All good things must come to an end, no I’m not talking about the collapse of a favourite high street chain store beginning with W, but the final few weeks of our Digital Storytelling exhibition, which closes on the 15th October 2023. If you haven’t seen it yet, then this is your last chance to book!
Digital Storytelling showcases eleven different born digital works, including interactive narratives that respond to user input, reading experiences personalised by data feeds, and immersive multimedia story worlds developed through audience participation. From thought provoking autobiographical hypertexts to data journalism, uncanny ghost stories to weather poetry, steampunk literary adaptation to quirky Elizabethan medical comedy.
If you want to hear more about this exhibition, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom will be giving two talks later this week. The first of these will be in-person on Thursday evening, 5th October, in Richmond Lending Library for the Richmond Reads season of events, celebrating the joys and benefits of reading. The second will be held online on Friday morning, 6th October, for the DARIAH-EU autumn 2023 Friday Frontiers series.
We are also delighted to share that there is a chapter about interactive digital books written by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications, in The Book by Design, which was recently launched by our colleagues in British Library Publishing. Giulia’s chapter discusses innovative Editions at Play publications, including Seed by Joanna Walsh and Breathe by Kate Pullinger, which are both currently displayed in Digital Storytelling.
In the spring of 2020, during the first UK lockdown, I wrote an article for the British Library English and Drama blog, titled ‘Writing tools for Interactive Fiction’. Quite a few things have changed since then and as the Library launched its first exhibition on Digital Storytelling this June, it seemed like the perfect time to update this list with a few additions.
Interactive fiction (IF), or interactive narrative/narration, is defined as “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.”
Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it might be a useful overview of some of the tools currently available, if you’d like to start experimenting with writing your own interactive narrative. We are also very excited to be able to offer a week-long Interactive Fiction Summer School this August at the Library, running alongside the Digital Storytelling exhibition.
For an easier navigation, these are the tools included in this article:
Cambridge-based video game studio inkle is behind another IF tool – or two. Ink is the scripting language used to author many of inkle’s videogames – the idea behind it is to mark up “pure-text with flow in order to produce interactive scripts”. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge and the resulting scripts are relatively easy to read. Inky is the editor to write ink scripts in – it’s free to download and lets you test your narrative as you write it. Once you’re happy with your story, you can export it for the web, as well as a JSON file. There’s a quick tutorial to walk you through the basics, as well as a full manual on how to write in ink. ink was also used to write 80 Days, another work collected by the British Library as part of the emerging formats project and currently exhibited as part of the Digital Storytelling exhibition.
A page from 80 Days, written using ink. To read in full detail, please click on the image.
inklewriter is an open-source, ready-to-use, browser-based IF “sketch-pad”. It is meant to be used to sketch out narratives more than to author fully-developed stories. There is no download required and the fact that it is a simple and straightforward tool to experiment with IF makes it a good fit for educators. Tutorials are included within the platform itself so that you can learn while you write.
Bitsy is a browser-based editor for mini games developed by Adam Le Doux in 2016. It operates within clear constraints (8x8 pixel tiles, a 3-colour palette, etc.), which is actually one of the reasons why it is so beloved. You can draw and animate your own characters within your pixel grid, write the dialogue and define how your avatar (your playable character) will interact with the surrounding scenery and with other non-playable characters. Again, no programming knowledge is necessary. Bitsy is especially good for short narratives and vignette games. After completing your game, you can download it as an HTML file and then share it however you prefer. There is Bitsy Docs, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.
Shout-out to the Emerging Formats Project
(from Giulia Carla Rossi’s The British Library Simulator)
While Twine allows you to write hypertext narratives (where readers can progress through the story by clicking on a link), Inform 7 lets you write parser-based interactive fiction. Parser-based IF requires the reader to type commands (sometimes full sentences) in order to interact with the story.
How to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard)
<style="font-family: inherit;">Written by Andrew Plotkin -- design by Lea Albaugh. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License
Inform 7 is a free-to-use, open-source (as of April 2022) tool to write interactive fiction. Originally created as Inform by Graham Nelson in 1993, the current Inform 7 was released in 2006 and uses natural language (based on the English language) to describe situations and interactions. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with Twine, but the natural language approach allows for users with no programming experience to write code in a simplified language that reads like English text. Inform 7 also has a Recipe Book and a series of well-documented tutorials. Inform also runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux and lets you output your game as HTML files.
While the current version of Inform is Inform 7, narratives using previous versions of the system are still available – Emily Short’s Galatea is always a good place to start. You could also explore mysterious ruins with your romantic interest (C.E.J. Pacian’s Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), play a gentleman thief (J.J. Guest’s Alias, the Magpie) or make more tea (Joey Jones’ Strained Tea).
Genres of works built using ChoiceScript are again quite varied – from sci-fi stories exploring the relationships between writers and readers (Lynda Clark’s Writers Are Not Strangers), to crime/romantic dramas (Toni Owen-Blue’s Double/Cross) and fantasy adventures (Thom Baylay’s Evertree Inn).
