THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

166 posts categorized "Projects"

25 September 2020

Making Data Into Sound

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This is a guest post by Anne Courtney, Gulf History Cataloguer with the Qatar Digital Library, https://www.qdl.qa/en 

Sonification

Over the summer, I’ve been investigating the sonification of data. On the Qatar Project (QDL), we generate a large amount of data, and I wanted to experiment with different methods of representing it. Sonification was a new technique for me, which I learnt about through this article: https://programminghistorian.org/en/lessons/sonification.

 

What is sonification?

Sonification is the method of representing data in an aural format, rather than visual format, such as a graph. It is particularly useful for showing changes in data over time. Different trends are highlighted depending on the choices made during the process, in the same way as they would be when drawing a graph.

 

How does it work?

First, all the data must be put in the right format:

An example of data in Excel showing listed longitude points of
Figure 1: Excel data of longitude points where the Palsgrave anchored

Then, the data is used to generate a midi file. The Programming Historian provides an example python script for this, and by changing parts of it, it is possible to change the tempo, note length, scale, and other features.

Python script ready to output a midi file of occurrences of Anjouan over time
Figure 2: Python script ready to output a midi file of occurrences of Anjouan over time

Finally, to overlay the different midi files, edit them, and change the instruments, I used MuseScore, freely-downloadable music notation software. Other alternatives include LMMS and Garageband:

A music score with name labels of where the Discovery, Palsgrave, and Mary anchored on their journeys, showing different pitches and musical notations.
Figure 3: The score of the voyages of the Discovery, Palsgrave, and Mary, labelled to show the different places where they anchored.

 

The sound of authorities

Each item which the Qatar project catalogues has authority terms linked to it, which list the main subjects and places connected to the item. As each item is dated, it is possible to trace trends in subjects and places over time by assigning the dates of the items to the authority terms. Each authority term ends up with a list of dates when it was mentioned. By assigning different instruments to the different authorities, it is possible to hear how they are connected to each other.

This sound file contains the sounds of places connected with the trade in enslaved people, and how they intersect with the authority term ‘slave trade’. The file begins in 1700 and finishes in 1900. One of the advantages of sonification is that the silence is as eloquent as the data. The authority terms are mentioned more at the end of the time period than the start, and so the piece becomes noisier as the British increasingly concern themselves with these areas. The pitch of the instruments is determined, in this instance, by the months of the records in which they are mentioned.

Authorities

The authority terms are represented by these instruments:

Anjouan: piccolo

Madagascar: cello

Zanzibar: horn

Mauritius: piano

Slave Trade: tubular bell

 

Listening for ships

Ships

This piece follows the journeys of three ships from March 1633 to January 1637. In this example, the pitch is important because it represents longitude; the further east the ships travel, the higher the pitch. The Discovery and the Palsgrave mostly travelled together from Gravesend to India, and they both made frequent trips between the Gulf and India. The Mary set out from England in April 1636 to begin her own journey to India. The notes represent the time the ships spent in harbour, and the silence is the time spent at sea. The Discovery is represented by the flute, the Palsgrave by the violin, and the Mary by the horn.

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

18 September 2020

Hiring a new Wikimedian in Residence

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Are you passionate about helping people and organisations build and preserve open knowledge to share and use freely? Have you got experience organising online events, workshops and training sessions? Then you may be interested in applying to be our new Wikimedian in Residence.

In collaboration with Wikimedia UK, the British Library is working on contributing and improving content, data, and metadata, across the Wikimedia family of platforms.

I recently ran a “World of Wikimedia” series of remote guest lectures for Library staff, to inspire my colleagues, and to further assist with this work, the Library is hiring a Wikimedian in Residence to join the Digital Scholarship team, on a part-time basis (18 hours per week) for 12 months.

8 people standing outside the entrance of the British Library
A Wikipedians in Residence group photo, taken at GLAMcamp London, 15-16 September 2012 (photo by Rock drum, Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Since hosting a successful Wikipedian in Residence in 2012 (this was Andrew Gray, who is standing second in from the right in the above photo, you can read about his residency here), many staff across the British Library have engaged with Wikimedia projects, holding edit-a-thons, and adding digital collections to Wikimedia Commons.

