THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

44 posts categorized "Printed books"

19 October 2020

The 2020 British Library Labs Staff Award - Nominations Open!

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Looking for entries now!

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

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

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

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

The deadline for submission is 0700 (GMT), Monday 30 November 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 October 2020

Fiction Readers Wanted for PhD Research Study

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This a guest post is by British Library collaborative doctoral student Carol Butler, you can follow her on twitter as @fantomascarol.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020).

In 2016 I started a PhD project in partnership with the British Library and the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design (CHCID) at City, University of London. My research has focused on the phenomena of fiction authors interacting with readers through online media, such as websites, forums and social media, to promote and discuss their work. My aim is to identify potential avenues for redesigning or introducing new technology to better support authors and readers. I am now in my fourth and final year, aiming to complete my research this winter.

The internet has impacted how society interacts with almost everything, and literature has been no exception. It’s often thought that if a person or a business is not online, they are effectively invisible, and over the last ten years or so it has become increasingly common – expected, even - for authors to have an online presence allowing readers, globally, to connect with them.

Opportunities for authors and readers to interact together existed long before the internet, through events such as readings, signings, and festivals. The internet does not replace these – indeed, festivals have grown in popularity in recent years, and many have embraced technology to broaden their engagement outside of the event itself. However, unlike organised events, readers and authors can potentially interact online far more directly, outside of formal mediation. Perceived benefits from this disintermediation are commonly hailed – i.e. that it can break down access barriers for readers (e.g. geography and time, so they can more easily learn about the books they enjoy and the person behind the story), and help authors to better understand their market and the reception to their books. However, being a relatively new phenomenon, we don’t know much yet about how interacting with each other online may differ to doing so at a festival or event, and what complications the new environment may introduce to the experience, or even exacerbate. It is this research gap that my work has been addressing.

Early in my research, I conducted interviews with fiction authors and readers who use different online technologies (e.g. social media such as Twitter and Facebook, forums such as Reddit, or literary-specific sites such as GoodReads) to interact with other readers and authors. All participants generously shared their honest, open accounts about what they do, where and why, and where they encounter problems. It became clear that, although the benefits to being online are widely accepted and everyone had good experiences to report, in reality, people’s reasons for being online were riddled with contradictions, and, in some cases, it was debatable whether the positives outweighed the negatives, or whether the practice served a meaningful purpose at all. Ultimately – it’s complex, and not everything we thought we knew is necessarily as clear cut as it’s often perceived. 

This led me to make a U-turn in my research. Before working out how to improve technology to better support interactions as they currently stand, I needed to find out more about people’s motivations to be online, and to question whether we were focused on the right problem in the first place. From this I’ve been working to reframe how we, in the research field of Human-Computer Interaction, may understand the dynamics between authors and readers, by building a broader picture of context and influences in the literary field.

I’m going to write another blog post in the coming months to talk about what I’ve found, and what I think we need to focus on in the near future. In particular, I think it is important to improve support for authors, as many find themselves in a tricky position because of the expectation that they are available and public-facing, effectively 24/7. However, before I expand on that, I am about to embark on one final study to address some outstanding questions I have about the needs of their market – fiction readers. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be recruiting people who read fiction – whether they interact online about reading or not - to join me for what I am informally referring to as ‘an interview with props’. This study is happening a few months later than I’d originally intended, as restrictions in relation to Covid-19 required me to change my original plans (e.g. to meet people face-to-face). My study has ‘gone digital’, changing how I can facilitate the sessions, and what I can realistically expect from them.

I will be asking people to join me to chat online, using Zoom, to reflect on a series of sketched interface design ideas I have created, and to discuss their current thoughts about authors being available online. The design sketches represent deviations from the technology currently in common use - some significant, and some subtle. The designs are not being tested on behalf of any affiliated company, and neither do I necessarily anticipate any of them to be developed into working technology in the future. Ultimately, they are probes to get us talking about broader issues surrounding author and reader interactions, and I’m hoping that by getting peoples perspectives about them, I’ll learn more about why the designs *don’t* work, moreover why they do, to help inform future research and design work.

