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17 posts categorized "Newsroom"

20 August 2019

Innovation Labs and the digital divide

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Guest posting by Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Associate Professor Library and Information Studies UCL Qatar with contributions from Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA) and Fidelity Phiri, Visiting Researcher, UCL Qatar.

Can you recall seeing an interesting digital cultural heritage object from Zambia lately? If you search the Europeana Collections portal, you will find some 2500 digital objects coming from European heritage institutions. Alongside these items, you can enjoy the sound recording of a grunting and splashing Hippopotamus captured on 2 July 1985 on Luangwa river in Zambia. This object was aggregated from the British Library’s sound collection

Digitisation efforts of various Zambian institutions date back to 2002; for example, at the National Archives of Zambia (which does not have its own website at the time of writing this post), finding digital content originating from Zambian institutions is currently a challenge, unless you are visiting these institutions in person. One possible reason is that institutions in Zambia digitise for the purposes of internal collection management, preservation, and on-site use, like many other organisations. A rare exception is the digitised collection of the records of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) of Zambia, which was created in 2007 in collaboration with the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library. While it cannot be accessed on any Zambian digital platform, it is available on the website of the British Library.

Is this situation (of very little accessible digital material online in the archives) common for all cultural sectors? Let us have a look at museums. In this domain, the Livingstone Museum was the first to carry out digitisation activities in 2009. The National Museum Board of Zambia, an umbrella organisation for 5 national and 2 community museums, also has an online presence with digitised images. However, trying to explore the Photo gallery or Audio/video files in the Multimedia section on the website returns the ominous 404 Page not found error although the Board definitely has plenty of objects to share. 

Certainly, one could argue that the poor institutional online digital presence is to be expected in a country within the Global South where a digital divide still exists.  After all, even finding data to assess the scale of this digital divide is a challenge, and the body of publications on digital divide in Africa had been quite limited with some 100 identified works over 12-year period (2000-2012). There is also a lack of recent estimates on the state of technological use in museums. Back in 2002, Lorna Abungu suggested that "[a]t present, out of 357 known museums throughout the African continent (including the Indian Ocean islands), only seventy-five have – on an institutional level – at least basic Internet access for e-mail." 

And, while tackling the digital divide is one of the big challenges of the Global South, when we look at it specifically from the digital cultural heritage perspective it has a global effect. Those within the divide are not able to use modern information and communication technologies to their full advantage. This is one of the reasons digitisation is either delayed or caters only for on-site use in Zambia, for example. But for those on the other side of the divide it results in impaired access to the digital heritage currently being accumulated in the regions affected by the digital divide. This is why the users searching for the sounds of hippopotamus splashing will have a chance to discover them only if they are deposited in a collection on the other side of the divide. 

To foster a change within this current situation of a lack of accessibility to the digital cultural heritage of Zambia, UCL Qatar joined forces with the National Museums Board of Zambia to deliver a day-long workshop on Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum. You can read more about this event , in a 'Reflections from the First Sub-Saharan African Workshop on Digital Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions' blog post.

Fig. 4. Workshop participants
Fig. 1. After discussing how to overcome some of the disadvantages of the digital divide:
Participants in the Innovation Labs in Cultural Heritage Institutions which was hosted on 1 August, 2019 by the Livingstone Museum

There was a clear message from Mahendra Mahey, of British Library Labs that innovation in user engagement can start small, with the use of open source tools and popular web platforms. This event provided useful insights on the questions newcomers to the Innovation Lab community have to ask. In September, a Book Sprint to develop the first guide for setting up, running and maintaining a Digital Cultural Heritage Innovation Labs will be held in Doha, Qatar. 

Here are some of these interesting questions for the wider labs community:

  • Keeping in mind how the level of technological innovation is different on both sides of the divide; what should an innovation lab within the divide offer? Incremental innovation to the state of technology around or advanced innovation to match the global leaders?
  • How much can open platforms support innovation for these labs?
  • Can the route of using predominantly open tools and platforms for innovation labs be used also as a way to enhance open science in the Global South? 