Downpour is a game-making tool for phones currently in development. Created by v buckenham, Downpour is a tool that will allow users to make interactive games in minutes, only using their phone’s camera and linking images together. There is no expectation of previous programming knowledge and by removing the need to access a computer, Downpour promises to be a very approachable tool. Release is currently planned for 2023 on iOS and Android – if you want to be notified when it launches you can sign up here.
As I mentioned before, this is in no way a comprehensive list – there are a lot of other tools and platforms to write IF, both mainstream as well as slightly more obscure ones (Ren’Py, Quest, StoryNexus, Raconteur, Genarrator, just to mention a few). Try different tools, find the one that works best for you or use a mix of them if you prefer! Experiment as much as you like.
“Every game that you and I make right now [...] makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness. And new voices are important in an art form that has been dominated for so long by a single perspective. [...]
There’s nothing to stop us from making our voices heard now. And there will be plenty of voices. Among those voices, there will be plenty of mediocrity, and plenty of games that have no meaning to anyone outside the author and maybe her friends. But [...] imagine what we’ll gain: real diversity, a plethora of voices and experiences, and a new avenue for human beings to tell their stories and connect with other human beings.”
This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications
Following on from last week’s post, have you signed up for our Wikithon already? If you are interested in Black theatre history and making women visible, and want to learn how to edit Wikipedia, please do join us online, on Monday 28th March, from 10am to 1.30pm BST, over Zoom.
We are grateful to the British Newspaper Archive and Findmypast for granting our participants access to their resources on the day of the event. If you’d like to learn more about this Archive beforehand, there are some handy guides to how to do this below.
I used a quick British Newspaper Archive Search to look for information on Una Marson, a playwright and artist whose work is very important in the timeframe of this Wikithon (1900-1950). As you can see, there were over 1000 results. I was able to view images of Una at gallery openings, art exhibitions and read all about her work.
Findmypast focuses more on legal records of people, living and dead. It’s a dream website for genealogists and those interested in social history. They’ve recently uploaded the results of the 1921 census, so there is a lot of material about people’s lives in the early 20th century.
The Wikipedia Logo, Nohat (concept by Paullusmagnus), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Once you have done that, or if you already have a Wikipedia account, please join our event dashboard and go through the introductory exercises, which cover:
Evaluating Articles and Sources
Contributing Images and Media Files
Sandboxes and Mainspace
Sources and Citations
These are all short exercises that will help familiarise you with Wikipedia and its processes. Don’t have time to do them? We get it, and that’s totally fine - we’ll cover the basics on the day too!
You may want to verify your Wikipedia account - this function exists to make sure that people are contributing responsibly to Wikipedia. The easiest and swiftest way to verify your account is to do 10 small edits. You could do this by correcting typos or adding in missing dates. However, another way to do this is to find articles where citations are needed, and add them via Citation Hunt. For further information on adding citations, watching this video may be useful.
Happier with an asynchronous approach?
If you cannot join the Zoom event on Monday 28th March, but would like to contribute, please do check out and sign up to our dashboard. The online dashboard training exercises will be an excellent starting point. From there, all of your edits and contributions will be registered, and you can be proud of yourself for making the world of Wikipedia a better place, in your own time.
Digitisation has become one of the key tasks for the curatorial roles within the British Library. This is supported by two main pillars: the accessibility of the collection items to everybody around the world and the preservation of unique and sometimes, very fragile, items. Digitisation involves many different teams and workflow stages including retrieval, conservation, curatorial management, copyright assessment, imaging, workflow management, quality control, and the final publication to online platforms.
The Heritage Made Digital (HMD) team works across the Library to assist with digitisation projects. An excellent example of the collaborative nature of the relationship between the HMD and International Dunhuang Project (IDP) teams is the quality control (QC) of the Lotus Sutra Project’s digital files. It is crucial that images meet the quality standards of the digital process. As a Digitisation Officer in HMD, I am in charge of QC for the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project, which is currently conserving and digitising nearly 800 Chinese Lotus Sutra manuscripts to make them freely available on the IDP website. The manuscripts were acquired by Sir Aurel Stein after they were discovered in a hidden cave in Dunhuang, China in 1900. They are thought to have been sealed there at the beginning of the 11th century. They are now part of the Stein Collection at the British Library and, together with the international partners of the IDP, we are working to make them available digitally.
The majority of the Lotus Sutra manuscripts are scrolls and, after they have been treated by our dedicated Digitisation Conservators, our expert Senior Imaging Technician Isabelle does an outstanding job of imaging the fragile manuscripts. My job is then to prepare the images for publication online. This includes checking that they have the correct technical metadata such as image resolution and colour profile, are an accurate visual representation of the physical object and that the text can be clearly read and interpreted by researchers. After nearly 1000 years in a cave, it would be a shame to make the manuscripts accessible to the public for the first time only to be obscured by a blurry image or a wayward piece of fluff!