I’ve been ‘umming and ahhing’ about how best to share these designs with participants through a digital platform. Sitting together in the same room, as I’d originally planned, we could all move them around, pick them up, take a red pen to them, make notes on post-its, and sketch alternative ideas on paper. There are fantastic online technologies available these days, which have proved invaluable during this pandemic. But they can’t provide the same experience that being physically present together can (a predicament which, perhaps ironically, is fitting with the research problem itself!).

A screen image of the Miro platform, showing a drawing of a person wearing glasses, with a text box underneath saying Favourite Author
A sneaky peek at a sketch in the making, on Miro

I have decided to use a website called Miro.com to facilitate the study – an interactive whiteboard tool that allows participants to add digital post-it notes, doodles, and more. I’ve never used it before now, and to my knowledge there is no published research out there (yet) by others in my research field who have used it with participants, for me to learn from their experience. I think I must prepare myself for a few technical glitches! But I am hopeful that participants will enjoy the experience, which will be informal, encouraging, and in no way a judgement of their abilities with the technology. I am confident that their contribution will greatly help my work – and future work which will help authors and readers in the real world.

If anyone who is reading this is interested in participating, please do get in touch. Information about the study and how to contact me can be found here or please email carol.butler@city.ac.uk.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020). Thanks to everyone who has applied.

23 September 2020

Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts

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For many people, our personal understanding of time has been challenged during the covid-19 pandemic, with minutes, hours and days of the week seeming to all merge together into "blursday", without our previous pre covid-19 routines to help us mark points in time.

Talking of time, the AHRC-funded Chronotopic Cartographies research project has spent the last few years investigating how we might use digital tools to analyse, map, and visualise the spaces, places and time within literary texts. It draws on the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the 'chronotope': a way of describing how time and place are linked and represented in different literary genres.

To showcase research from this project, next Tuesday (29th September 2020) we are co-hosting with them an online interdisciplinary conference: "Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts". 

Many blue dots connected with purple lines, behind text saying Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts

The "Mapping Space, Mapping Time, Mapping Texts" registration page is here. Once you have signed up, you will receive an email with links to recorded keynotes and webinar sessions. You will also received an email with links to the Flickr wall of virtual research posters and hangout spaces, on the morning of the conference.

The conference will go live from 09.00 BST, all webinars and live Q&A sessions will be held in Microsoft Teams. If you don't have Teams installed, you can do so before the event here. We appreciate that many participants will be joining from different time zones and that attendees may want to dip in and out of sessions; so please join at whatever pace suits you.

Our keynote speakers: James Kneale, Anders Engberg-Pederson and Robert T. Tally Jr have provided recordings of their presentations and will be joining the event for live Q&A sessions over the course of the day. You can watch the keynote recordings at any time, but if you want to have the conference experience, then log in to the webinars at the times below so you can participate "live" across the day. Q&A sessions will be held after each keynote at the times below. 

Schedule:

9.00 BST: Conference goes live, keynotes and posters available online, urls sent via email.

9.30: Short introduction and welcome from Sally Bushell

10.00-11.00: First Keynote: James Kneale

11.00-11.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Rebecca Hutcheon)

2.00-3.00: Second Keynote: Anders Engberg-Pedersen

3.00-3.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Duncan Hay)

5.00-6.00: Third Keynote: Robert T. Tally Jr

6.00-6.30: Live Q&A (chaired by Sally Bushell)

In the breaks between sessions, please do browse the online Flickr wall of research posters and hang out in conference virtual chat room.

We very much look forward to seeing you on-screen, on the day (remember it is Tuesday, not Blursday!).

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

11 September 2020

BL Labs Public Awards 2020: enter before 0700 GMT Monday 30 November 2020!

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The sixth BL Labs Public Awards 2020 formally recognises outstanding and innovative work that has been carried out using the British Library’s data and / or digital collections by researchers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, students and the general public.