Until a shift in the digital access happens, we will continue browsing some digital content on Zambian heritage coming from other cultural heritage organisations outside Zambia, beyond the digital divide.

Fig. 4. Workshop participants Dr Milena Dobreva-McPherson, is Associate Professor Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar with international experience of working in Bulgaria, Scotland and Malta. Since graduating M.Sc. (Hons) in Informatics in 1991, Milena specialized in digital humanities and digital cultural heritage in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where she earned her PhD in 1999 in Informatics and Applied Mathematics and served as the Founding Head of the first Digitisation Centre in Bulgaria (2004); she was also a member of the Executive Board of the National Commission of UNESCO. Milena’s research interests are in the areas of innovation diffusion in the cultural heritage sector; citizen science; and users of digital libraries. Milena is a member of the editorial board of the IFLA Journal - Sage, and of the International Journal on Digital Libraries (IJDL) - Springer and a member of the steering committed of the three biggest conference series in digital libraries, IJDL, TPDL and ICADL. Consultant of the Europeana Task Force on Research Requirements.  

Tuesday Mr Tuesday Bwalya, Lecturer, Library and Information Science Department, The University of Zambia (UNZA). He holds a Master’s Degree in Information Science from China. In addition, Mr. Bwalya has received training in India and Belgium in Library Automation with Free and Open Source Library Management Systems such as Koha and ABCD. His research interests include free and open source library management systems; open access publishing; database systems; web development; records management; cataloguing and classification.

Fidelity Fidelity Phiri is currently employed as Librarian at Moto Moto Museum and a visiting researcher at UCL Qatar. He has worked for National Museums Board of Zambia since 2001. He  holds a Bachelor's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Zambia. Fidelity  also graduated in April 2019 from UCL Qatar and  is a holder of a Master’s degree in Library and Information studies. His research interests are in bibliometrics studies and digital humanities/units  that provide access to digital collections.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Fred Nyambe for the photos and Dania Jalees for the editing.

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.

HerStories image 1

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.

HerStories image 2

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.

06 August 2018

Reminder about the 2018 BL Labs Awards: enter before midnight Thursday 11th October!

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With three months to go before the submission deadline, we would like to remind you about the 2018 British Library Labs Awards!

The BL Labs Awards are a way of formally recognising outstanding and innovative work that has been created using the British Library’s digital collections and data.

Have you been working on a project that uses digitised material from the British Library's collections? If so, we'd like to encourage you to enter that project for an award in one of our categories.

This year, BL Labs will be giving awards for 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.

BLAwards2018
BL Labs Awards 2017 Winners (Top-Left- Research Award Winner – A large-scale comparison of world music corpora with computational tools , Top-Right (Commercial Award Winner – Movable Type: The Card Game), Bottom-Left(Artistic Award Winner – Imaginary Cities) and Bottom-Right (Teaching / Learning Award Winner – Vittoria’s World of Stories)

There is also a Staff Award which recognises a project completed by a staff member or team, with the winner and runner up being announced at the Symposium along with the other award winners.

The closing date for entering your work for the 2018 round of BL Labs Awards is midnight BST on Thursday 11th October (2018). Please submit your entry and/or help us spread the word to all interested and relevant parties over the next few months. This will ensure we have another year of fantastic digital-based projects highlighted by the Awards!

Read more about the Awards (FAQs, Terms & Conditions etc), practice your application with this text version, and then submit your entry online!

The entries will be shortlisted after the submission deadline (11/10/2018) has passed, and selected shortlisted entrants will be notified via email by midnight BST on Friday 26th October 2018. 

A prize of £500 will be awarded to the winner and £100 to the runner up in each of the Awards categories at the BL Labs Symposium on 12th November 2018 at the British Library, St Pancras, London.