With the scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long, most are too long to be imaged in one go. They are instead shot in individual panels, which our Senior Imaging Technicians digitally “stitch” together to form one big image. This gives online viewers a sense of the physical scroll as a whole, in a way that would not be possible in real life for those scrolls that are more than two panels in length unless you have a really big table and a lot of specially trained people to help you roll it out.
Or.8210/S.1530: individual panels
Or.8210/S.1530: stitched image
This post-processing can create issues, however. Sometimes an error in the stitching process can cause a scroll to appear warped or wonky. In the stitched image for Or.8210/S.6711, the ruled lines across the top of the scroll appeared wavy and misaligned. But when I compared this with the images of the individual panels, I could see that the lines on the scroll itself were straight and unbroken. It is important that the digital images faithfully represent the physical object as far as possible; we don’t want anyone thinking these flaws are in the physical item and writing a research paper about ‘Wonky lines on Buddhist Lotus Sutra scrolls in the British Library’. Therefore, I asked the Senior Imaging Technician to restitch the images together: no more wonky lines. However, we accept that the stitched images cannot be completely accurate digital surrogates, as they are created by the Imaging Technician to represent the item as it would be seen if it were to be unrolled fully.
Or.8210/S.6711: distortion from stitching. The ruled line across the top of the scroll is bowed and misaligned
Similarly, our Senior Imaging Technician applies ‘digital black’ to make the image background a uniform colour. This is to hide any dust or uneven background and ensure the object is clear. If this is accidentally overused, it can make it appear that a chunk has been cut out of the scroll. Luckily this is easy to spot and correct, since we retain the unedited TIFFs and RAW files to work from.
Or.8210/S.3661, panel 8: overuse of digital black when filling in tear in scroll
Sometimes the scrolls are wonky, or dirty or incomplete. They are hundreds of years old, and this is where it can become tricky to work out whether there is an issue with the images or the scroll itself. The stains, tears and dirt shown in the images below are part of the scrolls and their material history. They give clues to how the manuscripts were made, stored, and used. This is all of interest to researchers and we want to make sure to preserve and display these features in the digital versions. The best part of my job is finding interesting things like this. The fourth image below shows a fossilised insect covering the text of the scroll!
Black stains: Or.8210/S.2814, panel 9
Torn and fragmentary panel: Or.8210/S.1669, panel 1
Insect droppings obscuring the text: Or.8210/S.2043, panel 1
We want to minimise the handling of the scrolls as much as possible, so we will only reshoot an image if it is absolutely necessary. For example, I would ask a Senior Imaging Technician to reshoot an image if debris is covering the text and makes it unreadable - but only after inspecting the scroll to ensure it can be safely removed and is not stuck to the surface. However, if some debris such as a small piece of fluff, paper or hair, appears on the scroll’s surface but is not obscuring any text, then I would not ask for a reshoot. If it does not affect the readability of the text, or any potential future OCR (Optical Character Recognition) or handwriting analysis, it is not worth the risk of damage that could be caused by extra handling.
Reshoot: Or.8210/S.6501: debris over text / No reshoot: Or.8210/S.4599: debris not covering text.
These are a few examples of the things to which the HMD Digitisation Officers pay close attention during QC. Only through this careful process, can we ensure that the digital images accurately reflect the physicality of the scrolls and represent their original features. By developing a QC process that applies the best techniques and procedures, working to defined standards and guidelines, we succeed in making these incredible items accessible to the world.
Read more about Lotus Sutra Project here: IDP Blog
The British Library is accepting applications for the new round of 2022 PhD Placement opportunities: there are 15 projects available across Library departments, all starting from June 2022 onwards and ending before March 2023. Two of the projects within the Contemporary British Collections department focus on Enhanced Curation as an approach to add to the research value of an archival object or digital publication.
“Developing an enhanced curation framework for contemporary hybrid archives (2022-CB-HAC)” will outline a framework for Enhanced Curation in relation to contemporary hybrid archives. These archival collections are the record of the creative and professional lives of prominent individuals in UK society, containing both paper and digital material. So far we have defined Enhanced Curation as the means by which the research value of these records can be enhanced through the creation, collection, and interrogation of the contextual information which surrounds them.
Luckily, we’re in a privileged position – most of our archive donors are living individuals who can illuminate their creative practice for us in real-time. Similarly, with forensic techniques, we’re capturing more data than ever before when we acquire an archive. The truly live questions are then – how can we use this position to best effect? What can we do with what we’re already collecting? What else should we be collecting? And how can we represent this data in engaging and enlightening new ways for the benefit of everyone, including our researchers and exhibition audiences?
