THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

25 posts categorized "Modern history"

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

14 June 2019

Palestine Open Maps mapathon: follow up and data usage experiments

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This guest post is by Majd Al-Shihabi, he is a systems design engineer and urban planning graduate student at the American University of Beirut. He is the inaugural recipient of the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship. You can find him on Twitter as @majdal.

 

Last Saturday, the British Library hosted a mapathon run by Palestine Open Maps team to vectorise the map content of 155 maps made at 1:20,000 scale by the British Mandate of Palestine.

Before the mapathon itself, I visited the maps collection at the Library, and after working with the maps for almost two years, I finally saw the original maps in physical form.

About 35 mappers participated in the mapathon, and they vectorised content covering most of historic Palestine. The flashing features in the animation below are the ones created through the mapathon.

View post on imgur.com

They include hundreds of features, including cisterns, schools, police stations, places of worship, parts of the road network, residential areas, and more.

Some of the features, such as towns, had Wikipedia articles and Wikidata items, which we linked to the map data as well.

Often, we are asked, what happens with the data that we produce through those mapathons? First and foremost, it is available for download here, under an Open Data Commons Attribution License.

The data is already being used by other projects. For example, Ahmad Barclay, a partner in the Palestine Open Maps project, has collaborated with the Palestinian Oral History Archive, to map all landmarks mentioned in testimonies by Palestinians recounting life in Palestine before the 1948 Nakba. The result is a map that serves as a spatial way of navigating oral history. View the map here.

 

19 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Runner Up: 'Pocahontas and After'

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This guest blog is by Border Crossing, the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award Runners Up, for their project, 'Pocahontas and After'.

Two images, each showing two young women, one from 1907, one 2018

Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self. The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon. The second was taken in 2018 by John Cobb at Marlborough Primary School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister. It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, which was recently honoured in the British Library’s Labs Teaching and Learning category. The exhibition - which was seen by more than 20,000 people at Syon House last summer, and goes to St Andrews in February - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the 2017 ORIGINS Festival. During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers. In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners worked closely with heritage experts from the archives (including the British Library’s own Dr. Philip Hatfield), Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.

Their journeys into the archives were rich and challenging. What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turned out to be nothing of the kind. Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll. In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.

Old photograph showing group of Native American men wearing traditional clothing driving in a car

Young boy in African dress in front of London Underground sign holding a toy bus

As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture. Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed. For example, Sebastian Oliver Wallace-Odi, who has Ghanaian heritage, saw how Ronald Mumford’s archive photo had been contrived to show “British patriotism” from First Nations chiefs, riding a car bedecked in a Union Jack, during the First World War. Philip showed him how other photos demonstrated the presence of Mounties at the shoot, emphasising the lack of agency from the subjects. Sebastian countered it with an image in which the red white and blue flag is the symbol of the London Underground where his father works, and the car, like his shirt, is distinctly African.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways. It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project. Photos from the British Library digital collections.

Michael Walling - Artistic Director, Border Crossings. www.bordercrossings.org.uk

Watch the Border Crossing team receiving their Runner Up award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 3.46 to 10.09):

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.

07 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Research Award Honourable Mention: 'HerStories: Sites of Suffragette Protest and Sabotage'

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At our symposium in November 2018, BL Labs awarded two Honourable Mentions in the Research category for projects using the British Library's digital collections. This guest blog is by the recipients of one of these - a collaborative project by Professor Krista Cowman at the University of Lincoln and Tamsin Silvey, Rachel Williams, Ben Ellwood and Rosie Ryder at Historic England. 

HerStories: Sites of Suffragette Protest and Sabotage

The project marked the commemoration of the centenaries of some British women winning the Parliamentary vote in February 2018, the right to stand as MPs in November 1918 and of the first election in which women voted in December 1918. The centenary year caught the public imagination and resulted in numerous commemorative events. Our project added to these by focussing on the suffragette connections of England’s historic buildings. Its aim was to uncover the suffragette stories hidden in the bricks and mortar of England’s historic buildings and to highlight the role that the historic built environment played in the militant suffrage movement.  The Women’s Social and Political Union co-ordinated a national campaign of militant activities across the country in the decade before the First World War. Buildings were integral to this. The Union rented out shops and offices in larger towns and cities. It held large public meetings in the streets and inside meeting halls.

Suffragettes also identified buildings as legitimate targets for political sabotage. The WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, famously urged her followers to strike at the enemy through property. Buildings were then seen as legitimate targets for political sabotage by suffragettes who broke windows, set fires and placed bombs as part of their campaign to force the government to give votes to women. 