The talent of the BL Labs Awards winners and runners up from the last three years has resulted in a remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects. You can read about some of last year's Awards winners and runners up in our other blogs, links below:

BLAwards2018-Staff
British Library Labs Staff Award Winner – Two Centuries of Indian Print

To act as a source of inspiration for future awards entrants, all entries submitted for awards in previous years can be browsed in our online Awards archive.

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

21 April 2018

On the Road (Again)

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Flickr image: Wanderer
Image from the British Library’s Million Images on Flickr, found on p 198 of 'The Cruise of the Land Yacht “Wanderer”; or, thirteen hundred miles in my caravan, etc' by William Gordon Stables, 1886.

Now that British Summer Time has officially arrived, and with it some warmer weather, British Library Labs are hitting the road again with a series of events in Universities around the UK. The aim of these half-day roadshows is to inspire people to think about using the library's digitised collections and datasets in their research, art works, sound installations, apps, businesses... you name it!

A digitised copy of a manuscript is a very convenient medium to work on, especially if you are unable to visit the library in person and order an original item up to a reading room. But there are so many other uses for digitised items! Come along to one of the BL Labs Roadshows at a University department near you and find out more about the methods used by researchers in Digital Scholarship, from data-mining and crowd sourcing to optical character recognition for transcribing the words from an imaged page into searchable text. 

At each of the roadshow events, there will be speakers from the host institution describing some of the research projects they have already completed using digitised materials, as well as members of the British Library who will be able to talk with you about proposed research plans involving digitised resources. 

The locations of this year's roadshows are: 

Mon 9th April - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (Open University) - internal event

Mon 26th March - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (CityLIS) - internal event

Thu 12th April - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Bristol & Cardiff Digital Cultures Network)

Tue 24th April - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (UCL)

Wed 25th April - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Kent)

Wed 2nd May - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Edinburgh)

Tue 15th May - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Wolverhampton)

Wed 16th May - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Lincoln)

Tue 5th June - BL Labs Roadshow 2018 (University of Leeds)

  BL Labs Roadshows 2018
See a full programme and book your place using the Eventbrite page for each event.

If you want to discover more about the Digital Collections, and Digital Scholarship at the British Library, follow us on Twitter @BL_Labs, read our Blog Posts, and get in touch with BL Labs if you have some burning research questions!

14 March 2018

Working with BL Labs in search of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose

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The 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database offers a rich mine of material to be sourced for a comprehensive view of British life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The online archive comprises 101 full-text titles of local, regional, and national newspapers across the UK and Ireland, and thanks to optical character recognition, they are all fully searchable. This allows for extensive data mining across several millions worth of newspaper pages. It’s like going through the proverbial haystack looking for the equally proverbial needle, but with a magnet in hand.

For my current research project on the role of the radio during the British Raj, I wanted to find out more about Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937), whose contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy were hardly acknowledged during his lifetime and all but forgotten during the twentieth century.

J.C.Bose
Jagadish Chandra Bose in Royal Institution, London
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The person who is generally credited with having invented the radio is Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937). In 1909, he and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850–1918) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. What is generally not known is that almost ten years before that, Bose invented a coherer that would prove to be crucial for Marconi’s successful attempt at wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic in 1901. Bose never patented his invention, and Marconi reaped all the glory.

In his book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western Science, Subrata Dasgupta gives us four reasons as to why Bose’s contributions to radiotelegraphy have been largely forgotten in the West throughout the twentieth century. The first reason, according to Dasgupta, is that Bose changed research interest around 1900. Instead of continuing and focusing his work on wireless telegraphy, Bose became interested in the physiology of plants and the similarities between inorganic and living matter in their responses to external stimuli. Bose’s name thus lost currency in his former field of study.

A second reason that contributed to the erasure of Bose’s name is that he did not leave a legacy in the form of students. He did not, as Dasgupta puts it, “found a school of radio research” that could promote his name despite his personal absence from the field. Also, and thirdly, Bose sought no monetary gain from his inventions and only patented one of his several inventions. Had he done so, chances are that his name would have echoed loudly through the century, just as Marconi’s has done.

