29 April 2020
Writing Tools for Interactive Fiction
by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications.
Are you spending more time indoors and hoping to get your creativity flowing? Thinking about writing fiction? Interactive Fiction is a fast-growing collection area for the Library, and myriad tools for all levels can help you to bring your story to life.
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.”
The British Library has been collecting examples of UK interactive fiction as part of the Emerging Formats Project, which is a collaborative effort from all six UK Legal Deposit Libraries to look at the collection management requirements of complex digital publications. Lynda Clark, the British Library Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction, built the Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive (UKWA) during her placement, as well as conducting analysis on genres, interaction patterns and tools used to build these narratives.
Source: Clark, L. (2019). Interactive Narrative Reports, Appendix A. Internal report (The British Library). Unpublished.
Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. Because of Legal Deposit Regulations, most of the items in the Interactive Narratives collection can only be accessed on Library premises (you can read more on what UKWA content is available while the Library is closed here). Luckily, because this a contemporary collection, many of the original websites are still live and accessible.
Some quality cat dreams. (from Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000)
Charlie Brooker used Twine to plot out Black Mirror’s interactive episode Bandersnatch. As the most used tool in the UKWA collection, there are many examples of Interactive Fifction written in Twine, from cat and teatime simulators (Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000 and Damon L. Wakes’ Lovely Pleasant Teatime Simulator), to stories that include a mix of video, images and audio (Chris Godber’s Glitch), and horror games made for Gothic Novel Jam using the British Library’s Flickr collection of images (Freya Campbell’s The Tower – NB some content warnings apply). Lynda Clark also authored an original story as a conclusion to her placement: The Memory Archivist incorporates many of the themes emerged during her research and won The BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.
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) 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, hopefully-soon-to-be-open-sourced 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).
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 a Bitsy wiki, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.
A harsh but fair review.
(from Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep)
To play (and read) a Bitsy work you should use your keyboard to move the avatar around and interact with the ‘sprites’ (interactive items, characters and scenery – usually recognisable as sporting a different colour from the non-interactive background). You can wander around a Zen garden reflecting on your impending wedding (Ben Bruce’s Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding), alight the village fires to welcome the midwinter spirits (Ash Green’s Midwinter Spirits), experience a love story through mixtapes (David Mowatt’s She Made Me A Mix Tape), or if you’re still craving a nice cuppa you can review some imaginary tea shops (Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep).
ink/inky & inklewriter
Cambridge-based videogame 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.
A page from 80 Days, written using ink
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 is quite 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.
If you want some inspiration before starting to write your own story in ink, you can try selling real estates to supernatural creatures (Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate) or understanding why there’s a ghost stalking your flat (Isak Grozny’s Dripping with the Waters of Sheol – NB some content warnings apply). In inklewriter, you can start by trying to kill your first giant (Lee Williams’ Your First Giant) or survive an interrogation (Jon Ingold’s The Intercept).
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).
BONUS LEVEL: sok-stories
Sok-stories is not a tool to write IF, but it offers a simple and straightforward perspective on game dynamics and the results of interactions. It was developed by Sokpop Collective on commission by Now Play This 2019. There is no expectation of programming knowledge and the output games are very lo-fi – you draw everything (characters, items, scenery) and set your own rules to create super-short games. There is no dialogue (unless you want to draw that as well): the main focus is the relationship between the player’s choices and the effects they cause in the game. You interact with the game by dragging and dropping characters on items, items on items, characters on characters, etc. The limited set of commands and the ease with which you can set up the tool and start drawing, make it a really good introduction for younger audiences to the cause-effect rules of games – and potentially an educational and entertaining way to spend some lockdown time. Sok-stories requires a fee to download ($3 at the moment of writing), but you can browse a library of already published games for free: you can dig dinosaurs at an archaeological site, play super-abridged versions of old videogames or maybe… make more tea? Anyone?
Setting rules in sok-stories
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. To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote by Anna Anthropy from her book Rise of the Videogame Zinester:
“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.”
15 April 2020
Collecting Literature on the Web: a Q&A
A Q&A with Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist about the UK Web Archive’s literary collections, and the challenges faced by colleagues trying to collect the web, conducted by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more news and information about the work of the UK Web Archive, visit their blog or follow them on Twitter.