Now, with generous funding from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, we are looking for a proactive and self-motivated individual who can coordinate and support these activities. Furthermore, we are hoping for someone who can really help the Library to actively engage with the Wikidata, Wikibase and Wikisource platforms and communities. Increasing the visibility and enrichment of data, collections, and research materials, which the Library holds about underrepresented populations.

If this sounds like something you can do, then please do apply. The vacancy ref is 03423, closing date is 8th October 2020 and the interview date is 23rd October 2020. The post is part time 2.5 days per week, for 12 months, and initially work will be done remotely, in light of the current COVID 19 situation. However, longer term, it is likely that there will be a mix of remote and on site working.

During my time working in the Library, we have hosted a number of wonderful residencies, including Christopher Green, Rob Sherman and Sarah Cole, who each brought fresh skills, knowledge and enthusiasm, into the Library. So I very much hope that this new residency will do the same.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom

14 September 2020

Digital geographical narratives with Knight Lab’s StoryMap

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Visualising the journey of a manuscript’s creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

StoryMap: Easy but fiddly

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

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

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

 

The mapping function

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

07 September 2020

When is a persistent identifier not persistent? Or an identifier?

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Ever wondered what that bar code on the back of every book is? It’s an ISBN: an International Standard Book Number. Every modern book published has an ISBN, which uniquely identifies that book, and anyone publishing a book can get an ISBN for it whether an individual or a huge publishing house. It’s a little more complex than that in practice but generally speaking it’s 1 book, 1 ISBN. Right? Right.

Except…

If you search an online catalogue, such as WorldCat or The British Library for the ISBN 9780393073775 (or the 10-digit equivalent, 0393073777) you’ll find results appear for two completely different books:

  1. Waal FD. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.; 2013. 304 p. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1167414372
  2. Lodge HC. The Storm Has Many Eyes; a Personal Narrative. 1st edition. New York: New York Norton; 1973. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/989188234

A screen grab of the main catalogue showing a search for ISBN 0393073777 with the above two results

In fact, things are so confused that the cover of one book gets pulled in for the other as well. Investigate further and you’ll see that it’s not a glitch: both books have been assigned the same ISBN. Others have found the same:

“However, if the books do not match, it’s usually one of two issues. First, if it is the same book but with a different cover, then it is likely the ISBN was reused for a later/earlier reprinting. … In the other case of duplicate ISBNs, it may be that an ISBN was reused on a completely different book. This shouldn’t happen because ISBNs are supposed to be unique, but exceptions have been found.” — GoodReads Librarian Manual: ISBN-10, ISBN-13 and ASINS

While most publishers stick to the rules about never reusing an ISBN, it’s apparently common knowledge in the book trade that ISBNs from old books get reused for newer books, sometimes accidentally (due to a typo), sometimes intentionally (to save money), and that has some tricky consequences.

I recently attended a webinar entitled “Identifiers in Heritage Collections - how embedded are they?” from the Persistent Identifiers as IRO Infrastructure (“HeritagePIDs”) project, part of AHRC’s Towards a National Collection programme. As quite often happens, the question was raised: what Persistent Identifier (PID) should we use for books and why can’t we just use ISBNs? Rod Page, who gave the demo that prompted this discussion, also wrote a short follow-up blog post about what makes PIDs work (or not) which is worth a look before you read the rest of this.

These are really valid questions and worth considering in more detail, and to do that we need to understand what makes a PID special. We call them persistent, and indeed we expect some sort of guarantee that a PID remains valid for the long term, so that we can use it as a link or placeholder for the referent without worrying that the link will get broken. But we also expect PIDs to be actionable: it can be made into a valid URL by following some rules: so that we can directly obtain the object referenced or at least some information about it.

Actionability implies two further properties: an actionable identifier must be

  1. Unique: guaranteed to have only one identifier for a given object (of a given type); and
  2. Unambiguous: guaranteed that a single identifier refers to only one object

Where does this leave us with ISBNs?