The project used the newly-digitised resources of Votes for Women and The Suffragette to identify historic buildings connected with the militant suffrage campaign.  Local reports in both papers were consulted to compile a database of sites connected to the WSPU across England.

A Local notes page from a newspaper reporting on meetings of the Women's Social and Political Union held at Croydon, Hornsby and Marylebone

This revealed a huge diversity in locations and activities. Over 5000 entries from more than 300 geographical locations were logged. Some were obscure and mundane such as 6 Bronte Street in Keighley, the contact address for the local WSPU branch for 1908. Others were much more high–profile including St Paul’s Cathedral where a number of services were disrupted by suffragettes and a bomb was planted. All of the sites on the database were then compared with the National Heritage List, the official record of England’s protected historic buildings compiled and maintained by Historic England. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/

This provided a new data set of over a hundred locations whose historic significance had already been recognised through listing but whose connection to militant suffrage was currently unrecognised. 

These sites were further researched using the British Library’s collection of historic local newspapers to retrieve more detail about their suffragette connections including their contemporary reception. This showed previously unknown detail including an attempted attack on the old Grammar School, King’s Norton, where the Nottingham Evening Post reported how suffragettes who broke in did no damage but left a message on the blackboard saying that they had refrained from damaging it’s ‘olde worlde’ rooms.

An image of the newspaper notice entitled Second Thought reporting on the message left by the suffragettes

The team selected 41 sites and updated their entries on The List to include their newly-uncovered suffragette connections. 

The amended entries can be seen in more detail on Historic England’s searchable map at https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/suffragette-protest-and-sabotage-sites 

The results provided a significant addition to the suffragette centenary commemorations by marking the important connections between suffragette’s fight for the vote and England’s Historic listed buildings.

Watch Krista Cowman and Tamsin Silvey receiving their Honourable Mention award on behalf of their team, and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 10.45 to 13.33): 

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.

05 February 2019

BL Labs 2018 Research Award Honourable Mention: 'Doctoral theses as alternative forms of knowledge: Surfacing "Southern" perspectives on student engagement with internationalisation'

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This guest blog is by Professor Catherine Montgomery, recipient of one of two Honourable Mentions in the 2018 BL Labs Awards Research category for her work with the British Library's EThOS collection.British Library slide 1

 ‘Contemporary universities are powerful institutions, interlinked on a global scale; but they embed a narrow knowledge system that reflects and reproduces social inequalities on a global scale’ (Connell, 2017).

Having worked with doctoral students for many years and learned much in this process my curiosity was sparked by the EThOS collection at the British Library. EThOS houses a large proportion of UK doctoral theses completed in British Universities and comprises a digital repository of around 500,000 theses. Doctoral students use this repository regularly but mostly as a means of exploring examples of doctorates in their chosen area of research. In my experience, doctoral students are often looking at formats or methodologies when they consult EThOS rather than exploring the knowledge provided in the theses.

So when I began to think about the EThOS collection as a whole, I came to the conclusion that it is a vastly under-used but incredibly powerful resource. Doctoral knowledge is not often thought of as a coherent body of knowledge, although individual doctoral theses are sometimes quoted and consulted by academics and other doctoral students. It is also important to remember that of 84,630 Postgraduate Research students studying full time in the UK in 2016/17, half of them, 42,325, were non-UK students, with 29,875 students being from beyond the EU. So in this sense, the knowledge represented in the EThOS collection is an important international body of knowledge.

So I began to explore the EThOS collection with some help from a group of PhD students (Gihan Ismail, Luyao Li and Yanru Xu, all doctoral candidates at the Department of Education at the University of Bath) and the EThOS library team. I wanted to interrogate the collection for a particular field of knowledge and because my research field is internationalisation of higher education, I carried out a search in EThOS for theses written in the decade 2008 to 2018 focusing on student engagement with internationalisation. This generated an initial data set of 380 doctoral theses which we downloaded into the software package NVivo. We then worked on refining the data set, excluding theses irrelevant to the topic (I was focusing on higher education so, for example, internationalisation at school-level topics were excluded) coming up with a final data set of 94 theses around the chosen topic. The EThOS team at the British Library helped at this point and carried out a separate search, coming up with a set of 78 theses using a specific adjacent word search and they downloaded these into a spreadsheet for us. The two data sets were consistent with each other which was really useful triangulation in our exploration of the use of the EThOS repository.

This description makes it sound very straightforward but there were all sorts of challenges, many of them technology related, including the fact that we were working with very large amounts of text as each of the 380 theses was around 100,000 words long or more and this slowed down the NVivo software and sometimes made it crash. There were also challenges in the search process as some earlier theses in the collection were in different formats; some were scanned and therefore not searchable.

