THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

Introduction

Tracking exciting developments at the intersection of libraries, scholarship and technology. Read more

13 February 2019

Sign up for a research workshop on books written for mobile devices!

Can you help us shape the future of our digital collection? London workshop 20th February

On 7- 8th February, we ran some user experience sessions in one of our Reading Rooms at the British Library, in order to better understand users’ expectations and requirements when accessing complex digital publications within our collections. Our focus is on “emerging formats” – eBook mobile apps and web-based interactive narratives – and exploring options for their future preservation and access. The first round of sessions was really informative and we are now pleased to announce that our research is continuing with a second round of research in London.

We are now looking for new participants to take part in a 2-and-a half-hour workshop, this time based at our partner agency, Bunnyfoot. As with the previous research sessions, we are looking for people who have familiarity with book apps and web-based interactive narratives designed for mobile devices, whether they’re using them for pleasure or as part of their practice. We would like participants to join a workshop on Wednesday 20th February, either in the morning or the afternoon, at Bunnyfoot’s research labs in London. The sessions will last for about 2-and-a-half hours and Bunnyfoot will offer a £120 incentive for anyone taking part.

If you are interested in taking part, please follow the link and complete the short survey to sign up: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/4841789/British-Library-Screener-Survey

To find out further information about the Emerging Formats project, please see our previous post on Emerging Formats and our project page.

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This post is by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Publications, on twitter as @IanCooke13 and Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari.

BL Labs 2018 Artistic Award Runner Up: 'Nomad'

Nomad is a collaborative project between Abira Hussein, an independent researcher and curator, and Sophie Dixon and Ed Silverton of Mnemoscene. They were the runners up in the BL Labs Artistic Award category for 2018, and they've written a guest blog post about their project for the Digital Scholarship blog.

Nomad: Reconnecting Somali heritage

The project has been supported by the Heritage Lottery fund and premiered at the British Library and British Museum during the Somali Week Festival 2018. Centred around workshops engaging Somali communities in London, Nomad explores the creative use of Mixed Reality and web-based technology to contextualise archival Somali objects with the people and traditions to which they belong.

Nomad 1

Nomad began with three Somali heritage objects - a headrest, bowl, and incense burner - which had been digitised at the British Museum. Thanks to Object Journeys, a previous project Abira was involved in, they were freely available to use.

Our goal was to reflect the utilitarian nature of the objects by showing their intended use. Furthermore, in Somali culture, songs and poetry are very important and we wanted to reconnect the objects to the sounds and traditions to which they belonged.

Our approach was to use Microsoft’s Mixed Reality HoloLens headset to show a Nomadic Somali family using the objects in real, everyday spaces. When wearing the headset the user can select different objects to reveal different members of the family, seeing how the object would be used, and hearing the songs which would have accompanied their use.

You can get a taste of the HoloLens experience in this short video (1 minute).

To create these ephemeral figures we used motion capture and 3D modelling, creating the clothing by referencing archival photographs held at the Powell Cotton Museum in Kent.

We used the British Library’s John Low collection as the source for the sounds you hear in the Mixed Reality experience. John Low travelled across Somalia between 1983-1986 working for an NGO to support community development. In his spare time he made field recordings with different tribes and dialects, providing an insight into the diversity of Somali oral traditions. The collection includes work songs reflecting pastoral life and poems, also known as Gabay, which are often recited in communal settings.

Nomad 2
Workshop held at the British Museum during the Somali Week Festival

With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund we toured the Mixed Reality experience to different Somali communities in London. The immersive experience became a way to inspire and encourage communities to share their own stories, to be part of an openly accessible archive representing their own narratives for Somali cultural heritage.

These workshops were exciting events in which participants handled real objects, tried the Mixed Reality experience and took part in the photogrammetry process to capture 3D models of the objects they had brought to the workshops.

To make the objects and sounds accessible to all, we also created Web-based Augmented Reality postcards to be used in the workshops. 

Nomad 3
Workshop participants looking at 3D objects using web-based Augmented Reality on their mobile phones

From the workshops we have 3D models, photographs and audio recordings which we’re currently adding to an online archive using the Universal Viewer. For updates about the archive and to find out more about our project please visit us at nomad-project.co.uk.

Watch the Nomad team receiving their award and talking about their project on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 4:15 to 8:16):

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'

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 February 2019

Interactive Fiction in the UK

Nick Montfort suggests interactive fiction stories are ‘computer programs that display text, accept textual responses and then display additional text in reaction [to those responses]’.[1] Since there’s no agreed definition of interactive fiction (IF), Montfort’s is as good a starting point as any. ‘Textual responses’ might include typing, clicking on a link or selecting a choice from a menu, and it’s these differing textual responses which assist in further identifying and categorising interactive fiction. However, it’s also worth remembering that interactive fiction is constantly evolving, with new types emerging all the time, and Montfort’s definition is almost fifteen years old. Therefore, any work which makes significant use of text that the reader might adjust or affect in some way may be considered interactive fiction.