Well first up they’re not actionable to start with: given an ISBN, there’s no canonical way to obtain information about the book referenced, although in practice there are a number of databases that can help. There is, in fact, an actionable ISBN standard: ISBN-A permits converting an ISBN into a DOI with all the benefits of the underlying DOI and Handle infrastructure. Sadly, creation of an ISBN-A isn’t automatic and publishers have to explicitly create the ISBN-A DOI in addition to the already-create ISBN; most don’t.

More than that though, it’s hard to make them actionable since ISBNs fail on both uniqueness and unambiguity. Firstly, as seen in the example I gave above, ISBNs do get recycled, They’re not supposed to be:

“Once assigned to a monographic publication, an ISBN can never be reused to identify another monographic publication, even if the original ISBN is found to have been assigned in error.” — International ISBN Agency. ISBN Users’ Manual [Internet]. Seventh Edition. London, UK: International ISBN Agency; 2017 [cited 2020 Jul 23]. Available from: https://www.isbn-international.org/content/isbn-users-manual

Yet they are, so we can’t rely on their precision.[1]

Secondly, and perhaps more problematic in day-to-day use, a given book may have multiple ISBNs. To an extent this is reasonable: different editions of the same book may have different content, or at the very least different page numbering, so a PID should be able to distinguish these for accurate citation. Unfortunately the same edition of the same book will frequently have multiple ISBNs; in particular each different format (hardback, paperback, large print, ePub, MOBI, PDF, …) is expected to have a distinct ISBN. Even if all that changes is the publisher, a new ISBN is still created:

“We recently encountered a case where a publisher had licensed a book to another publisher for a different geographical market. Both books used the same ISBN. If the publisher of the book changes (even if nothing else about the book has changed), the ISBN must also change.” — Everything you wanted to know about the ISBN but were too afraid to ask

Again, this is reasonable since the ISBN is primarily intended for stockkeeping by book sellers[2], and for them the difference between a hardback and paperback is important because they differ in price if nothing else. This has bitten more than one librarian when trying to merge data from two different sources (such as usage and pricing) using the ISBN as the “obvious” merge key. It makes bibliometrics harder too, since you can’t easily pull out a list of all citations of a given edition in the literature, just from a single ISBN.

So where does this leave us?

I’m not really sure yet. ISBNs as they are currently specified and used by the book industry aren’t really fit for purpose as a PID. But they’re there and they sort-of work and establishing a more robust PID for books would need commitment and co-operation from authors, publishers and libraries. That’s not impossible: a lot of work has been done recently to make the ISSN (International Standard Serial Number, for journals) more actionable.

But perhaps there are other options. Where publishers, booksellers and libraries are primarily interested in IDs for stock management, authors, researchers and scholarly communications librarians are more interested in the scholarly record as a whole and tracking the flow of ideas (and credit for those) which is where PIDs come into their own. Is there an argument for a coalition of these groups to establish a parallel identifier system for citation & credit that’s truly persistent? It wouldn’t be the first time: ISNIs (International Standard Name Identifiers) and ORCIDs (Open Researcher and Contributor IDs) both identify people, but for different purposes in different roles and with robust metadata linking the two where possible.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this train of thought so I’ll leave it there for now, but I’m sure I’ll be back. The more I dig into this the more there is to find, including the mysterious, long-forgotten and no-longer accessible Book Item & Component Identifier proposal. In the meantime, if you want a persistent identifier and aren’t sure which one you need these Guides to Choosing a Persistent Identifier from Project FREYA should get you started.


  1. Actually, as my colleague pointed out, even DOIs potentially have this problem, although I feel they can mitigate it better with metadata that allows rich expression of relationships between DOIs.  ↩︎

  2. In fact, the newer ISBN-13 standard is simply an ISBN-10 encoded as an “International Article Number”, the standard barcode format for almost all retail products, by sticking the “Bookland” country code of 978 on the front and recalculating the check digit. ↩︎

04 September 2020

British Library Joins Share-VDE Linked Data Community

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This blog post is by Alan Danskin, Collection Metadata Standards Manager, British Library. metadata@bl.uk

What is Share-VDE and why has the British Library joined the Share-VDE Community?