The outcomes of the work with the EThOS collection were fascinating. Various patterns emerged from the analysis of the doctoral theses and the most prominent of these were insights into the geographies of student engagement with internationalisation; issues of methodologies and theory; and different constructions of internationalisation in higher education.

The theses were written by students from 38 different countries of the globe and examined internationalisation of higher education in African countries, the Americas and Australia, across the Asian continent and Europe. Despite this diversity amongst the students, most of the theses investigated internationalisation in the UK or international students in the UK. The international students also often carried out research on their own countries’ higher education systems and there was some limited comparative research but all of these compared their own higher education systems with one or (rarely) two others. There was only a minority of students who researched the higher education systems of international contexts different from their own national context.

A similar picture emerged when I considered the sorts of theories and ideas students were using to frame their research. There was a predominance of Western theory used by the international students to cast light on their non-western educational contexts, with many theses relying on concepts commonly associated with Western theory such as social capital, global citizenship or communities of practice. The ways in which the doctoral theses constructed ideas of internationalisation also appeared in many cases to be following a well-worn track and explored familiar concepts of internationalisation including challenges of pedagogy, intercultural interaction and the student experience. Having said this, there were also some innovative, creative and critical insights into students engaging with internationalisation, showing that alternative perspectives and different ways of thinking were generated by the theses of the EThOS collection.

Raewyn Connell, an educationalist I used in the analysis of this project tells us that in an unequal society we need ‘the view-from-below’ to challenge dominant ways of thought. I would argue that we should think about doctoral knowledge as ‘the-view-from-below’, and doctoral theses can offer us alternative perspectives and challenges to the previous narratives of issues such as internationalisation. However, it may be that the academy will need to make space for these alternative or ‘Southern’ perspectives to come in and this will rely on the capacity of the participants, both supervisors and students, to be open to negotiation in theories and ideas, something which another great scholar, Boaventura De Sousa Santos, describes as intercultural translation of knowledge.

I am very grateful indeed to the British Library and the EThOS team for developing this incredible source of digital scholarship and for their support in this project. I was delighted to be given an honourable mention in the British Library Research Lab awards and I am intending to take this work forward and explore the EThOS repository further. I was fascinated and excited to find that a growing number of countries are also developing and improving access to their doctoral research repositories (Australia, Canada, China, South Africa and USA to name but a few). This represents a huge comparative and open access data set which could be used to explore alternative perspectives on ‘taken-for-granted’ knowledge. Where better to start than with doctoral theses?

More information on the project can be found in this published article:

Montgomery, C. (2018). Surfacing ‘Southern’ perspectives on student engagement with internationalisation: doctoral theses as alternative forms of knowledge. Journal of Studies in International Education. (23) 1 123-138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315318803743

British Library slide 2

Watch Professor Montgomery receiving her award and talking about her project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 6.57 to 10.39):

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.

13 August 2018

The Parts of a Playbill

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Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She is currently a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can help out with In the Spotlight at playbills.libcrowds.com.

In the Spotlight is a brilliant tool for spotting variations between playbills across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The site provides participants with access to thousands of digitised playbills, and the sheets of the playbills in the site’s collections often have lists of the cast, scenes, and any innovative ‘machinery’ involved in the production. Whilst the most famous actors obviously needed to be emphasised and drew more crowds (e.g., any playbills featuring Mr Kean tend to have his name in huge letters), from the playbills in In the Spotlight’s volumes that doesn’t always seem to be the case with playwrights. Sometimes they’re mentioned by name, but in many cases famous playwrights aren't named on the playbill. I’ve speculated previously that this is because these playwrights were so famous that perhaps audiences would hear by word of mouth or press that a new play was out by them, so it was assumed that there was no point in adding the name as audiences would already know?

What can you expect to see on a playbill?

The basics of a playbill are: the main title of the performance, a subtitle, often the current date, future or past dates of performances, the cast and characters, scenery, short or long summaries of the scenes to be acted, whether the performance is to benefit anyone, and where tickets can be bought from. There are definitely surprises though: the In the Spotlight team have also come across apologies from theatre managers for actors who were scheduled to perform not turning up, or performing drunk! The project forum has a thread for interesting things 'spotted on In the Spotlight', and we always welcome posts from others.

Crowds would often react negatively if the scheduled performers weren’t on stage. Gilli Bush-Bailey also notes in The Performing Century (2007) that crowds would be used to seeing the same minor actors reappear across several parts of the performance and playbills, stating that ‘playbills show that only the lesser actors and actresses in the company appear in both the main piece and the following farce or afterpiece’ (p. 185), with bigger names at theatres royal committing only to either a tragic or comic performance.