Enhanced Curation, as we see it, is about bringing these dynamic collections to life for as many people as possible. In approaching these questions, the chosen student will engage in a mixture of theoretical and practical work – first outlining the relevant debates and techniques in and around curation, archival science, museology and digital humanities, and then recommending a course of action for one particular hybrid personal archive. This is a collaborative exercise, though, and they will be provided with hands-on training for working with (and getting the most out of) this growing collection area by specialist curatorial staff at the Library.
Floppy disk from the Will Self archive.
“Collecting complex digital publications: Testing an enhanced curation method (2022-CB-EF)” focuses on the Library collection of emerging formats. Emerging formats are defined as born-digital publications whose structure, technical dependencies and highly interactive nature challenge our traditional collection methods. These publications include apps, such as the interactive adventure 80 Days, as well as digital interactive narratives, such as the examples collected in the UK Web Archive Interactive Narratives and New Media Writing Prize collections. Collection and preservation of these digital formats in their entirety might not always be possible: there are many challenges and implications in terms of technical capabilities, software and hardware dependencies, copyright restrictions and long-term solutions that are effective against technical obsolescence.
The collection and creation of contextual information is one approach to fill in the gaps and enhance curation for these digital publications. The placement student will helps us test a collection matrix for contextual information relating to emerging formats, which include – but is not limited to – webpages, interviews, reviews, blog posts and screenshots/screencast of usage of a work. These might be collected using a variety of methods (e.g. web archiving, direct transfer from the author, etc.) as well as created by the student themselves (e.g. interviews with the author, video recordings of usage, etc.) Through this placement, the student will have the opportunity to participate in a network of cultural heritage institutions concerned with the preservation of digital publications while helping develop one of the Library contemporary collections.
Both PhD Placements are offered for 3 months full time, or part-time equivalent. They can be undertaken as hybrid placements (i.e. remotely, with some visits to the British Library building in London, St. Pancras), with the option of a fully remote placement for “Collecting complex digital publications: Testing an enhanced curation method”.
Congratulations to the 2021 New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) winners, which were announced at a Bournemouth University online event recently: Joannes Truyens and collaborators (Main Prize), Melody MOU (Student Award) and Daria Donina (FIPP Journalism Award 2021). The main prize winner ‘Neurocracy’ is an experimental dystopian narrative that takes place over 10 episodes, through Omnipedia, an imagined future version of Wikipedia in 2049. So this seemed like a very apt jumping off point for today’s blog post, which discusses a recent project where we added NMWP data to Wikidata.
Note: If you wish to read ‘Neurocracy’ and are prompted for a username and password, use NewMediaWritingPrize1 password N3wMediaWritingPrize!. You can learn more about the work in this article and listen to an interview with the author in this podcast episode.
Working With Wikidata
Dr Martin Poulter describes learning how to work with Wikidata as being like learning a language. When I first heard this description, I didn’t understand: how could something so reliant on raw data be anything like the intricacies of language learning?
It turns out, Martin was completely correct.
Imagine a stack of data as slips of paper. Each slip has an individual piece of data on it: an author’s name, a publication date, a format, a title. How do you start to string this data together so that it makes sense?
One of the beautiful things about Wikidata is that it is both machine and human readable. In order for it to work this way, and for us to upload it effectively, thinking about the relationships between these slips of paper is essential.
In 2021, I had an opportunity to see what Martin was talking about when he spoke about language, as I was asked to work with a set of data about NMWP shortlisted and winning works, which the British Library has collected in the UK Web Archive. You can read more about this special collection here and here.
The New Media Writing Prize was founded in 2010 to showcase exciting and inventive stories and poetry that integrate a variety of digital formats, platforms, and media. One of the driving forces in setting up and establishing the prize was Chris Meade, director of if:book uk, a ‘think and do tank’ for exploring digital and collaborative possibilities for writers and readers. He was the lead sponsor of the if:book UK New Media Writing Prize, and the Dot Award, which he created in honour of his mother, Dorothy, and he chaired every NMWP awards evening since 2010. Very sadly Chris passed away on 13th January 2022 and the recent 2021 awards event was dedicated to Chris and his family.
Recognising the significance of the NMWP, in recent years the British Library created the New Media Writing Prize Special Collection as part of its emerging formats work. With 11 years of metadata about a born digital collection, this was an ideal data set for me to work with in order to establish a methodology for working with Wikidata uploads in the Library.
Last year I was fortunate to collaborate with Tegan Pyke, a PhD placement student in the Contemporary British Publications Collections team, supervised by Guilia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications. Tegan's project examined the digital preservation challenges of complex digital objects, developing and testing a quality assurance process for examining works in the NMWP collection. If you want to read more about this project, a report is available here. For the Wikidata work Tegan and Giulia provided two spreadsheets of data (or slips of paper!), and my aim was to upload linked data that covered the authors, their works, and the award itself - who had been shortlisted, who had won, and when.
I thought so - until I began to structure my uploads. There were some key questions that needed to be answered about how these relationships would be built, and I needed to start somewhere. Should I upload the authors or the texts first? Should I go through the prize year by year, or be led by other information? And what about texts with multiple authors?