The closing date for entering the Public Awards is 0700 GMT on Monday 30 November 2020 and you can submit your entry any time up to then.

Please help us spread the word! We want to encourage any one interested to submit over the next few months, who knows, you could even win fame and glory, priceless! We really hope to have another year of fantastic projects to showcase at our annual online awards symposium on the 15 December 2020 (which is open for registration too), inspired by our digital collections and data!

This year, BL Labs is commending work in four key areas that have used or been inspired by our digital collections and data:

  • Research - A project or activity that shows the development of new knowledge, research methods, or tools.
  • Artistic - An artistic or creative endeavour that inspires, stimulates, amazes and provokes.
  • Educational - Quality learning experiences created for learners of any age and ability that use the Library's digital content.
  • Community - Work that has been created by an individual or group in a community.

What kind of projects are we looking for this year?

Whilst we are really happy for you to submit your work on any subject that uses our digital collections, in this significant year, we are particularly interested in entries that may have a focus on anti-racist work or projects about lock down / global pandemic. We are also curious and keen to have submissions that have used Jupyter Notebooks to carry out computational work on our digital collections and data.

After the submission deadline has passed, entries will be shortlisted and selected entrants will be notified via email by midnight on Friday 4th December 2020. 

A prize of £150 in British Library online vouchers will be awarded to the winner and £50 in the same format to the runner up in each Awards category at the Symposium. Of course if you enter, it will be at least a chance to showcase your work to a wide audience and in the past this has often resulted in major collaborations.

The talent of the BL Labs Awards winners and runners up over the last five years has led to the production of remarkable and varied collection of innovative projects described in our 'Digital Projects Archive'. In 2019, the Awards commended work in four main categories – Research, Artistic, Community and Educational:

BL_Labs_Winners_2019-smallBL  Labs Award Winners for 2019
(Top-Left) Full-Text search of Early Music Prints Online (F-TEMPO) - Research, (Top-Right) Emerging Formats: Discovering and Collecting Contemporary British Interactive Fiction - Artistic
(Bottom-Left) John Faucit Saville and the theatres of the East Midlands Circuit - Community commendation
(Bottom-Right) The Other Voice (Learning and Teaching)

For further detailed information, please visit BL Labs Public Awards 2020, or contact us at labs@bl.uk if you have a specific query.

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of British Library Labs.

04 August 2020

Having a Hoot for International Owl Awareness Day

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Who doesn’t love owls? Here at the British Library we certainly do.

Often used as a symbol of knowledge, they are the perfect library bird. A little owl is associated and frequently depicted with the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena. The University of Bath even awarded Professor Yoda the European eagle owl a library card in recognition of his valuable service deterring seagulls from nesting on their campus.

The British Library may not have issued a reader pass to an owl (as far as I am aware!), but we do have a wealth of owl sound recordings in our wildlife and environmental sounds collection, you can read about and listen to some of these here.

Little Owl calls recorded by Nigel Tucker in Somerset, England (BL ref 124857)

Owls can also be discovered in our UK Web Archive. Our UK Web Archivists recently examined the Shine dataset to explore which UK owl species is the most popular on the archived .uk domain. Read here to find out which owl is the winner.

They also curate an Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK collection, which features bird watching and some owl related websites in the Animal related hobbies subsection. If you know of websites that you think should be included in this collection, then please fill in their online nomination form.

Here in Digital Scholarship I recently found many fabulous illustrations of owls in our Mechanical Curator Flickr image collection of over a million Public Domain images. So to honour owls on International Owl Awareness Day, I put together an owl album.

These owl illustrations are freely available, without copyright restrictions, for all types of creative projects, including digital collages. My colleague Hannah Nagle blogged about making collages recently and provided this handy guide. For finding more general images of nature for your collages, you may find it useful to browse other Mechanical Curator themed albums, such as Flora & Fauna, as these are rich resources for finding illustrations of trees, plants, animals and birds.