“Finally”, Dasgupta writes, “one cannot ignore the ‘Indian factor’”. Dasgupta wonders how seriously the scientific western elite really took Bose, who was the “outsider”, the “marginal man”, the “lone Indian in the hurly-burly of western scientific technology”. And he wonders how this affected “the seriousness with which others who came later would judge his significance in the annals of wireless telegraphy”.

And this is where the BL’s online archive of nineteenth-century newspapers comes in. Looking at newspaper coverage about Bose in the British press at the time suggests that Bose’s contributions to wireless telegraphy were soon to be all but forgotten during his lifetime. When Bose died in 1937, Reuters Calcutta put out a press release that was reprinted in several British newspapers. As an example, the following notice was published in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937, on Bose’s death:

Newspaper clipping announcing death of JC Bose
Notice in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937

This notice is as short as it is telling in what it says and does not say about Bose and his achievements: he is remembered as the man “who discovered a heart beat in trees”. He is not remembered as the man who almost invented the radio. He is remembered for the Western honours that are bestowed upon him (the Knighthood and his Fellowship of the Royal Society), and he is remembered as the founder of the Bose Research Institute. He is not remembered for his career as a researcher and inventor; a career that span five decades and saw him travel extensively in India, Europe and the United States.

The Derby Evening Telegraph is not alone in this act of partial remembrance. Similar articles appeared in Dundee’s Evening Telegraph and Post and The Gloucestershire Echo on the same day. The Aberdeen Press and Journal published a slightly extended version of the Reuters press release on November 24th that includes a brief account of a lecture by Bose in Whitehall in 1929, during which Bose demonstrated “that plants shudder when struck, writhe in the agonies of death, get drunk, and are revived by medicine”. However, there is again no mention of Bose’s work as a physicist or of his contributions to wireless telegraphy. The same is true for obituaries published in The Nottingham Evening Post on November 23rd, The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror on November 24th, another article published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on November 26th, and two articles published in The Manchester Guardian on November 24th.

The exception to the rule is the obituary published in The Times on November 24th. Granted, with a total of 1116 words it is significantly longer than the Reuters press release, but this is also partly the point, as it allows for a much more comprehensive account of Bose’s life and achievements. But even if we only take the first two sentences of The Times obituary, which roughly add up to the word count of the Reuters press release, we are already presented with a different account altogether:

“Our Calcutta Correspondent telegraphs that Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, F.R.S., died at Giridih, Bengal, yesterday, having nearly reached the age of 79. The reputation he won by persistent investigation and experiment as a physicist was extended to the general public in the Western world, which he frequently visited, by his remarkable gifts as a lecturer, and by the popular appeal of many of his demonstrations.”

We know that he was a physicist; the focus is on his skills as a researcher and on his talents as a lecturer rather than on his Western titles and honours, which are mentioned in passing as titles to his name; and we immediately get a sense of the significance of his work within the scientific community and for the general public. And later on in the article, it is finally acknowledged that Bose “designed an instrument identical in principle with the 'coherer' subsequently used in all systems of wireless communication. Another early invention was an instrument for verifying the laws of refraction, reflection, and polarization of electric waves. These instruments were demonstrated on the occasion of his first appearance before the British Association at the 1896 meeting at Liverpool”.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Dr Christin Hoene, a BL Labs Researcher in Residence at the British Library. Dr Hoene is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent. 

If you are interested in working with the British Library's digital collections, why not come along to one of our events that we are holding at universities around the UK this year? We will be holding a roadshow at the University of Kent on 25 April 2018. You can see a programme for the day and book your place through this Eventbrite page. 

22 January 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Data Mining Verse in 18th Century Newspapers by Jennifer Batt

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Dr Jennifer Batt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, reported on an investigation in finding verse using text and data-mining methods in a collection of digitised eighteenth-century newspapers in the British Library’s Burney Collection to recover a complex, expansive, ephemeral poetic culture that has been lost to us for well over 250 years. The collection equates to around 1 million pages, around 700 or so bound volumes of 1271 titles of newspapers and news pamphlets published in London and also some English provincial, Irish and Scottish papers, and a few examples from the American colonies.