Suddenly it all felt a bit more intimidating!
I was fortunate to attend some Wikidata training run by Wikimedia UK late last year. Martin was our trainer, and one piece of advice he gave us was indispensable: if you’re not sure where to start, literally write it out with pencil and paper. What is the relationship you’re trying to show, in its simplest form? This is where language framing comes in especially useful: thinking about the basic sentence structures I’d learned in high school German became vital.
Image by the author, notes own.
The Numbers Bit
You can see from this image how the framework develops: specific items, like nouns, are given identification numbers when they become a Wikidata item. This is their QID. The relationships between QIDs, sort of like the adjectives and verbs, are defined as properties and have P numbers. So Christine Wilks is now Q108810306, and her relationship to her work, Underbelly, or Q109237591, is defined with P800 which means ‘notable work’.
Q108810306 - P800 - Q109237591
You can upload this relationship using the visual editor on Wikidata, by clicking fields and entering data. If you have a large amount of information (remember those slips of paper!) tools like QuickStatements become very useful. Dominic Kane blogged about his experience of this system during his British Library student placement project in 2021.
The intricacies of language are also very important on Wikidata. The nuance and inference we can draw from specific terms is important. The concept of ‘winning’ an award became a subject of semantic debate: the taxonomy of Wikidata advises that we use ‘award received’ in the case of a literary prize, as it’s less of an active sporting competition than something like a marathon or an athletic event.
Ultimately we upload information to Wikidata so that it can be queried. Querying uses SPAQRL, a language which allows users to draw information and patterns from vast swathes of data. Querying can be complex: to go back to the language analogy, you have to phrase the query in precisely the right way to get the information you want.
One of the lessons I learned during the NMWP uploads was the importance of a unifying property. Users will likely query this data with a view to surveying results and finding patterns. Each author and work, therefore, needed to be linked to the prize and the collection itself (pictured above). By adding this QID to the property P6379 (‘has works in the collection’), we create a web of data that links every shortlisted author over the 11 year time period.
To have a look at some of the NMWP data, here are some queries I prepared earlier. Please note that data from the 2021 competition has not yet been uploaded!
Posted by Mahendra Mahey, former Manager of British Library Labs or "BL Labs" for short
[estimated reading time of around 15 minutes]
This is is my last day working as manager of BL Labs, and also my final posting on the Digital Scholarship blog. I thought I would take this chance to reflect on my journey of almost 9 years in helping to set up, maintain and enabling BL Labs to become a permanent fixture at the British Library (BL).
BL Labs was the first digital Lab in a national library, anywhere in the world, that gets people to experiment with its cultural heritage digital collections and data. There are now several Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum Labs or 'GLAM Labs' for short around the world, with an active community which I helped build, from 2018.
I am really proud I was there from the beginning to implement the original proposal which was written by several colleagues, but especially Adam Farquhar, former head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library (BL). The project was at first generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation through four rounds of funding as well as support from the BL. In April 2021, the project became a permanently funded fixture, helped very much by my new manager Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science.
The great news is that BL Labs is going to stay after I have left. The position of leading the Lab will soon be advertised. Hopefully, someone will get a chance to work with my helpful and supportive colleague Technical Lead of Labs, Dr Filipe Bento, bright, talented and very hard working Maja and other great colleagues in Digital Research and wider at the BL.
The beginnings, the BL and me!
I met Adam Farquhar and Aly Conteh (Former Head of Digital Research at the BL) in December 2012. They must have liked something about me because I started working on the project in January 2013, though I officially started in March 2013 to launch BL Labs.
I must admit, I had always felt a bit intimidated by the BL. My first visit was in the early 1980s before the St Pancras site was opened (in 1997) as a Psychology student. I remember coming up from Wolverhampton on the train to get a research paper about "Serotonin Pathways in Rats when sleeping" by Lidov, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. It felt like a place for 'really intelligent educated people' and for those who were one for the intellectual elites in society. It also felt for me a bit like it represented the British empire and its troubled history of colonialism, especially some of the collections which made me feel uncomfortable as to why they were there in the first place.
I remember thinking that the BL probably wasn't a place for some like me, a child of Indian Punjabi immigrants from humble beginnings who came to England in the 1960s. Actually, I felt like an imposter and not worthy of being there.
Nearly 9 years later, I can say I learned to respect and even cherish what was inside it, especially the incredible collections, though I also became more confident about expressing stronger views about the decolonisation of some of these. I became very fond of some of the people who work or use it, there are some really good kind-hearted souls at the BL. However, I never completely lost that 'imposter and being an outsider' feeling.
What I remember at that time, going for my interview, was having this thought, what will happen if I got the position and 'What would be the one thing I would try and change?'. It came easily to me, namely that I would try and get more new people through the doors literally or virtually by connecting them to the BL's collections (especially the digital). New people like me, who may have never set foot, or had been motivated to step into the building before. This has been one of the most important reasons for me to get up in the morning and go to work at BL Labs.