If you creatively use our Mechanical Curator Flickr images, please do share them with us on twitter, using the hashtag #BLdigital, we always love to see what people have done with them. Plus if you use any of our owls today, remember to include the #InternationalOwlAwarenessDay hashtag too!

We also urge you to be eagle-eyed (sorry wrong bird!) and look out for some special animated owls during the 4th August, like this one below, which uses both sounds and images taken from our collections. These have been created by Carlos Rarugal, our arty Assistant Web Archivist and will shared from the WildlifeWeb Archive and Digital Scholarship Twitter accounts. 


Video created by Carlos Rarugal,  using Tawny Owl hoots recorded by Richard Margoschis in Gloucestershire, England (BL ref 09647) and British Library digitised image from page 79 of "Woodland Wild: a selection of descriptive poetry. From various authors. With ... illustrations on steel and wood, after R. Bonheur, J. Bonheur, C. Jacque, Veyrassat, Yan Dargent, and other artists"

One of the benefits of making digital art, is that there is no risks of spilling paint or glue on your furniture! As noted in this tweet from Damyanti Patel "Thanks for the instructions, my kids were entertained & I had no mess to clean up after their art so a clear win win, they really enjoyed looking through the albums". I honestly did not ask them to do this, but it is really cool that her children included this fantastic owl in the centre of one of their digital collages:

I quite enjoy it when my library life and goth life connect! During the covid-19 lockdown I have attended several online club nights. A few months ago I was delighted to see that one of these; How Did I Get Here? Alternative 80s Night! regularly uses the British Library Flickr images to create their event flyers, using illustrations of people in strange predicaments to complement the name of their club; like this sad lady sitting inside a bird cage, in the flyer below.

Their next online event is Saturday 22nd August and you can tune in here. If you are a night owl, you could even make some digital collages, while listening to some great tunes. Sounds like a great night in to me!

Illustration of a woman sitting in a bird cage with a book on the floor just outside the cage
Flyer image for How Did I Get Here? Alternative 80s Night!

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

18 May 2020

Tree Collage Challenge

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Today is the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May 2020) and this year’s theme is kindness. In my opinion this starts with being kinder to yourself and there are many ways to do this. As my colleague Hannah Nagle recently reminded me in her recent blog post, creative activities can help you to relax, lift your mood and enable you to express yourself. Also, I personally find that spending time in green spaces and appreciating nature is of great benefit to my mental wellbeing.  UK mental health charity Mind promote ecotherapy and have a helpful section on their website all about nature and mental health.

However, I appreciate that it is not always possible for people to get outside to enjoy nature, especially in the current corona pandemic situation. However, there are ways to bring nature into our homes, such as listening to recordings of bird songs, looking at pictures, and watching videos of wildlife and landscapes. For more ideas on digital ways of connecting to nature, I suggest checking out “Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age” by Sue Thomas, who believes we don’t need to disconnect from the internet to reconnect with the earth, sea and sky.

Furthermore, why not participate in this year’s Urban Tree Festival (16-24 May 2020), which is completely online. There is a wide programme of talks and activities, including meditation, daily birdsong, virtual tours, radio and a book club. The festival also includes some brilliant art activities.

Urban Tree Festival logo with a photograph depicting a tree canopy
Urban Tree Festival 2020

Save Our Street Trees Northampton have invited people to create a virtual urban forest in their windows, by building a tree out of paper, then adding leaves every day to slowly build up a tree canopy. People are then encouraged to share photos of their paper trees on social media tagging them #NewLeaf.

Another Urban Tree Festival art project is Branching out with Ruth Broadbent, where people are invited to co-create imaginary trees by observing and drawing selected branches and foliage from sections of different trees. These might be seen from gardens or windows, from photos or from memory.

Paintings and drawings of trees are also celebrated in the Europeana’s Trees in Art online gallery, which has been launched by the festival today, to showcase artworks, which depict trees in urban and rural landscapes, from the digitised collections of museums, galleries, libraries and archives across Europe, including tree book illustrations from the British Library.