A video of her presentation is available below:

Jennifer's slides are available on SlideShare by clicking on the image below or following the link:

Datamining for verse in eighteenth-century newspapers
Datamining for verse in eighteenth-century newspapers

https://www.slideshare.net/labsbl/datamining-for-verse-in-eighteenthcentury-newsapers 

 

 

06 April 2017

Free Public Lecture and Workshop: Exploring Scissors-and-Paste Journalism in The British Library’s Newspaper Collections

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Posted by Mahendra Mahey on behalf of Melodee Beals, Lecturer in History, Department of Politics, History and International Relations, School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences, Loughborough University

Scissors and paste
Image courtesy of David Brewer CC-BY.

Two hundred years ago, the British public was abuzz with news of revolution, mass migration and an uncertain economic future. And into this excited and worried noise stepped an army of young and adventurous newspapers, working hard to give their readers the world at their fingers. From Calcutta to Peru, Sydney to Istanbul, Paris to New York, they overflowed with news of peoples, places and political scandals from all over the world.

But, before satellites, radio or the telegraph, they relied on people – friends, family, and fellow newspaper men and women – to send in letters and clippings from around the world to provide the most up-to-date and wide-ranging news to their readers. This scissors-and-paste journalism was the very backbone of many British newspapers up through the 1850s but we still don’t know enough about how it worked in practice.

You can help!

On 27 April 2017, British Library Labs and Loughborough University will be hosting a free, public workshop at the British Library in the Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation, London, introducing “Georgian Pingbacks”, a new crowdsourcing website to allow the public (you!) to help uncover how news—the good, the fake and the poorly punctuated—spread across the country. With just a few clicks on your smartphone, tablet or home computer on your daily commute or queuing for the till, you can contribute to the growing debate on what makes news “real” and what makes it “viral”.

After a talk on scissors-and-paste journalism by Dr M. H. Beals (Loughborough University), exploring the history of this much loved system of “theft”, we will take you through our brand new website, where you can help contribute to our collective understanding of historical journalism, one clip and one click at a time.

This event is free, open to the public and a complimentary lunch will be provided.

To register, please visit our Eventbrite website.

If you have any questions about the event, please contact Dr Beals at m.h.beals@lboro.ac.uk. Please note, to fully take part in the event, you will need to bring a laptop or other internet-ready device, such as a tablet or large-screen smartphone, but this is not a requirement for attendance.

03 November 2016

Black Abolitionist Performances and their Presence in Britain - An update!

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Posted by Hannah-Rose Murray, finalist in the BL Labs Competition 2016.

Reflecting back on an incredible and interesting journey over the last few months, it is remarkable at the speed in which five months has flown by! In May, I was chosen as one of the finalists for the British Library Labs Competition 2016, and my project has focused on black abolitionist performances and their presence in Britain during the nineteenth century. Black men and women had an impact in nearly every part of Great Britain, and it is of no surprise to learn their lectures were held in famous meeting halls, taverns, the houses of wealthy patrons, theatres, and churches across the country: we inevitably and unknowably walk past sites with a rich history of Black Britain every day.

I was inspired to apply for this competition by last year’s winner, Katrina Navickas. Her project focused on the Chartist movement, and in particular using the nineteenth century digitised newspaper database to find locations of Chartist meetings around the country. Katrina and the Labs team wrote code to identify these meetings in the Chartist newspaper, and churned out hundreds of results that would have taken her years to search manually.

I wanted to do the same thing, but with black abolitionist speeches. However, there was an inherent problem: these abolitionists travelled to Britain between 1830-1900 and gave lectures in large cities and small towns: in other words their lectures were covered in numerous city and provincial newspapers. The scale of the project was perhaps one of the most difficult things we have had to deal with.