So what have been my highlights? Let's have a very quick pass through!
BL Labs Launch and Advisory Board
I launched BL Labs in March 2013, one week after I had started. It was at the launch event organised by my wonderfully supportive and innovative colleague, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom. I distinctly remember in the afternoon session (which I did alone), I had to present my 'ideas' of how I might launch the first BL Labs competition where we would be trying to get pioneering researchers to work with the BL's digital collections.
God it was a tough crowd! They asked pretty difficult questions, questions I myself was asking too which I still didn't know the answer too either.
My first gut feeling overall after the event was, this is going to be hard work. This feeling and reality remained a constant throughout my time at BL Labs.
In early May 2013, we launched the competition, which was a really quick and stressful turnaround as I had only officially started in mid March (one and a half months). I remember worrying as to whether anyone would even enter! All the final entries were pretty much submitted a few minutes before the deadline. I remember being alone that evening on deadline day near to midnight waiting by my laptop, thinking what happens if no one enters, it's going to be disaster and I will lose my job. Luckily that didn't happen, in the end, we received 26 entries.
I am a firm believer that we can help make our own luck, but sometimes luck can be quite random! Perhaps BL Labs had a bit of both!
After that, I never really looked back! BL Labs developed its own kind of pattern and momentum each year:
hunting around the BL for digital collections to make into datasets and make available
helping to make more digital collections openly licensed
having hundreds of conversations with people interested in connecting with the BL's digital collections in the BL and outside
working with some people more intensively to carry out experiments
developing ideas further into prototype projects
telling the world of successes and failures in person, meetings, events and social media
launching a competition and awards in April or May
roadshows before and after with invitations to speak at events around the world
the summer working with competition winners
late October/November the international symposium showcased things from the year
'Nothing interesting happens in the office' - Roadshows, Presentations, Workshops and Symposia!
One of the highlights of BL Labs was to go out to universities and other places to explain what the BL is and what BL Labs does. This ended up with me pretty much seeing the world (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and giving virtual talks in South America and Africa).
My greatest challenge in BL Labs was always to get people to truly and passionately 'connect' with the BL's digital collections and data in order to come up with cool ideas of what to actually do with them. What I learned from my very first trip was that telling people what you have is great, they definitely need to know what you have! However, once you do that, the hard work really begins as you often need to guide and inspire many of them, help and support them to use the collections creatively and meaningfully. It was also important to understand the back story of the digital collection and learn about the institutional culture of the BL if people also wanted to work with BL colleagues. For me and the researchers involved, inspirational engagement with digital collections required a lot of intellectual effort and emotional intelligence. Often this means asking the uncomfortable questions about research such as 'Why are we doing this?', 'What is the benefit to society in doing this?', 'Who cares?', 'How can computation help?' and 'Why is it necessary to even use computation?'.
Making those connections between people and data does feel like magic when it really works. It's incredibly exciting, suddenly everyone has goose bumps and is energised. This feeling, I will take away with me, it's the essence of my work at BL Labs!
A full list of over 200 presentations, roadshows, events and 9 annual symposia can be found here.
Competitions, Awards and Projects
Another significant way BL Labs has tried to connect people with data has been through Competitions (tell us what you would like to do, and we will choose an idea and work collaboratively with you on it to make it a reality), Awards (show us what you have already done) and Projects (collaborative working).
At the last count, we have supported and / or highlighted over 450 projects in research, artistic, entrepreneurial, educational, community based, activist and public categories most through competitions, awards and project collaborations.
We also set up awards for British Library Staff which has been a wonderful way to highlight the fantastic work our staff do with digital collections and give them the recognition they deserve. I have noticed over the years that the number of staff who have been working on digital projects has increased significantly. Sometimes this was with the help of BL Labs but often because of the significant Digital Scholarship Training Programme, run by my Digital Curator colleagues in Digital Research for staff to understand that the BL isn't just about physical things but digital items too.
Browse through our project archive to get inspiration of the various projects BL Labs has been involved in or highlighted.
Putting the digital collections 'where the light is' - British Library platforms and others
When I started at BL Labs it was clear that we needed to make a fundamental decision about how we saw digital collections. Quite early on, we decided we should treat collections as data to harness the power of computational tools to work with each collection, especially for research purposes. Each collection should have a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so researchers can cite them in publications. Any new datasets generated from them will also have DOIs, allowing us to understand the ecosystem through DOIs of what happens to data when you get it out there for people to use.
However, BL Labs has not stopped there! We always believed that it's important to put our digital collections where others are likely to discover them (we can't assume that researchers will want to come to BL platforms), 'where the light is' so to speak. We were very open and able to put them on other platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, not forgetting that we still needed to do the hard work to connect data to people after they have discovered them, if they needed that support.