Thumbnail pictures of paintings of trees from a website gallery
Europeana Trees in Art online gallery

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, here at the British Library, we have set a Tree Collage Challenge, which invites you to make artistic collages featuring trees and nature, using our book illustrations from the British Library’s Flickr account.

This collection of over a million Public Domain images can be used by anyone for free, without copyright restrictions. The images are illustrations taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books. You can read more about them here.

As a starting point, for finding images for your collages, you may find it useful to browse themed albums.  In particular the Flora & Fauna albums are rich resources for finding trees, plants, animals and birds.

To learn how to make digital collages, my colleague Hannah Nagle has written a handy guide, to help get you started. You can download this here.

We hope you have fun and we can’t wait to see your collage creations! So please post your pictures to Twitter and Instagram using #GreatTree and #UrbanTreeFestival. British Library curators will be following the challenge with interest and showcasing their favourite tree collages in future blog posts, so watch this space!

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

20 April 2020

BL Labs Research Award Winner 2019 - Tim Crawford - F-Tempo

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Posted on behalf of Tim Crawford, Professorial Research Fellow in Computational Musicology at Goldsmiths, University of London and BL Labs Research Award winner for 2019 by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

Introducing F-TEMPO

Early music printing

Music printing, introduced in the later 15th century, enabled the dissemination of the greatest music of the age, which until that time was the exclusive preserve of royal and aristocratic courts or the Church. A vast repertory of all kinds of music is preserved in these prints, and they became the main conduit for the spread of the reputation and influence of the great composers of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, such as Josquin, Lassus, Palestrina, Marenzio and Monteverdi. As this music became accessible to the increasingly well-heeled merchant classes, entirely new cultural networks of taste and transmission became established and can be traced in the patterns of survival of these printed sources.

Music historians have tended to neglect the analysis of these patterns in favour of a focus on a canon of ‘great works’ by ‘great composers’, with the consequence that there is a large sub-repertory of music that has not been seriously investigated or published in modern editions. By including this ‘hidden’ musical corpus, we could explore for the first time, for example, the networks of influence, distribution and fashion, and the effects on these of political, religious and social change over time.

Online resources of music and how to read them

Vast amounts of music, mostly audio tracks, are now available using services such as Spotify, iTunes or YouTube. Music is also available online in great quantity in the form of PDF files rendering page-images of either original musical documents or modern, computer-generated music notation. These are a surrogate for paper-based books used in traditional musicology, but offer few advantages beyond convenience. What they don’t allow is full-text search, unlike the text-based online materials which are increasingly the subject of ‘distant reading’ in the digital humanities.

With good score images, Optical Music Recognition (OMR) programs can sometimes produce useful scores from printed music of simple texture; however, in general, OMR output contains errors due to misrecognised symbols. The results often amount to musical gibberish, severely limiting the usefulness of OMR for creating large digital score collections. Our OMR program is Aruspix, which is highly reliable on good images, even when they have been digitised from microfilm.

Here is a screen-shot from Aruspix, showing part of the original page-image at the top, and the program’s best effort at recognising the 16th-century music notation below. It is not hard to see that, although the program does a pretty good job on the whole, there are not a few recognition errors. The program includes a graphical interface for correcting these, but we don’t make use of that for F-TEMPO for reasons of time – even a few seconds of correction per image would slow the whole process catastrophically.

The Aruspix user-interface
The Aruspix user-interface

 

 

Finding what we want – error-tolerant encoding

Although OMR is far from perfect, online users are generally happy to use computer methods on large collections containing noise; this is the principle behind the searches in Google Books, which are based on Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

For F-TEMPO, from the output of the Aruspix OMR program, for each page of music, we extract a ‘string’ representing the pitch-name and octave for the sequence of notes. Since certain errors (especially wrong or missing clefs or accidentals) affect all subsequent notes, we encode the intervals between notes rather than the notes themselves, so that we can match transposed versions of the sequences or parts of them. We then use a simple alphabetic code to represent the intervals in the computer.