‘Oh, you work at the British Library? You guys have everything, right?’ My colleagues and I hear this more often than you’d think. Usually it’s in reference to the Legal Deposit Act, which states that one copy of every book (which includes pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, sheet music and maps) published in the United Kingdom must be sent to the British Library (and, that five other UK libraries have the right to request a free copy within one year of publication). But books — even if they include unusual printed formats — aren’t everything. So much knowledge, entertainment, culture and community is created and shared without ever going to print in the traditional sense. This is why Legal Deposit legislation was updated in 2013 to include regulations around ‘non-print’ works, making provision for the collection of works published online or offline in formats other than print, such as websites, blogs, e-journals and CD-ROMs. The UK Web Archive (which celebrated its 15th birthday this year!) exists to collect, make accessible and preserve web resources of scholarly and cultural importance from the UK domain in line with this legislation. But the Archive also plays an important role in selecting and curating this material. I spoke to Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist, about some of their literary collections — the challenges they face — and how you can get involved.
Hi Carlos. Considering the UK Web Archive is relatively young, it’s often presumed that it’s focus is exclusively on contemporary material, but I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of content about contemporary reception of older literary material, like the Dickens Bicentenary and the 19th Century Literature collections — how do you decide which anniversaries to collect?
Hi Callum. The Dickens Bicentenary and 19th Century literature collections are examples of what we call Special Collections, in that they’re actively curated, either by Library staff or outside experts. Web Archiving happens in two streams, called a Domain Crawl and a Frequent Crawl. The Domain Crawl takes place once a year over several months and is a ‘shallow crawl’ of all known UK hosted web-sites. As you can imagine, this involves many millions of web-sites, so we deliberately cap the amount of data per site to 500 megabytes and refer to it as a ‘shallow capture’ because it’s unlikely to capture the whole complexity of the original website.
The Frequent crawl is different because it’s curated and deals with a relatively small subset of websites, around 100,000, each including a unique database record and metadata. Special Collections are often created to highlight frequently crawled sites because a curator or external partner outside of the UK Web Archive, with access to tools, has added the site for crawling, or the public has nominated the topic for inclusion, or curators and archivists within the UK Web Archive team itself were made aware of the occasion. Our network of internal and external experts means that we’re particularly good at capturing material relating to contemporary reception of historical events, as well as more active events as they happen. (As you can imagine, our whole team is very busy with the Pandemic Outbreaks collection right now).
A screenshot taken from the UK Web Archive's 19th Century Literature Special Collections Page, showing the breadth of content being captured, from news and blogs to academic journals.
One of the collections which I think will be of particular interest to readers of this blog is the Poetry and Zines Special Collection. This must be a very difficult collection to build in some ways, as this activity often happens in the nooks and crannies of the internet — can you say a little bit about how these collections are built?
It would be fair to say that we have archived millions of websites that have yet to be discovered or accessed by the public. Websites that feature zines, poetry zines and journals have been captured, though their numbers are few. Contributions come from the curatorial team responsible for contemporary published collections, especially Debbie Cox and Jerry Jenkins (ed note: whose extensive work on Artists’ Books has appeared on this blog). We rely on them and their highly specialised knowledge and professional connections to build these obscure collections. Our work is always collaborative in this way. We try to partner with as many Curators and Archivists as possible, and also with external experts who are keen to get involved in web archiving.
One of these experts, Pete Hebden, who we were lucky enough to work with recently, just posted to the UK Web Archive Blog talking about his experience of exploring and helping to build this collection. If your readers are looking for a place to start, I’d recommend they take a look.
You spoke about contemporary events earlier, two of the largest collections which are available from home seem to be the ones relating to Black and Asian Britain and LGBT issues. This isn’t surprising given how active the online discourse around social justice has become in the past ten or fifteen years. The Library has been active in these spaces more generally, with exhibitions such as Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, and their corresponding web spaces, Black and Asian Britain and LGBTQ Histories. But these are highly controlled spaces, sensitively and co-operatively curated by experts and activists. Collecting web-content — which is relatively uncontrolled, and sometimes hurtful and offensive — must present huge issues in terms of data-protection and hate-speech.
Yes, definitely. There are quite a few sensitive areas in the UK Web Archive: adult sites, for instance, aren’t promoted but are still archived. Personally, I think it’s important that we archive all sides of the story; and if certain narratives are controversial, we should pay particular attention. All sides of the conversation will be important for the historians of the future, who will see value in a discursive and highly active medium with a rich research potential. We are limited, of course, but more-so in technical than curatorial and legal terms.
Under these regulations, if archived content is illegal, it will be suppressed from public access. The content we collect grows daily by gigabytes and is not ‘processed’ at the point of archiving; rather there is a delay to archived content being made available (to both curators and the public). Only parts of our archived content is full-text indexed, so it would not be possible to perform deep searches on recent crawls.
There are times when content can be removed from public access for other limited reasons; for example if sensitive personal data has been mistakenly published on a live website. Our Notice and Takedown process is robust and we are quick to respond; thankfully, there have only been a handful of such requests in the past few years. Archiving under GDPR is permitted as stated in Article 89 which allows ‘archiving in the public interest’.
