THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

15 posts categorized "Medieval history"

11 November 2020

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

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs

The BL Labs team are pleased to announce that the eighth annual British Library Labs Symposium 2020 will be held on Tuesday 15 December 2020, from 13:45 - 16:55* (see note below) online. The event is FREE, but you must book a ticket in advance to reserve your place. Last year's event was the largest we have ever held, so please don't miss out and book early, see more information here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can follow Ruth on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

19 October 2020

The 2020 British Library Labs Staff Award - Nominations Open!

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Looking for entries now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 September 2020

Digital geographical narratives with Knight Lab’s StoryMap

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Visualising the journey of a manuscript’s creation

Working for the Qatar Digital Library (QDL), I recently catalogued British Library oriental manuscript 2361, a musical compendium copied in Mughal India during the reign of Aurangzeb (1618-1707; ruled from 1658). The QDL is a British Library-Qatar Foundation collaborative project to digitise and share Gulf-related archival records, maps and audio recordings as well as Arabic scientific manuscripts.

Portrait of Aurangzeb on a horse
Figure 1: Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb. Mughal, c. 1660-70. British Library, Johnson Album, 3.4. Public domain.

The colophons to Or. 2361 fourteen texts contain an unusually large – but jumbled-up – quantity of information about the places and dates it was copied and checked, revealing that it was largely created during a journey taken by the imperial court in 1663.

Example of handwritten bibliographic information: Colophon to the copy of Kitāb al-madkhal fī al-mūsīqī by al-Fārābī
Figure 2: Colophon to the copy of Kitāb al-madkhal fī al-mūsīqī by al-Fārābī, transcribed in Delhi, 3 Jumādá I, 1073 hijrī/14 December 1662 CE, and checked in Lahore, 22 Rajab 1073/2 March 1663. Or. 2361, f. 240r.

Seeking to make sense of the mass of bibliographic information and unpick the narrative of the manuscript’s creation, I recorded all this data in a spreadsheet. This helped to clarify some patterns- but wasn’t fun to look at! To accompany an Asian and African Studies blog post, I wanted to find an interactive digital tool to develop the visual and spatial aspects of the story and convey the landscapes and distances experienced by the manuscript’s scribes and patron during its mobile production.

Screen shot of a spreadsheet of copy data for Or. 2361 showing information such as dates, locations, scribes etc.
Figure 3: Dull but useful spreadsheet of copy data for Or. 2361.

Many fascinating digital tools can present large datasets, including map co-ordinates. However, I needed to retell a linear, progressive narrative with fewer data points. Inspired by a QNF-BL colleague’s work on Geoffrey Prior’s trip to Muscat, I settled on StoryMap, one of an expanding suite of open-source reporting, data management, research, and storytelling tools developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University, USA.

 

StoryMap: Easy but fiddly

Requiring no coding ability, the back-end of this free, easy-to-use tool resembles PowerPoint. The user creates a series of slides to which text, images, captions and copyright information can be added. Links to further online media, such as the millions of images published on the QDL, can easily be added.

Screen shot of someone editing in StoryMap
Figure 4: Back-end view of StoryMap's authoring tool.

The basic incarnation of StoryMap is accessed via an author interface which is intuitive and clear, but has its quirks. Slide layouts can’t be varied, and image manipulation must be completed pre-upload, which can get fiddly. Text was faint unless entirely in bold, especially against a backdrop image. A bug randomly rendered bits of uploaded text as hyperlinks, whereas intentional hyperlinks are not obvious.

 

The mapping function

StoryMap’s most interesting feature is an interactive map that uses OpenStreetMap data. Locations are inputted as co-ordinates, or manually by searching for a place-name or dropping a pin. This geographical data links together to produce an overview map summarised on the opening slide, with subsequent views zooming to successive locations in the journey.

Screen shot showing a preview of StoryMap with location points dropped on a world map
Figure 5: StoryMap summary preview showing all location points plotted.

I had to add location data manually as the co-ordinates input function didn’t work. Only one of the various map styles suited the historical subject-matter; however its modern street layout felt contradictory. The ‘ideal’ map – structured with global co-ordinates but correct for a specific historical moment – probably doesn’t exist (one for the next project?).

Screen shot of a point dropped on a local map, showing modern street layout
Figure 6: StoryMap's modern street layout implies New Delhi existed in 1663...

With clearly signposted advanced guidance, support forum, and a link to a GitHub repository, more technically-minded users could take StoryMap to the next level, not least in importing custom maps via Mapbox. Alternative platforms such as Esri’s Classic Story Maps can of course also be explored.

However, for many users, Knight Lab StoryMap’s appeal will lie in its ease of usage and accessibility; it produces polished, engaging outputs quickly with a bare minimum of technical input and is easy to embed in web-text or social media. Thanks to Knight Lab for producing this free tool!