When searching the newspapers, one of the first things we found was the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) is patchy at best. OCR refers to scanned images that have been turned into machine-readable text, and the quality of the OCR depended on many factors – from the quality of the scan itself, to the quality of the paper the newspaper was printed on, to whether it has been damaged or ‘muddied.’ If the OCR is unintelligible, the data will not be ‘read’ properly – hence there could be hundreds of references to Frederick Douglass that are not accessible or ‘readable’ to us through an electronic search (see the image below).

American-slavery
An excerpt from a newspaper article about a public meeting about slavery, from the Leamington Spa Courier, 20 February 1847

In order to 'clean' and sort through the ‘muddied’ OCR and the ‘clean’ OCR, we need to teach the computer what is ‘positive text’ (i.e., language that uses the word ‘abolitionist’, ‘black’, ‘fugitive’, ‘negro’) and ‘negative text’ (language that does not relate to abolition). For example, the image to the left shows an advert for one of Frederick Douglass’s lectures (Leamington Spa Courier, 20 February 1847). The key words in this particular advert that are likely to appear in other adverts, reports and commentaries are ‘Frederick Douglass’, ‘fugitive’, ‘slave’, ‘American’, and ‘slavery.’ I can search for this advert through the digitised database, but there are perhaps hundreds more waiting to be uncovered.
We found examples where the name ‘Frederick’ had been ‘read’ as F!e83hrick or something similar. The image below shows some OCR from the Aberdeen Journal, 5 February 1851, and an article about “three fugitive slaves.” The term ‘Fugitive Slaves’ as a heading is completely illegible, as is William’s name before ‘Crafts.’ If I used a search engine to search for William Craft, it is unlikely this result would be highlighted because of the poor OCR.

Ocr-text
OCR from the Aberdeen Journal, 5 February 1851, and an article about “three fugitive slaves.”

I have spent several years transcribing black abolitionist speeches and most of this will act as the ‘positive’ text. ‘Negative’ text can refer to other lectures of a similar structure but do not relate to abolition specifically, for example prison reform meetings or meetings about church finances. This will ensure the abolitionist language becomes easily readable. We can then test the performance of this against some of the data we already have, and once the probability ensures we are on the right track, we can apply it to a larger data set.

All of this data is built into what is called a classifier, created by Ben O’Steen, Technical Lead of BL Labs. This classifier will read the OCR and collect newspaper references, but works differently to a search engine because it measures words by weight and frequency. It also relies on probability, so for example, if there is an article that mentions fugitive and slave in the same section, it ranks a higher probability that article will be discussing someone like Frederick Douglass or William Craft. On the other hand, a search engine might read the word ‘fugitive slave’ in different articles on the same page of a newspaper.

We’re currently processing the results of the classifier, and adjusting accordingly to try and reach a higher accuracy. This involves some degree of human effort while I double check the references to see whether the results actually contains an abolitionist speech. So far, we have had a few references to abolitionist speeches, but the classifier’s biggest difficulty is language. For example, there were hundreds of results from the 1830s and the 1860s – I instantly knew that these would be references around the Chartist movement because the language the Chartists used would include words like ‘slavery’ when describing labour conditions, and frequently compared these conditions to ‘negro slavery’ in the US. The large number of references from the 1860s highlight the renewed interest in American slavery because of the American Civil War, and there are thousands of articles discussing the Union, Confederacy, slavery and the position of black people as fugitives or soldiers. Several times, the results focused on fugitive slaves in America and not in Britain.

Another result we had referred to a West Indian lion tamer in London! This is a fascinating story and part of the hidden history we see as a central part of the project, but is obviously not an abolitionist speech. We are currently working on restricting our date parameters from 1845 to 1860 to start with, to avoid numerous mentions of Chartists and the War. This is one way in which we have had to be flexible with the initial proposal of the project.