The Black and Asian Britain Special Collection page is one of the largest, and contains a wide variety of literary material, from author pages to literary festivals and Twitter pages.
You mentioned social media and how difficult it is to archive. Whilst there’s clearly work going on in this area, I think the Archive does a good job of capturing some of the everyday interactions that happen online, especially on public forums. One of the most charming hubs, and I think it’s important too, is the one relating to Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK. The internet seems able to bring people with similar interests together across huge geographical distances. Most of this activity happens on specialist forums. Everything is represented here, it’s a real curiosity shop, from fans of Japanese Anime to Pylon enthusiasts. Some of the collections that might interest our readers are the Comics UK Forum and the Writers Online Forum. What are some of the issues around collecting this kind of highly social material?
People are fascinated by the spectrum of content in the Online Enthusiast Communities of the UK Collection, and although a lot has been tagged into that collection, it’s likely that more sites that have already been archived are waiting to be added to it, or have yet to be nominated and are waiting to be archived. Whilst all Collections remain active, only a few at a time have the focus of curators and archivists. When a Collection is in focus, curators, archivists, and external partners all work together to focus on adding targets en-masse, with a sustained amount of archiving within a short time frame. Collections in focus need attention so that time-sensitive content is quickly captured. For example, Twitter or news articles that should be captured, perhaps daily, require curation to add/amend the crawling schedules of those websites.
Another issue when archiving uncommon content is the lack of discovery; if we are unaware of their existence then it is unlikely that we will capture that content, even in the Domain Crawl. This issue is compounded when delving deeper into a site, that is, looking at their online forums where regular discussions occur. Without the proper intervention of users, these overlooked forums may not be crawled, and if they are, they may only be shallow crawls that occur infrequently. We do have forums that are being captured often, sometimes daily, however, it is rare that we would have a frequent crawl of a forum unless a user updated a record accordingly. The complex structure of forums, and the fact that they often sit behind a login, makes them more difficult to capture effectively.
The Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK page is a fascinating insight into how communities of shared interest, including those of a literary bent, evolve online.
08 April 2020
Born-digital Literary Archives — How We’re Capturing the Future
by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more information about the challenges and opportunities posed by born-digital material elsewhere in the Library, see the Digital Scholarship Blog and the extensive work of the Library's Digital Preservation Department.
I. Capturing a Moving Target
If you’re adjusting to working from home, look around your working area: maybe you have a home office or you’ve repurposed the dining table, or you're out in the garden. Did anyone in your team — when making the move — scramble to transport the filing cabinets or stacks of unsorted paper that had accumulated on their desks to their new workspace? If not, this is sufficient evidence that the way a lot of us work has radically changed; a platitude that doesn’t get less true with repetition. Your computer (and, more often than not, the network) has at least partially relegated or replaced the paper in your professional life with ‘Digital Objects’ — a useful but deceptively complex archival term — defined by the Society of American Archivists as, “a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object)”. If the word ‘object’ seems ontologically insufficient to carry such a definition, with its emphasis on process, relationship, and contingency, then this is part of the problem we’re facing. (Archivists — and traditional archival methodologies — have a clear (and often justified) tendency to fetishise permanence and fixity).
This shift towards the ‘digital’ is no less dramatic in the personal archives of the novelists, poets and playwrights collected by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department at the Library, whose historical remit (c.1950-) traces the rapidly evolving landscape of personal computing in the latter half of the twentieth century and the explosion of the internet and social media, which is by no means complete, in the twenty-first. This shifting landscape means that, more often than not, we collect ‘hybrid’ archives comprised of traditional paper material and — depending on the donor’s enthusiasm for new forms of technology — a variety of digital formats, including floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, spinning hard-drives, USB sticks, and even laptop computers. Creative writers are, much more-so than institutions, academics and scientists, given to superstition and mysticism regarding the tools of their trade. Most are methodologically conservative and eager to link their ability to produce work to their idiosyncratic habits and tools. (On this blog, Chris Beckett’s discussion of Will Self’s use of post-it notes and typewriters in one of our most significant hybrid archives is an excellent case-study of how complex these interrelationships can become).
A double-sided Amsoft branded Compact floppy disk from the Archive of poet Wendy Cope, dated 1989.