See the finished StoryMap, A Mughal musical miscellany: The journey of Or. 2361.

 

This is a guest post by Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator from the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. You can follow the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership on Twitter at @BLQatar.

03 October 2019

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

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 April 2019

BL Labs 2018 Commercial Award Winner: 'The Library Collection'

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This guest blog post is by the team led by fashion designer, Nabil Nayal - winner of the BL Labs Commercial Award for 2018 - for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection, presented at the 2018 London Fashion Week.

Fashion models posing in room set
Nabil Nayal's SS19 Collection: fashion shoot at the British Library

The Nabil Nayal SS19 collection (The Library Collection) made history by becoming the first fashion show, on the official London Fashion Week schedule, to be hosted at the iconic British Library. The British Library’s digital archives deeply informed the collection. The Tilbury Speech, delivered by Queen Elizabeth I ahead of the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588, was central to the use of print, as were other manuscripts, digitised images, maps and hymn sheets from the era. The collection encapsulates Nabil’s obsession with Elizabethan craftsmanship, whilst symbolising the power and strength of a woman who succeeded in bringing England into its Golden Age.

Nabil undertook historical research in the British Library for his PhD on Elizabethan dress, so the opportunity to collaborate with the Library in order to emphasise the importance of research in fashion education and practice was something he felt passionately about doing. Paying particular attention to the Library’s Elizabethan and Medieval Manuscripts archives, Nabil conducted his research with guidance from expert curators and with support from the Reading Room staff. Using key word search terms and date limitations to search through the digitised archives was particularly useful to find historically accurate documents to incorporate into the collection.

fashion model posing in manuscript inspired design
Nabil's design takes inspiration from the British Library's digitised 1588 manuscript of Queen Elizabeth I's 'Tilbury Speech'  © Nabil Nayal 2018

Elizabethan silhouettes were modernised in this collection by printing these manuscripts onto Nabil’s designs, including a three-metre-long cloak featuring the Tilbury Speech. A UK-based supplier, Silk Bureau, digitally printed the archival material on to a range of fine silks and cottons, which were then used to make garments within the collection. Nabil’s love of the classic white shirt was further explored too, offering a puritan backdrop that ‘whitewashes’ the complex hand-cut embellishments made of bonded poplins and marcella.

The designs in the SS19 collection have been sold to prestigious international stores such as Dover Street Market and Joyce and the collection will be launching exclusively in Selfridges this May (2019). The presentation also generated a huge response in key press and social media, including coverage in Vogue.

5 models posing on the catwalk
Nabil's Elizabethan-inspired designs at the BL Fashion Shoot © Nabil Nayal 2018

Nabil’s interest in promoting historical research within fashion was not limited to this collection. Currently, the brand is working with Collette Taylor of Vega Associates to continue to raise awareness of the potential of the Library’s collections to inspire the next generation of fashion researchers. Nabil held a Research Masterclass at the British Library in November 2018 to work with emerging designers as part of a fashion research competition to develop a capsule collection inspired by the Library’s collections.

This collaboration between Nabil Nayal and the British Library highlights the importance of design education and research for the future-proofing and continued success of UK creative industries, which is a pressing issue. Since 2010, there has been a 34% drop in GCSE entries across the arts, despite the fact that the UK fashion industry supports over 880,000 jobs and delivered a direct contribution of £28 billion to the UK economy in 2015. The wealth of free resources at the British Library provides ample opportunity for design students to explore how education and research can enrich their creativity and allow them to succeed within the fashion industry.

Nabil’s work has received praise from the late Karl Lagerfeld and celebrities such as Rihanna, Lorde and Florence Welch. His SS19 collection epitomises the way that the use of archival research within fashion can generate commercial success, suggesting that the ever-changing fashion industry can benefit from becoming more historically informed and that modernity can be evoked through an interest in the past.

Watch Jennifer Davies receiving the Commercial award on behalf of Nabil's team, and talking about the collection on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 7.26): 

You can read other blogs about Nabil Nayal at London Fashion Week and the fashion show at the British Library, and if you're feel inspired, use the British Library's online Fashion resources.

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.

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.

Image2_BnF MS Latin 8846  f001v
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.

Image3_Cotton MS Caligula A XIV f022r
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.

Image6_Curated_Website_Medieval_England_and_France
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).

Image7_Polonsky-Team Feb 2018
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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

#PolonskyPre1200

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with 
BNF logo

 

 

Supported by
Polonsky Foundation Logo

 

 

 

Watch the Polonsky England and France Project team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 15:05):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital cotent 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.

PocketMisc fig 1

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.

PocketMisc fig 2

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. 

PocketMisc fig 3

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.

PocketMisc fig 4

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.

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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:

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‘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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