Our greatest success by far was placing 1 million largely undescribed images that were digitally snipped from 65,000 digitised public domain books from the 19th Century on Flickr Commons in 2013. The number of images on the platform have grown since then by another 50 to 60 thousand from collections elsewhere in the BL. There has been significant interaction from the public to generate crowdsourced tags to help to make it easier to find the specific images. The number of views we have had have reached over a staggering 2 billion over this time. There have also been an incredible array of projects which have used the images, from artistic use to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify them. It's my favourite collection, probably because there are no restrictions in using it.
Read the most popular blog post the BL has ever published by my former BL Labs colleague, the brilliant and inspirational Ben O'Steen, a million first steps and the 'Mechanical Curator' which describes how we told the world why and how we had put 1 million images online for anyone to use freely.
It is wonderful to know that George Oates, the founder of Flickr Commons and still a BL Labs Advisory Board member, has been involved in the creation of the Flickr Foundation which was announced a few days ago! Long live Flickr Commons! We loved it because it also offered a computational way to access the collections, critical for powerful and efficient computational experiments, through its Application Programming Interface (API).
I loved working with artists, its my passion! They are so creative and often not restricted by academic thinking, see the work of Mario Klingemann for example! You can browse through our archives for various artistic projects that used the BL's digital collections, it's inspiring.
I am really proud of helping to create the international GLAM Labs community with over 250 members, established in 2018 and still active today. I affectionately call them the GLAM Labbers, and I often ask people to explore their inner 'Labber' when I give presentations. What is a Labber? It's the experimental and playful part of us we all had as children and unfortunately many have lost when becoming an adult. It's the ability to be fearless, having the audacity and perhaps even naivety to try crazy things even if they are likely to fail! Unfortunately society values success more than it does failure. In my opinion, we need to recognise, respect and revere those that have the courage to try but failed. That courage to experiment should be honoured and embraced and should become the bedrock of our educational systems from the very outset.
Two years ago, many of us Labbers 'ate our own dog food' or 'practised what we preached' when me and 15 other colleagues came together for 5 days to produce a book through a booksprint, probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life. The book is about how to set up, maintain, sustain and even close a GLAM Lab and is called 'Open a GLAM Lab'. It is available as public domain content and I encourage you to read it.
Online drop-in goodbye - today!
I organised a 30 minute ‘online farewell drop-in’ on Wednesday 29 September 2021, 1330 BST (London), 1430 (Paris, Amsterdam), 2200 (Adelaide), 0830 (New York) on my very last day at the British Library. It was heart-warming that the session was 'maxed out' at one point with participants from all over the world. I honestly didn't expect over 100 colleagues to show up. I guess when you leave an organisation you get to find out who you actually made an impact on, who shows up, and who tells you, otherwise you may never know.
Those that know me well know that I would have much rather had a farewell do ‘in person’, over a pint and praying for the ‘chip god’ to deliver a huge portion of chips with salt/vinegar and tomato sauce’ magically and mysteriously to the table. The pub would have been Mc'Glynns (http://www.mcglynnsfreehouse.com/) near the British Library in London. I wonder who the chip god was? I never found out ;)
The answer to who the chip god was is in text following this sentence on white on white text...you will be very shocked to know who it was!- s
Spoiler alert it was me after all, my alter ego
Mahendra's online farewell to BL Labs, Wednesday 29 September, 1330 BST, 2021. Left: Flowers and wine from the GLAM Labbers arrived in Tallinn, 20 mins before the meeting! Right: Some of the participants of the online farewell
Leave a message of good will to see me off on my voyage!
It would be wonderful if you would like to leave me your good wishes, comments, memories, thoughts, scans of handwritten messages, pictures, photographs etc. on the following Google doc:
I will leave it open for a week or so after I have left. Reading positive sincere heartfelt messages from colleagues and collaborators over the years have already lifted my spirits. For me it provides evidence that you perhaps did actually make a difference to somone's life. I will definitely be re-reading them during the cold dark Baltic nights in Tallinn.
I would love to hear from you and find out what you are doing, or if you prefer, you can email me, the details are at the end of this post.
BL Labs Sailor and Captain Signing Off!
It's been a blast and lots of fun! Of course there is a tinge of sadness in leaving! For me, it's also been intellectually and emotionally challenging as well as exhausting, with many ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’ or choppy waters, some professional and others personal.
I have learned so much about myself and there are so many things I am really really proud of. There are other things of course I wish I had done better. Most of all, I learned to embrace failure, my best teacher!
I think I did meet my original wish of wanting to help to open up the BL to as many new people who perhaps would have never engaged in the Library before. That was either by using digital collections and data for cool projects and/or simply walking through the doors of the BL in London or Boston Spa and having a look around and being inspired to do something because of it.
I wish the person who takes over my position lots of success! My only piece of advice is if you care, you will be fine!