From our late 18th century playbills on the site, users can see quite a standard format in structure and font.

Vdc_100022589157.0x000013
In this 1797 playbill from the Margate volume, the font is uniform, with variations in size to emphasise names and performance titles.

How did playbills change over time?

In the 19th century, all kinds of new and exciting fonts are introduced, as well as more experimentation in the structuring of playbills. The type of performance also influences the layout of the playbill, for instance, a circus playbill be often be divided into a grid-like structure to describe each act and feature illustrations, and early magician playbills often change orientation half-way down the playbill to give more space to describe their tricks and stage.

Vdc_100022589063.0x00001f
1834 Birmingham playbill

This 1834 Birmingham playbill is much lengthier than the previous example, showing a variety of fonts and featuring more densely packed text. Although this may look more like an information overload, the mix of fonts and variations in size still make the main points of the playbill eye-catching to passersby. 

James Gregory’s ‘Parody Playbills’ article, stimulated by the In the Spotlight project, contains a lot of great examples and further insights into the deeper meaning of playbills and their structure.

Works Cited

Davies, T. C. and P. Holland. (2007). The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gregory, J. (2018) ‘Parody Playbills: The Politics of the Playbill in Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ in eBLJ.

16 July 2018

Crowdsourcing comedy: date and genre results from In the Spotlight

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Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She is currently a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can join the In the Spotlight project at playbills.libcrowds.com.

In this blog post I discuss the data created so far by In the Spotlight volunteers via crowdsourcing – which has already thrown out quite a few surprises along the way! All of the data which I discuss was cleaned using Open Refine, with some manual intervention by me to group categories such as genre. My first post below highlights the most notable results to come out of the date and genre tasks so far, and a second post will present similar findings for play titles and playwrights.

Dates

I started off by analysing the dates generated by the projects as, to be honest, it seemed easiest! One of the problems we’ve encountered with the date tasks, however, is that a number of the playbills do not show a full date.  This is notable in itself but unsurprising – why would a playbill in the eighteenth or nineteenth century need a full date when they weren’t expected to last two hundred years into the future? With that in mind, this is by no means an exhaustive data set.

After creating a simple graph of the most popular dates, it became clear that we had a huge spike in the number of performances in 1825. Was something relevant to theatre history happening during this year, or were the sources of the playbill collections just unusually pro-active in 1825 after taking some time off? Was the paper stock quality better, so more playbills have lasted? The outside influence of the original collector or owner of these playbills is also something to consider, for instance, maybe he was more interested in one type of performance than others, had more time to collect playbills in certain years or in certain places, and so on. A final potential factor is that this data also only comes from the volumes added to the site projects so far, and so isn’t indicative of the Library’s playbills as a whole.

Aside from source or collector influence, some other possible explanations do present themselves. Britain in general was growing exponentially, with London in particular becoming one of the biggest cities in the world, and this era also saw the birth of railways and the extravagant influence of figures such as George IV. As this is coming off the back of what seems to be a very slow year in 1824, however, perhaps it is best just to chalk this up to the activity of the collectors. We also have another noticeable spike in 1829, but by no means as dramatic as that of 1825. I’ve spent a bit of time comparing the number of performances seen in the volumes with other online performance date tools, such as UMass's Adelphi calendar and Godwin’s Diary to compare numbers, but would love to hear any further insights into this!

alt="Graph of most popular dates"
A graph showing the most popular performance dates

Genre

The main issue I faced in working with the genre data was the wide variety of descriptors used on the playbills themselves. For instance, I encountered burlesque, burletta and burlesque burletta – which of the first two categories would the last one go under? When I went back to the playbills themselves, it was also clear that many of the ‘genres’ generated were more like comments from theatre managers or just descriptions e.g. ‘an amusing sketch’. With this in mind, genre was the dataset which I ‘interfered’ with the most from a cleaning point of view.

Some of the calls I made were to group anything cited as ‘dramatic ___’ with drama more widely, unless it had a notable second qualifier, such as pantomime, Romance or sketch. I also grouped anything mentioning ‘historical’ together, as from a research point of view this is probably the most prominent aspect, grouped harlequinades with pantomimes (although I know this might be controversial!) and grouped anything which involved a large organisation, such as military, Masonic or national performances, under ‘organisational’. Some were difficult to separate – I did wonder about grouping variety and vaudeville together, but as there were so few of each it seemed better to leave them be.