Here is an example of a few notes from a popular French chanson, showing our encoding method.

A few notes from a Crequillon chanson, and our encoding of the intervals
A few notes from a Crequillon chanson, and our encoding of the intervals

F-TEMPO in action

F-TEMPO uses state-of-the-art, scalable retrieval methods, providing rapid searches of almost 60,000 page-images for those similar to a query-page in less than a second. It successfully recovers matches when the query page is not complete, e.g. when page-breaks are different. Also, close non-identical matches, as between voice-parts of a polyphonic work in imitative style, are highly ranked in results; similarly, different works based on the same musical content are usually well-matched.

Here is a screen-shot from the demo interface to F-TEMPO. The ‘query’ image is on the left, and searches are done by hitting the ‘Enter’ or ‘Return’ key in the normal way. The list of results appears in the middle column, with the best match (usually the query page itself) highlighted and displayed on the right. As other results are selected, their images are displayed on the right. Users can upload their own images of 16th-century music that might be in the collection to serve as queries; we have found that even photos taken with a mobile phone work well. However, don’t expect coherent results if you upload other kinds of image!

F-Tempo-User Interface
F-Tempo-User Interface

The F-TEMPO web-site can be found at: http://f-tempo.org

Click on the ‘Demo’ button to try out the program for yourself.

What more can we do with F-TEMPO?

Using the full-text search methods enabled by F-TEMPO’s API we might begin to ask intriguing questions, such as:

  • ‘How did certain pieces of music spread and become established favourites throughout Europe during the 16th century?’
  • ‘How well is the relative popularity of such early-modern favourites reflected in modern recordings since the 1950s?’
  • ‘How many unrecognised arrangements are there in the 16th-century repertory?’

In early testing we identified an instrumental ricercar as a wordless transcription of a Latin motet, hitherto unknown to musicology. As the collection grows, we are finding more such unexpected concordances, and can sometimes identify the composers of works labelled in some printed sources as by ‘Incertus’ (Uncertain). We have also uncovered some interesting conflicting attributions which could provoke interesting scholarly discussion.

Early Music Online and F-TEMPO

From the outset, this project has been based on the Early Music Online (EMO) collection, the result of a 2011 JISC-funded Rapid Digitisation project between the British Library and Royal Holloway, University of London. This digitised about 300 books of early printed music at the BL from archival microfilms, producing black-and-white images which have served as an excellent proof of concept for the development of F-TEMPO. The c.200 books judged suitable for our early methods in EMO contain about 32,000 pages of music, and form the basis for our resource.

The current version of F-TEMPO includes just under 30,000 more pages of early printed music from the Polish National Library, Warsaw, as well as a few thousand from the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris. We will soon be incorporating no fewer than a further half-a-million pages from the Bavarian State Library collection in Munich, as soon as we have run them through our automatic indexing system.

 (This work was funded for the past year by the JISC / British Academy Digital Humanities Research in the Humanities scheme. Thanks are due to David Lewis, Golnaz Badkobeh and Ryaan Ahmed for technical help and their many suggestions.)

16 April 2020

BL Labs Community Commendation Award 2019 - Lesley Phillips - Theatre History

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EXPLORING THEATRE HISTORY WITH BRITISH LIBRARY PLAYBILLS AND NEWSPAPERS

Posted on behalf of Lesley Phillips, a former Derbyshire local studies librarian in the UK and BL Labs Community Commendation Award winner for 2019 by Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs.

Lesley explains how the British Library's digital collections of playbills and digtised newspapers enabled her to compile a detailed account of the career of the actor-manager John Faucit Saville in the East Midlands 1843-1855.

John Faucit Saville was born in Norwich in 1807, the son of two actors then performing with the Norwich Company as Mr and Mrs Faucit. His parents separated when he was 14 years old and just entering on his stage career. His mother, then a leading actress at Drury Lane, moved in with the celebrated actor William Farren, and continued to perform as Mrs Faucit, while his father became a manager and changed his surname to Saville (his real name).