Anyhow, what a time this has been for us all on this planet? I have definitely struggled at times. I, like many others, have lost loved ones and thought deeply about life and it's true meaning. I have also managed to find the courage to know what’s important and act accordingly, even if that has been a bit terrifying and difficult at times. Leaving the BL for example was not an easy decision for me, and I wish perhaps things had turned out differently, but I know I am doing the right thing for me, my future and my loved ones.
Though there have been a few dark times for me both professionally and personally, I hope you will be happy to know that I have also found peace and happiness too. I am in a really good place.
I would like to thank former alumni of BL Labs, Ben O'Steen - Technical Lead for BL Labs from 2013 to 2018, Hana Lewis (2016 - 2018) and Eleanor Cooper (2018-2019) both BL Labs Project Officers and many other people I worked through BL Labs and wider in the Library and outside it in my journey.
Where I am off to and what am I doing?
My professional plans are 'evolving', but one thing is certain, I will be moving country!
To Estonia to be precise!
I plan to live, settle down with my family and work there. I was never a fan of Brexit, and this way I get to stay a European.
I would like to finish with this final sweet video created by writer and filmaker Ling Low and her team in 2016, entitled 'Hey there Young Sailor' which they all made as volunteers for the Malaysian band, the 'Impatient Sisters'. It won the BL Labs Artistic Award in 2016. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Ling over a lovely lunch in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia, where I had also given a talk at the National Library about my work and looked for remanants of my grandfather who had settled there many years ago.
I wish all of you well, and if you are interested in keeping in touch with me, working with me or just saying hello, you can contact me via my personal email address: [email protected] or follow my progress on my personal website.
Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!
The New Media Writing Prize is awarded annually to interactive works that use technology and digital tools in exciting and innovative ways. Organised by Bournemouth University, the prize is now in its 12th year and open for entries until 26th November 2021.
The British Library hosted a Digital Conversations event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the prize in 2019 and as part of our work on collecting and preserving emerging formats, last year we started building a special collection to archive all shortlisted and winning entries to the prize in the UK Web Archive. Thanks to Joan Francis for her valued support adding targets and metadata into the Annotation and Curation Tool, at the moment of writing, the collection stands at 226 websites, including not only all the works that were web-based and live at the moment of collection, but blog posts, press kits, online reviews and author’s websites as well. This kind of contextual information (like the data recorded on the ELMCIP Knowledge Base website) is especially valuable in those instances where the work itself couldn’t be captured, due to the limitations of web archiving tools, or the fact that it had already disappeared from the Internet. More information on how the collection was conceived and developed is available in the Collection Scoping Document on the British Library Research Repository.
In order to improve access to the collection and assure quality for the websites we captured, a PhD placement project started at the beginning of this June. Tegan Pyke, from Cardiff Metropolitan University, is working on the collection to identify best captures for each of these works and is also developing a creative response to the collection.
From the New Media Writing Prize shortlists, a total of 78 works have been captured, with each work averaging 13 instances to compare and contrast. Each instance represents a web crawl undertaken by the team from the Emerging Formats project.
A screenshot showing the instances collected for Serge Bouchardon’s 2011 Main Prize winning piece, "Loss of Grasp".
One of the most difficult aspects of this work has been deciding what, exactly, constitutes an ‘acceptable’ capture. By nature digital works are highly complex—featuring audio, visual, and kinetic assets—and using bespoke platforms, formats, and code. These attributes are heightened by the speed at which technology changes; what was acceptable a decade ago may be entirely defunct today, as is the case with Adobe removing their Flash Player support.
After an initial overview of the collection, I came to the conclusion that a strict set of criteria wouldn’t be appropriate. Nor would the capture of all aspects of a work, as many—such as Amira Hanafi’s What I’m Wearing and J R Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud—make use of external links or externally hosted image and video files. If these lie outside the UK Legal Deposit’s scope, capturing them in their entirety becomes more difficult and sometimes impossible.
Instead, I decided to focus on narrative, asking three questions as I approached each instance:
Can viewers complete the narrative?
Does the theme remain understandable?
Is the atmosphere (the overall mood of the piece) intact?
If an instance fulfils these questions, it’s acceptable, with the most complete of those captures being identified as suitable for display in the archive.
At this point, I’m half-way through comparing instances for the collection. Of the pieces captured, just less than half meet the criteria above. Out of these, most can be improved by additional crawls that capture the missing assets. Those that cannot be improved have, for the most part, been affected by software deprecation or EOL (end-of-life), where support has been completely removed.
I’m aiming to finish my review of the collection over the next couple of months, at which point I hope to provide further insight into the process. I’ve also started a collaboration with the BL's Wikimedian-in-Residence, Lucy Hinnie, to plan a Wikidata project related to the collection aiming to make use of contextual data points collected during its creation—I’m sure you’ll read about this work here soon!
This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari and Tegan Pyke, a PhD student at Cardiff Metropolitan University currently undertaking a placement in Contemporary British Published Collections at the British Library.