With these qualifications in mind, by far the most popular genre in the collections was farce, which I kept distinct from comedy, clocking up 537 performances from the projects. This was closely followed by comedy more generally with 527 performances, with the drama (197), melodrama (150) and tragedy (135) trailing afterwards. Once again, it could purely be that the original collectors of these volumes had more of a taste for comedy than drama, but there is such a wide gap in popularity from the volumes so far that it seems fair to conclude that the regional theatre-going public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries preferred to be cheered rather than saddened by their entertainment.

alt="Graph of the most popular genres"
A graph showing the most popular genres in records transcribed to date

You can contribute to this research

The more contributions we receive, the more accurate the titles, genre and dates results will be, so whether you’re looking out for your local theatre or interested in the more unusual performances which crop up, get involved with the project today at playbills.libcrowds.com. In the Spotlight is well on the way to hitting 100,000 contributions – make sure that you’re one of them!

23 March 2018

Shine a light on past entertainments with In the Spotlight

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In this post, Dr Mia Ridge and Alex Mendes provide an update on the Library's latest crowdsourcing project...

People who've explored In the Spotlight, our project helping make historic playbills more findable, might have noticed a line of text just above the 'Save and Continue' button: 'Seen something interesting? Add a note'.

Insights from your comments

Since the project began, we've received almost 700 comments [update - it's actually over 1900, across all projects]. Some of them simply tell us that an image is blank or upside-down, but many others share interesting findings. We love hearing from you, and we've been highlighting individual comments on Twitter (@LibCrowds) and on our forum.

Comments have pointed out spectacles including 'a Terrific Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, accompanied by TORRENTS OF BURNING LAVA' and a 'Serpent vomiting Fire'. New amenities mentioned include lighting ('600 wax lights and a new set of gold chandeliers' or new gas lighting) and the addition of backs to seats. Famous actors spotted include Sarah Siddons, Jenny Lind and Ira Aldridge, while Mr Kean has caused all kinds of trouble.

Lots of comments are about performances that aren't plays, from hornpipes to tableaux to ballets, songs, speeches, fireworks, scientific demonstrations, performing animals, panoramas, conjuring and juggling tricks, lists of scenery, gun tricks, pantomimes, acrobatics, excerpts from plays, and even the 'reenactment of the Coronation'! We're thinking hard about the best way to deal with them (and with playbills that don't include a year), and will post to the forum and twitter to ask for your ideas soon.

General updates

Since we first shared the link, there have been over 4,700 visitors from 91 countries. About 80% are primarily English-speakers, with Russian, German and French the next most popular languages.

We've had over 42,000 contributions from over 630 participants (with 1499 participants registered on the platform overall). Together, they've helped complete 34 projects by undertaking countless marking and transcription tasks to make genres, dates and play titles searchable.

Each project is based on a specific volume of playbills from a regional theatre or theatres. The fastest projects were 'Theatre Royal, Bristol 1819-1823 (Vol. 2)', completed in 8 days, 31 minutes, with 'Miscellaneous Plymouth theatres 1796-1882 (Vol. 1)' a close second at 8 days, 5 hours, 30 mins. We currently have playbills from theatres in Dublin, Hull, Nottingham - Oswestry or Plymouth - which will be completed first?

Recent blog posts include a wonderful story from PhD student and In the Spotlight participant Edward Mills tracing an ancient custom through the Library's digitised collections in The Flitch of Bacon: An Unexpected Journey Through the Collections of the British Library, and Christian Algar on the 'rich pageant' of historical playbills.

You might have noticed some small changes to the navigation and data pages as we updated the software this week. Most of the changes were behind the scenes, providing additional admin and analysis functions to ensure that data sent off to the catalogue is as accurate as possible.

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Visitors have come from all over the world, but we'd love to reach more

 

Thank you!

We're grateful to everyone who's made a large or small contribution, but particular thanks to Barbara G, David Y, Dina S, Ervins S, Jo B, John L, Katharine S, Kathryn P-S, Lisa G, Maria Antonia V-S, Martin B, mistrec, Olga K, Raphael H, Rosie C, Sharon E, sylvmorris1, Tabitha M, thtrisdead, Tif D, Vijay V and various anonymous posters for your comments. Your comments are also helping us work out how to tweak some of the interfaces so people can let us know about a problem with a task by clicking a button, so expect more improvements in the future!

Step into the Spotlight

It's easy to try out In the Spotlight - you don't need to register, so you can start marking out the titles of plays or transcribing the titles, dates or genres of plays straight away. Give it a go and let us know what you find!

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There are wonders galore waiting for the spotlight