Aside from the work on the classifier, we have also been working on numerous ways to improve the OCR – is it better to apply OCR correction software or is it more beneficial to completely re-OCR the collection, or perhaps a combination of both? We have sent some small samples to a company based in Canberra, Australia called Overproof, who specialise in OCR correction and have provided promising results. Obviously the results are on a small scale but it’s been really interesting so far to see the improvements in today’s software compared to when some of these newspapers were originally scanned ten years before. We have also sent the same sample to the IMPACT centre for competence of Competence in Digitisation whose mission is to make the digitisation of historical printed text “better, faster, cheaper” and provides tools, services and facilities to further advance the state-of-the-art in the field of document imaging, language technology and the processing of historical text. Preliminary results will be presented at the Labs Symposium.

Updated website

Before I started working with the Library, I had designed a website at http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com. The structure was rudimentary and slightly awkward, dwarfed by the numerous pages I kept adding to it. As the project progressed, I wanted to improve the website at the same time, and with the invaluable help of Dr Mike Gardner from the University of Nottingham, I re-launched my website at the end of October. Initially, I had two maps, one showing the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass, and another map showing speaking locations by other black abolitionists such as William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown and Moses Roper (shown below).

Website-update-maps
Left map showing the speaking locations of Frederick Douglass. Right map showing speaking locations by other black abolitionists such as William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown and Moses Roper.

After working with Mike, we not only improved the aesthetics of the website and the maps (making them more professional) but we also used clustering to highlight the areas where these men and women spoke the most. This avoided the ‘busy’ appearance of the first maps and allowed visitors to explore individual places and lectures more efficiently, as the old maps had one pin per location. Furthermore, on the black abolitionist speaking locations map (below right), a user can choose an individual and see only their lectures, or choose two or three in order to correlate patterns between who gave these lectures and where they travelled. 

Website-update-maps-v2
The new map interface for my website.

Events

I am very passionate about public engagement and regard it as an essential part of being an academic, since it is so important to engage and share with, and learn from, the public. We have created two events: as part of Black History Month on the 6th October, we had a performance here at the Library celebrating the life of two formerly enslaved individuals named William and Ellen Craft. Joe Williams of Heritage Corner in Leeds – an actor and researcher who has performed as numerous people such as Frederick Douglass and the black circus entertainer Pablo Fanque – had been writing a play about the Crafts, and because it fitted so well with the project, we invited Joe and actress Martelle Edinborough, who played Ellen, to London for a performance. Both Joe and Martelle were incredible and it really brought the Craft’s story and the project to life. We had a Q&A afterwards where everyone was very responsive and positive to the performance and the Craft’s story of heroism and bravery.

Hannah-murray-actors
(Left to Right) Martelle Edinborough, Hannah-Rose Murray and Joe Williams

The next event is a walking tour, taking place on Saturday 26 November. I’ve devised this tour around central London, highlighting six sites where black activists made an indelible mark on British society during the nineteenth century. It is a way of showing how we walk past these sites on a daily basis, and how we need to recognise the contributions of these individuals to British history.

Hopefully this project will inspire others to research and use digital scholarship to find more ‘hidden voices’ in the archive. In terms of black history specifically, people of colour were actors, sailors, boxers, students, authors as well as lecturers, and there is so much more to uncover about their contribution to British history. My personal journey with the Library and the Labs team has also been a rewarding experience. It has further convinced me that we need stronger networks of collaboration between scholars and computer scientists, and the value of digital humanities in general. Academics could harness the power of technology to bring their research to life, an important and necessary tool for public engagement. I hope to continue working with the Labs team fine-tuning some of the results, as well as writing some pages about black abolitionists for the new website. I’m very grateful to the Library and the Labs team for their support, patience, and this amazing opportunity as I’ve learned so much about digital humanities, and this project – with its combination of manual and technological methods – as a larger model for how we should move forward in the future. The project will shape my career in new and exciting ways, and the opportunity to work with one of the best libraries in the world is a really gratifying experience.

I am really excited that I will be there in London in a few days time to present my findings, why don't you come and join us at the British Library Labs Symposium, between 0930 - 1730 on Monday 7th of November, 2016?