As one strand of the Emerging Formats project, the British Library is currently investigating UK Interactive Fiction (who is creating it, what kinds of work they’re creating, and what tools are being used) – in order to determine what the collecting priorities might be. The focus is on UK works specifically because this aligns with the Library’s collecting priorities with regard to born-digital works, arising out of legal deposit regulations.

The Interactive Fiction Competition identifies three broad types of IF: parser-based, Choose Your Own Adventure and hypertext. Parser-based works are sometimes referred to as ‘text adventures’. These involve typing commands in order to interact with the textual world and usually include puzzle solving. Choose Your Own Adventure (or CYOA) stories are more like the Fighting Fantasy game book series, or the recent Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’, providing readers with a series of choices which create a branching narrative. Hypertexts are linked passages of text much like a website, but the clickable links may provide choices or ways of exploring the world of the text. In these latter two types the reader’s role is less likely to involve solving puzzles and more likely to centre on exploration, interacting with characters or simply choosing how the story turns out. (Although, of course, these elements may be present in parser games too).

Detectiveland_ingame
Detectiveland by Robin Johnson, 2016 Winner of IFComp

As part of my Innovation Placement, I’ve explored 97 works by 62 creators so far. Of these, 39 are parser-based, 27 are hypertexts, and 8 are choice-based, with the remainder being other formats such as multimedia (for example, Lucy English’s collection of video poems, The Book of Hours), websites (such as Krishan Coupland’s Hotel), or bespoke or hybrid systems developed by the creator (a particularly good example of this is Robin Johnson’s Zeppelin Adventure, made with his homegrown Versificator engine which creates IF that is somewhere between parser-based and choice-based). I also came across a few formats not neatly described by the types outlined above, such as collaborative wiki-based interactive fiction. However these works (like many interactive fiction works) often contain no identifying information regarding the creator and therefore it’s very difficult to determine if they are UK created. In these instances I have tended to assume that if the creator prefers to remain entirely anonymous, the likelihood is they would also prefer not to have their work archived, and so these particular texts won’t form part of the collection.

There are plenty of works which do have an identifiable UK-based author, though. These cover a wide range of genres including comedy, horror, crime, romance, historical fiction, drama, ‘slice of life’ and mystery, although science fiction and fantasy are particularly well represented (around 26 of the works might be considered fantasy, while around 17 could be categorised as science fiction).

Of the parser-based games, so far Inform stands out as the most popular tool. This is perhaps unsurprising since Inform was created by British IF author and programmer, Graham Nelson in the mid-nineties, making it one of the longest running tools for interactive fiction creation. This means it has a robust community around it, a good collection of existing works to draw inspiration from and a large number of tutorials and discussion forums to aid new creators. Popular IF writer Emily Short uses Inform to produce many of her works, including the critically acclaimed Galatea, a retelling of the Pygmallion myth in which the reader-player attempts to converse with a living statue which is able to respond in myriad ways. However, there are also works made with Quest, such as Luke A. Jones’ Drumsticks a puzzle story about reuniting a band for one last gig.    

The majority of the hypertext games are created with Twine, although usage of the tool’s full range of features varies wildly. For example, Ed Sibley’s ghost story Dead Man’s Fiesta incorporates a host of images, coloured backgrounds and dynamic text, while Bethany Nolan’s crime caper Let’s Rob a Bank adopts Twine’s default layout, relying only on branching choices and variables to tell her story. A further Twine highlight is Raik by Harry Giles, a poetic fantasy story written in English with a Scots translation. (Sort of. To say more would be to spoil it!)

While the CYOA category is somewhat smaller, there are still several tools and approaches in use. Most popular is Inkle Studio’s Ink, used to create a variety of stories including Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate, in which the reader-player roleplays as an estate agent attempting to sell properties to a variety of supernatural clients. The house-buying creatures are randomised and so several replays are required in order to meet them all.

The oldest work so far is paradoxically also one of the newest. The Beast of Torrack Moor by Linda Doughty (née Wright), originally written in 1988 for the ZX Spectrum was lovingly recreated for the web in 2018 by Chris Ainsley (with the original author’s permission) using his Adventuron engine. Despite what its name might suggest, this is more of a quintessentially English mystery than a blood-curdling horror.

As this brief overview indicates, UK IF creators employ a wide array of tools, styles, genres and topics, and even within the same tools and genres, there’s a huge amount of experimentation and variation. I hope to uncover yet more in the coming weeks and months, as well as finding ways to preserve them for future reader-players. If you are a UK-based creator of web-based interactive fiction, please do not hesitate to get in touch, or alternatively, feel free to nominate your work for inclusion via the UK Web Archive.

