital collections.
  • Talk to Library staff about how you might use some of the Library's digital content innovatively.
  • Get advice, pick up tips and feedback on your ideas and projects for the 2016 BL Labs Competition (deadline 11 April) and Awards (deadline 5 September). 

Our hosts are the Digital Humanities and Arts (DHA) Praxis project at the University of Nottingham who are kindly providing food and refreshments and will be talking about two amazing projects they have been involved in:

ArtMaps: putting the Tate Collection on the map project
ArtMaps: Putting the Tate Collection on the map

Dr Laura Carletti will be talking about the ArtMaps project which is getting the public to accurately tag the locations of the Tate's 70,000 artworks.

The 'Wander Anywhere' free mobile app developed by Dr Benjamin Bedwell.
The 'Wander Anywhere' free mobile app developed by Dr Benjamin Bedwell.

Dr Benjamin Bedwell, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham will talk about the free mobile app he developed called 'Wander Anywhere'.  The mobile software offers users new ways to experience art, culture and history by guiding them to locations where it downloads stories intersecting art, local history, architecture and anecdotes on their mobile device relevant to where they are.

For more information, a detailed programme and to book your place, visit the Labs and Digital Humanities and Arts Praxis Workshop event page.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

The BL Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

27 January 2016

Come to our first @BL_Labs Roadshow event at #citylis London Mon 1 Feb (5pm-7.30pm)

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Labs Roadshow at #citylis London, Mon 1 Feb (5pm-7.30pm)

Live in or near North-East London and are available on Monday 1 Feb between 1700 - 1930? Come along to the first FREE UK Labs Roadshow event of 2016 (we have a few places left and booking is essential for anyone interested) and:

#citylis London BL Labs London Roadshow Event Mon 1 Feb (1730 - 1930)
#citylis at the Department for Information ScienceCity University London,
the first BL Labs Roadshow event Mon 1 Feb (1700 - 1930)
  • Discover the digital collections the British Library has, understand some of the challenges of using them and even take some away with you.
  • Learn how researchers found and revived forgotten Victorian jokes and Political meetings from our digital archives.
  • Understand how special games and computer code have been developed to help tag un-described images and make new art.
  • Talk to Library staff about how you might use some of the Library's digital content innovatively.
  • Get advice, pick up tips and feedback on your ideas and projects for the 2016 BL Labs Competition (deadline 11 April) and Awards (deadline 5 September). 

Our first hosts are the Department for Information Science (#citylis) at City University London. #citylis have kindly organised some refreshments, nibbles and also an exciting student discussion panel about their experiences of working on digital projects at the British Library, who are:

#citylis student panel  Top-left, Ludi Price and Top-right, Dimitra Charalampidou Bottom-left, Alison Pope and Bottom-right, Daniel van Strien
#citylis student panel.
Top-left, Ludi Price 
Top-right, Dimitra Charalampidou
Bottom-left, Alison Pope
Bottom-right, Daniel van Strien

For more information, a detailed programme and to book your place (essential), visit the BL Labs Workshop at #citylis event page.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

The BL Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

22 January 2016

BL Labs Competition and Awards for 2016

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Today the Labs team is launching the fourth annual Competition and Awards for 2016. Please help us spread the word by tweeting, re-blogging, and telling anyone who might be interested!

British Library Labs Competition 2016

The annual Competition is looking for transformative project ideas which use the British Library’s digital collections and data in new and exciting ways. Two Labs Competition finalists will be selected to work 'in residence' with the BL Labs team between May and early November 2016, where they will get expert help, access to the Library’s resources and financial support to realise their projects.

Winners will receive a first prize of £3000 and runners up £1000 courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Labs Symposium on 7th November 2016 at the British Library in London where they will showcase their work.

The deadline for entering is midnight British Summer Time (BST) on 11th April 2016.

Labs Competition winners from previous years have produced an amazing range of creative and innovative projects. For example:

(Top-left)  Adam Crymble's Crowdsource Arcade (Bottom-left) Katrina Navickas' Political Meetings Mapper and (Right) Bob Nicholson's Mechanical Comedian.
(Top-left) Adam Crymble's Crowdsource Arcade and some specially developed games to help with tagging images
(Bottom-left) Katrina Navickas' Political Meetings Mapper and a photo from a Chartist re-enactment 
(Right) Bob Nicholson's Mechanical Comedian

A further range of inspiring and creative ideas have been submitted in previous years and some have been developed further.

British Library Labs Awards 2016

The annual Awards, introduced in 2015, formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been carried out using the British Library’s digital collections and data. This year, they will be commending work in four key areas:

  • Research - A project or activity which shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Commercial - An activity that delivers or develops commercial value in the context of new products, tools, or services that build on, incorporate, or enhance the Library's digital content.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour which inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Teaching / Learning - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and £100 for the runner up for each category at the Labs Symposium on 7th November 2016 at the British Library in London, again courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The deadline for entering is midnight BST on 5th September 2016.

The Awards winners for 2015 produced a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects in  Research, Creative/Artistic, Entrepreneurship categories and a special Jury's prize:

(Top-left) Spatial Humanities research group at the University Lancaster,  (Top-right) A computer generated work of art, part of  'The Order of Things' by Mario Klingemann,  (Bottom-left) A bow tie made by Dina Malkova  and (Bottom-right) work on Geo-referenced maps at the British Library that James Heald is still involved in.
(Top-left) Spatial Humanities research group at the University Lancaster plotting mentions of disease in newspapers on a map in Victorian times,
(Top-right) A computer generated work of art, part of 'The Order of Things' by Mario Klingemann,
(Bottom-left) A bow tie made by Dina Malkova inspired by a digitised original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland
(Bottom-right) Work on Geo-referencing maps discovered from a collection of digitised books at the British Library that James Heald is still involved in.
  • Research: “Representation of disease in 19th century newspapers” by the Spatial Humanities research group at Lancaster University analysed the British Library's digitised London based newspaper, The Era through innovative and varied selections of qualitative and quantitative methods in order to determine how, when and where the Victorian era discussed disease.
  • Creative / Artistic:  “The Order of Things” by Mario Klingemann involved the use of semi-automated image classification and machine learning techniques in order to add meaningful tags to the British Library’s one million Flickr Commons images, creating thematic collections as well as new works of art.
  • Entrepreneurship: “Redesigning Alice” by Dina Malkova produced a range of bow ties and other gift products inspired by the incredible illustrations from a digitised British Library original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground by Lewis Carroll and sold them through the Etsy platform and in the Alice Pop up shop at the British Library in London.
  • Jury's Special Mention: Indexing the BL 1 million and Mapping the Maps by volunteer James Heald describes both the work he has led and his collaboration with others to produce an index of 1 million 'Mechanical Curator collection' images on Wikimedia Commons from the British Library Flickr Commons images. This gave rise to finding 50,000 maps within this collection partially through a map-tag-a-thon which are now being geo-referenced.

A further range of inspiring work has been carried out with the British Library's digital content and collections.

If you are thinking of entering, please make sure you visit our Competition and Awards archive pages for further details.

Finally, if you have a specific question that can't be answered through these pages, feel free to contact us at labs@bl.uk, or why not come to one of the 'BL Labs Roadshow 2016' UK events we have scheduled between February and April 2016 to learn more about our digital collections and discuss your ideas?

We really look forward to reading your entries!

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs.

The British Library Labs project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.