Share-VDE is a library-driven initiative bringing library catalogues together in a shared Virtual Discovery Environment.  It uses linked data technology to create connections between bibliographic information contributed by different institutions

Example SVDE page showing Tim Berners-Lee linked info to publications, wikipedia, and other external sites
Figure 1: SVDE page for Sir Tim Berners-Lee

For example, searching for Sir Tim Berners-Lee retrieves metadata contributed by different members, including links to his publications. The search also returns links to external sources of information, including Wikipedia.

The British Library will be the first institution to contribute its national bibliography to Share-VDE and we also plan to contribute our catalogue data. By collaborating with the Share-VDE community we will extend access to information about our collections and services and enable information to be reused.

The Library also contributes to Share-VDE by participating on community groups working to develop the metadata model and Share-VDE functionality. This provides us with a practical approach for bridging differences between the IFLA Library Reference Model (LRM) and the Bibframe initiative, led by Library of Congress.

Share VDE is promoted by the international bibliographic agency Casalini Libri and @Cult, a solutions developer working in the cultural heritage sector.

Andrew MacEwan, Head of Metadata at the British Library, explained that, “Membership of the Share-VDE community is an exciting opportunity to enrich the Library’s metadata and open it up for re-use by other institutions in a linked data environment.”

Tiziana Possemato, Chief Information Officer at Casalini Libri and Director of @Cult, said "We are delighted to collaborate with the British Library and extremely excited about unlocking the wealth of data in its collections, both to further enrich the Virtual Discovery Environment and to make the Library's resources even more accessible to users."

For further information about:

SHARE-VDE  

Linked Data

Linked Open Data

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

Casalini Libri is a bibliographic agency producing authority and bibliographic data; a library vendor, supplying books and journals, and offering a variety of collection development and technical services; and an e-content provider, working both for publishers and libraries.

@Cult is a software development company, specializing in data conversion for LD; and provider of Integrated Library System and Discovery tools, delivering effective and innovative technological solutions to improve information management and knowledge sharing.

24 August 2020

Not Just for Kids: UK Digital Comics, from creation to consumption

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This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at Linda.Berube@city.ac.uk.

“There are those who claim that Britain no longer has a comics industry.” (John Freeman, downthetubes.net, quoting Lewis Stringer)

Freeman goes onto say that despite the evidence supporting such a view (have you ever really looked at a WH Smith comics rack? He has: see his photo of one here), the British comics industry is not just all licenced content from the United States, and it has continued to produce new publications. Maybe the newsstand is not necessarily the best place to look for them.
For the newsstand does not tell the whole story. Comics are not all kiddie and superhero characters now, if they ever were (Sabin 1993). Not that there is anything wrong with that content, but prevailing attitudes about the perceived lack of seriousness of these types of comics can inhibit a consideration of comics as cultural objects in their own right, worthy of research. Novelist Susan Hill (2017) expresses a widely held view when she stated: "Is it better for young people to read nothing at all than read graphic novels-which are really only comics for an older age group?". No amount of book awards, academic departments or academic journals have eliminated such sentiments[1].

The best place for looking at all UK comics have to offer is online. Digital comics have not only brought a whole new audience but new creators, as well as new business models and creative processes. My Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Programme funded research will take a deep dive into these models and processes, from creation to consumption. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London)[2].