This post is by the Library's Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction Lynda Clark, on twitter as @Notagoth. You can find out more about the Library's Emerging Formats project here.

[1] Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, 6th edn (Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press, 2005), p.vii.

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'

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.

01 February 2019

The British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership Imaging Hack Day – Part 2

On 25th October the BL/QFP team held their first Hack Day. The original concept, as well as the planning and run up to the day were previously discussed in a blog piece by Sotirios Alpanis, but here, I am excited to present details of the day itself and its results.

On the morning of the Hack Day, there was a creative buzz in the air as the digitisation studio transformed into an artist’s workshop. Free from the strict guidelines for imaging and quality assurance, there were no targets to meet, and the only brief was to engage creatively with the collection. Throughout the day, there was a noticeable stream of movement back and forth between the sixth floor office and the Imaging studio. Elizabeth Hunter and Carl Norman from Imaging Services South were in and out all day to check on the three cameras they had set up in different corners of the studio to record a time-lapse video of all the activities, and many members of the wider team dropped in for conversation.

At the end of the day, the team gave short informal presentations on their individual projects. The projects revealed a variety of skills and a wide range of ideas. Some linked with each other contextually, whilst others resulted from collaboration with members of the wider team - hence the frequent visits by staff from the main office!

Matt and Melanie working on their hacks


The hacks

Daniel Loveday was interested in colourisation, setting out to add historically accurate colours to black and white photographic images. With assistance from Louis Allday, Gulf History Content Specialist, he worked on a portrait of the Sharif of Mecca. Louis speculated that the ‘turban would have been white, a colour of turban that was often worn by Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, which he was) and as worn by a later Sharif of Mecca, Husayn’. He also suggested that the gown ‘would be similar to European-style naval dress (dark/navy blue with gold detailing) as the dress of late Ottoman era officials such as this was heavily influenced by European military forms at the time.’ The last piece of clothing to colour was the sash across the body which Louis reasoned ‘would possibly be green, a colour also closely associated with the Prophet, his family and his descendants.’

Sharif of Mecca


Coming from a different angle, Melanie Taylor explored the potential to form new relationships and striking visual narratives from digitised content. Reflecting on how imaging technicians engage with content, Melanie’s project directed focus to the purely visual qualities of digitised items. Drawing on hundreds of images, her results were poetic and illuminating. The wider BL/QFP team, who usually look at the material through the eyes of a reader or researcher, appreciated this fresh perspective.

Visual Narratives 1
Visual Narratives 2
Visual Narratives 3

Matt’s Lee work also evolved from acts of repetition. Placing images of parallel or similar things side by side, he was able to create interesting patterns, comparisons and meanings. These visual typologies included lists of dates, places, signatures, and logos. Louis suggested a typology made from ‘the names of the numerous states of the area that was to become Saudi Arabia in 1932, including both earlier (and smaller) incarnations of the Saudi state and other rival kingdoms and emirates that it conquered.’ This idea remains a work in progress.

Visual typology (stamps, crests and logos)

Visual typology (Muscat typography)

Darran Murray and Jordi Clopes Masjuan were both inspired by an astrolabe quadrant from ‘Two treatises on Astronomy by Sibṭ al-Māridīnī’, albeit in very different ways. Jordi sought to capture images highlighting the quadrant’s shape and texture, emphasising its beauty as an artefact. Owing to pressures of time, copy stand photography in digitisation projects doesn’t usually allow for experimentation with lighting techniques; and, in the interests of consistency, the colour of the backing paper remains the same throughout. Here, however, Jordi specifically matched the paper to the quadrant, and thus effectively revealed more details of its edges.

Astrolabe quadrant before and after

Astrolabe quadrant and the ‘Four treatises on Astronomy‘

Darran investigated the quadrant’s practical function and educational qualities by creating a guide on ‘How to build and use your very own Astrolabe.’ He went on to make a paper version of the wooden device himself.

Astrolabe quadrant model

Darran’s guide would be beautifully illustrated by both of these projects!


The next project also had an educational purpose and aimed to make the resources of the QDL more accessible to visitors who may be less familiar with Gulf and Middle Eastern history. Combining storytelling, maps and images, they created an interactive version of a tour by Political Resident, Geoffrey Prior, from Bahrain to Muscat, in February 1940, transporting the viewer to the different locations where particular events took place. To do this, they used a JavaScript tool called Story Map by Knight Lab, the Northwestern University, which is user friendly and can be embedded in a website. Unsurprisingly, the idea generated a lot of interest and further ideas for telling other stories in similar ways.

 

Rebecca Harris wanted to digitise landscape and aerial photographs using a macro lens in order to ‘bring the viewers’ attention to details and fragments which would otherwise go unnoticed.’ Using her computer screen like a magnifying glass, she examined topographical features found in shelfmarks IOR/R/15/1/606 and IOR/L/PS/12/1956, and was able to identify potential coordinates.