Oxberry's Dramatic Biography (1825) records his father's grief:

On the evening that the fatal news [of his wife's desertion] reached him [Mr John Faucit] left the theatre and walked over the beach. His lips trembled and he was severely agitated. Many persons addressed him, but he broke from them and went to the house of a particular friend. The facts were then known only to himself. Though a man of temperate habits, he drank upwards of two bottles of wine without being visibly affected. He paced the room and seemed unconscious of the presence of anyone. To his friend's inquiries he made no reply. He once said “My heart is almost broke, but you will soon know why”.

(C.E. Oxberry (ed.) Oxberry's Dramatic Biography and Histrionic Anecdotes. Vol. III (1825) pp. 33-34, Memoir of William Farren)

Despite the rift between his parents, John Faucit Saville had all the advantages that famous friends and relatives could bring in the theatrical world, but during his time as an aspiring actor it soon became clear that he would never be a great star. In 1841 he began to put his energies into becoming a manager, like his father before him. He took a lease of Brighton Theatre in his wife's home town, but struggled to make a success of it.

Like the other managers of his day he was faced with a decline in the fashion for rational amusements and the rise of 'beer and circuses'. This did not deter him from making a further attempt at establishing a theatrical circuit. For this he came to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, where the decline of the old circuit and the retirement of Thomas Manly had laid the field bare for a new man. Saville must surely have had great confidence in his own ability to be successful here, given that the old, experienced manager had begun to struggle.

Saville took on the ailing circuit, and soon discovered that he was forced to make compromises. He was careful to please the local authorities as to the respectability of his productions, and yet managed to provide more lowbrow entertainments to bring in the audiences. Even so, after a few years he was forced to reign in his ambitions and eventually reduce his circuit, and he even went back on tour as an itinerant actor from time to time to supplement his income. Saville's career had significant implications for the survival of some of the theatres of the East Midlands, as he lived through the final disintegration of the circuit.

Over the years, John Faucit Saville's acting career had taken him to Paris, Edinburgh, and Dublin, as well as many parts of England. Without the use of digital online resources it would be almost impossible to trace a career such as his, to explore his background, and bring together the details of his life and work.

Theatre-royal-brghton
Newspaper article from 29 January 1829 detailing the benefit performance for Mr Faucit entitled 'Clandestine Marriage' at the Theatre Royal Brighton

The digitised newspapers of the British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk enabled me to uncover the Saville family origins in Bedford, and to follow John Faucit Saville's career from the heights of the London stage, to management at Brighton and then to the Midlands.

Saville-benefit
Newspaper article detailing benefit performance for Mr JF Saville at Theatre Royal Derby on Friday May 23, 1845, play entitled 'Don Caesar de Bazan' or 'Martina the Gypsy'

The dataset of playbills available to download from the British Library web site https://data.bl.uk/playbills/pb1.html enabled me to build up a detailed picture of Saville's work, the performers and plays he used, and the way he used them. It was still necessary to visit some libraries and archives for additional information, but I could never have put together such a rich collection of information without these digital resources.

My research has been put into a self-published book, filled with newspaper reviews of Saville's productions, and stories about his company. This is not just a narrow look at regional theatre; there are also some references to figures of national importance in theatre history. John Faucit Saville's sister, Helen Faucit, was a great star of her day, and his half-brother Henry Farren made his stage debut in Derbyshire with Saville's company. John Faucit Saville's wife Marianne performed with Macready on his farewell tour and also played at Windsor for Queen Victoria. The main interest for me, however, was the way theatre history reveals how national and local events impacted on society and public behaviour, and how the theatre connected with the life of the ordinary working man and woman.

Lesley-phillips-book
Front cover of my self-published book about John Faucit Saville

If you are interested in playbills generally, you might want to help British Library provide more information about individual ones through a crowdsourcing project, entitled 'In the Spotlight'.