A cartoon of a spaceship on the left and a large smartphone screen on the right, showing two people talking to each other
Figure 1: Charisma.ai uses innovative technology to create comics

This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280). To date, there have been few attempts at viewing the creation to consumption process of print comics in their entirety, and no complete studies of the production and communication models of digital comics. While Benatti (2019) analysed the changes to the roles of authors, readers, and publishers prompted by the creation of webcomics, she admits that “the uncertain future of the comics print communications circuit makes the establishment of a parallel digital circuit…more necessary than ever for the development of the comics medium”. (p316)

Screen capture of a website showing the covers of three comics, the first comic shows a rocket leaving earth, the second a Christmas wreath and a pair of crutches, the third 4 people next to a beach
Figure 2: Helen Greetham is part of the international Spider Forest Webcomic collective, one way of distributing and marketing digital comics

Benatti was using the wider publishing industry’s process models and the disruption caused by digital technology as a lens through which to view webcomics. Indeed, historians have discovered cohesive patterns in the development of ideas, especially as embodied in print books. These patterns, most often described as cycles, chains, or circuits, follow the book through various channels of creation, production, and consumption. (See Darnton 1982, diagram of Communication Circuit below, for example). However, they have undergone a significant transformation, disruption even, when considered in the context of the digital environment (Murray and Squires 2013 have update Darnton for the digital and self-publishing age). And at first, it seemed that the disruption would prove terminal for certain types of communication, but most especially books and newspapers in print.

A diagram of Darntons Communication Circuit
Figure 3: Robert Darnton’s Communication Circuit

What about the production patterns for comics within this publishing context? Have print comics given way to digital comics? And are digital comics the revolution they once seemed?
My research, a scoping study in its first year looking at the UK comics landscape and interviewing comics gatekeepers-mediators (CGMs)[3], seeks to address the gap in the understanding of the creation to consumption process for digital comics. This first year’s work will be followed up by research into the creative process of digital comics writers and artists and what readers might contribute to that process. It will be the first such research to investigate cohesive patterns and production models through interdisciplinary empirical research for UK digital comics: analysing how an idea and digital comic object is formed, communicated, discussed and transformed by all the participants involved, from authors to CGMs to readers.

References:

Benatti, Francesca (2019). ‘Superhero comics and the digital communications circuit: a case study of Strong Female Protagonist’, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics,10 (3), pp306-319. Available at: DOI: 10.1080/21504857.2018.1485720.

Darnton, R. (1982). ‘What Is the History of Books?’ Daedalus,111(3), pp65-83. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/20024803.  Also available at:  https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3403038/darnton_historybooks.pdf

Freeman, John (2020).   ‘British Comics Industry Q&A’, downthetubes.net: exploring comics and more on the web since 1998. Quoting British comics creator and archivist Lew Stringer in a 2015 assessment of news stand comics on his Blimey! It’s Another Blog About Comics blog.  Available at: https://downthetubes.net/?page_id=7110).

Hill, Susan (2017). Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books: A Year of Reading. Profile Books.

McCloud, Scott (2000). Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form.  New York, N.Y: Paradox Press.

Murray, P.R.  and Squires, C. (2013). ‘Digital Publishing Communications Circuit’, Book 2.0, 3(1), pp3-23. Available at: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/btwo.3.1.3_1. See also: Stirling University, Book Unbound https://www.bookunbound.stir.ac.uk/research/.

Priego, Ernesto (2011). The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction. City, University of London. Journal contribution. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.754575.v4.

Sabin, Roger (1993). Adult comics: An introduction. London: Routledge. See Part 1: Britain 1. The first adult comics 2. Kid's stuff 3.Underground comix  4. 2000AD: 'The Comic of tomorrow!'  5. Fandom and direct sales 6. 'Comics grow up!': dawn of the graphic novel  7.From boom to bust 8.Viz: 'More fun than a jammy bun!'  9. The future.


Footnotes

1. For example, the Pulitzer Prize[Maus]; The Guardian’s First Book Award 2001 [Jimmy Corrigan]; Man Booker Prize longlist [Sabrina], not to mention the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. The fact that graphic novels are singled out from comics here is another entire blog post… ↩︎

2. Ernesto does a nice line in comics himself: see Parables of Care. Creative Responses to Dementia Care, As Told by Carers and I Know How This Ends: Stories of Dementia Care, as well as The Lockdown Chronicles. ↩︎

3. The word ‘publisher’, at least in its traditional sense, just does not seem to apply to the various means of production and distribution. ↩︎