Macro experiments

Similarly to Daniel, Hannah Nagle has focused on colourisation. She drew inspiration from early autochrome images of the Middle East found in Albert Kahn’s collection ‘The Archives of the Planet’. She coloured a black and white photograph depicting a group of women in Linga, Persia, skilfully conveying the atmosphere of the region at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Colourised black and white image


At the end of the day, I hacked my own shelfmark as well, 'Four treatises on Astronomy'. I picked a manuscript damaged by insects and with assistance from our Conservation Team Manager Salvador Alcantra Pelaez, I photographed it on contrasting paper. Later the pages were digitally removed in order to draw attention to the damage. All the images were combined in an animation showing insects’ impact on the manuscript.

Capturing ‘Four treatises on Astronomy’

Marks of insect damage

The first Hack Day was an all-round success. It was interesting for the wider team to see how imaging technicians engaged creatively with the material we are digitising. Furthermore, to observe what collaborations formed and how knowledge was shared amongst different areas of the project.

A week after the Hack Day, we ran a retrospective meeting, where we unanimously decided to repeat the activity on quarterly basis. We gathered a lot of feedback and scheduled the next Hack Day for the 7th February. I can reveal that this time the Imaging team will be responding to a theme, watch this space for more hacks!

Hack Day poster

Hack Day poster

This is a guest post by Renata Kaminska, Digitisation Studio Manager for the British Library's Qatar Project

 

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'

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.

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

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

Two web resources

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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

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

Team at the British Library

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

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

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

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

Tuija Ainonen

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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 January 2019

Reading 35,000 Books: The UCD Contagion Project and the British Library Digital Corpus - Workshop & Roundtable

A guest post by Geradine Meany, Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of English, Drama and Film and Derek Greene, Assistant Professor at the School of Computer Science, both at the University College Dublin who are organising a FREE workshop and roundtable together with the BL Labs team on Thursday 20 February 2019 at the British Library in London.

How do you set about finding specific references and thematic associations in the massive digital resource represented by the British Library Nineteenth Century Book Corpus, originally digitised through a collaboration with Microsoft?

The Contagion, Biopolitics and Cultural Memory project at UCD Dublin set out to illuminate culturally and historically specific understandings of disease and contagion that appear within the fiction in the corpus. In order to do so, the project team extracted over 35,000 unique volumes out of a total of 65,000 in English and built a searchable interface of 12.3 million individual pages of text, which can be filtered and sorted using the corpus metadata (e.g. author, title, year, etc). The interface incorporates an index of the topical catalogue of volumes used by the British Library from 1823-1985 (within Alston index). Using a combination of OCR text recognition and manual annotation, we have extracted data the two top levels of the index, covering over 98% of the English language texts in the corpus. So for the first time it is possible to reliably identify and extract fiction, drama, history, topography, etc, from the corpus.

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Extracting data from 35,000 digitised books

To allow researchers to further filter the corpus to identify texts from niche topic areas, the interface supports the semi-automatic creation of word lexicons, built upon modern “word embedding” natural language processing methods. By combining the resulting lexicons with existing corpus metadata and the data extracted from digitised version of the Alston Index, researchers can efficiently create and export small topical sub-corpora for subsequent close reading.

The Contagion project team is currently using information retrieval and word embeddings to identify texts for close reading. This combination allows us to track key trends pertaining to illness and contagion in the corpus, and interpret these findings with particular reference to current and historical debates surrounding biopolitics, medical culture and migration. Clusters of associations between contagion, poverty and morality are identifiable within the corpus. However, to date our research indicates that Victorians were more worried about religious contamination from migrants and minorities than they were about contagious diseases.

A key feature of the project is the intersection of methodologies and concepts from English literature, automated text mining, and medical humanities. This involves using data analytics as a mode of interpretation not a substitute for it, a way of engaging with the extent and complexity of cultural production in the nineteenth century. Cultural data resists giving definitive yes or no answers to the questions put to it by researchers, but the more cultural data we analyse the better we can map the processes of cultural change and continuity, in all their complexity. The process of tracking themes, topics, and associations enabled by the new interface offers an opportunity to work with and far beyond the existing canon of nineteenth century fiction, itself radically expanded by the last 20 years of scholarship. The identification within the corpus of a very large collection of 3 volume novels indicates that the popular novel is very well represented, for example, while the ability to identify and extract ‘Collected Works’ indicates which writers their contemporaries expected to remain central to the tradition of fiction.

On February 20th 2019, the FREE ‘Reading 35,000 Books’ workshop and roundtable will present the project’s work to date, and will also include discussion by scholars of nineteenth century literature and the British Library Labs of the future development and use of the new searchable interface, including exporting topical sub-corpora for further research.

The event is supported by the Irish Research Council.