What becomes apparent when attempting to capture, preserve, arrange and fix these ‘Digital Objects’ is that an undeniable materiality — often partially erased by the term ‘digital’ — is fundamental to their structure. The history of computing is a history of design miracles, both technical and aesthetic. Recovering a long-forgotten Word Perfect file from an Amstrad Floppy Disk is an archeological task, demanding attention to the structure and format of the data, its physical housing, and the software-codex able to make sense of it. Like a dig, it requires sensitive excavation equipment capable of moving the object without altering or destroying it. Similarly, capturing a hard-drive demands knowledge of how it reads, writes and stores data mechanically in order that when we act upon it we capture everything (including, interestingly, apparently empty space) and disturb as little as possible. (In a strange turn, archivists have learned to use software and hardware first developed by law-enforcement for these and other tasks).
A Kryoflux machine reads a 3.5” floppy disk using magnetic resonance technology to achieve a complete capture where possible, often helping us to recover partially-corrupted legacy data.
II. Representing exchange
Next to draft material, correspondence is another major component of the traditional literary archive. The movement from paper to digital has been just as pronounced in this area too, with e-mail becoming the dominant mode of communication for the vast majority of our donors. Unsurprisingly, the collection of e-mail archives presents its own challenges, both technical and curatorial. In much the same way that a letter might come to us within an envelope, an e-mail message is held within a machine-readable envelope — from which it is possible to glean similar kinds of data about sender, receiver, the path which the messaged travelled through on its journey from one to the other. All of this data must be preserved in order to retain the integrity of the archival collection, but much of it must also be withheld from public access for a significant period of time in order to comply with legal restrictions relating to the use of personal data.
A side by side metadata comparison of a letter and an e-mail. The envelope sent by Samuel Beckett to B.S. Johnson contains critical metadata about dates and receiver, as well as about the French post-offices through which the letter travelled before reaching Johnson. The e-mail metadata contains much of the same information (highlighted) in a machine-readable format.
As well as these technical challenges, the preservation and access provision for e-mail archives must take into account its threaded nature — its a conversation and so is not particularly amenable to the archival logic of ‘deliverable units' which guides our approach to paper manuscripts. Additionally, any robust archival process must consider e-mail's increased tendency to include rich media; including attachments such as word-processing files, images and sometimes even audiovisual material. The scale of the challenge for collecting institutions is huge. The largest e-mail archive held at the Library, (of the poet Wendy Cope, comprised of around 25,000 individual messages) contains everything from family correspondence, professional booking requests, draft revisions and shopping lists. Making sure that this material complies with data protection regulation in the UK before it is released is obviously a considerable task. Fortunately, software tools like ePadd, an e-mail archiving tool developed at Stanford University, exist to alleviate some of the issues; allowing us to filter and process messages more efficiently through the implementation of a tool-assisted approach.
ePadd’s user friendly interface allows curators to filter messages by correspondent, attachment and assign user-generated labels.
III. Managing Scale
Scale is a double-edged for born-digital literary archives. The growing size of these collections undoubtedly renders some established archival cataloguing techniques inadequate. Equally, as the the kinds of media stored on consumer-level storage devices become more complex, traditional techniques for information organisation and control become either too labour intensive or impossible to adapt to this new context. Nevertheless, the scale of structured metadata available for these new kinds of collection items allows us to explore new techniques for data visualisation and ‘enhanced curation’ in ways that would be impossible for more traditional archival collections.
Examples of how structured metadata can allow us to visualise and compile data in interesting ways using computing languages such as Python. The bar graph shows a time distribution for files in the Virago archive, with the 24 hour clock on the x axis and number of files on the y axis. The text describes some statistics and metrics for the same archive.
The processing, preservation and access provision for born digital literary archives is very much still an open field. The future is uncertain, but consequently still very exciting. Although there are many challenges ahead, if we are willing and able to leverage the technology, there are innumerable new discoveries to be made about the collections we hold, some of which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In this way, our driving motivation for born-digital is no different than it is for paper -- to preserve, interpret and provide access to our collections for the inspiration and enjoyment of everyone.
01 April 2020
Digital Literary Collections — Variety, Complexity and Curiosity under Lockdown
by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.
The April - June 2020 season of blogs on English and Drama will focus on the Library’s digital literary collections, ranging through Online Exhibitions, Learning Resources, the UK Web Archive, Personal Digital Archives and Emerging Formats.
Curators and cataloguers will post selections from our remotely available collections alongside their reflections every Friday, and an investigation of a different aspect of these digital collections every Wednesday.
The current situation is strange in countless ways. One way — relatively abstract and apparently unimportant at first glance — is how it has distorted our collective sense of physical space. By staying at home we simultaneously ground ourselves in a limited physical range whilst being drawn to new, expansionist forms of electronic communication. How many times have we heard, over the past few weeks — listening to friends and family over distorted, overburdened broadband connections — how relieved we all are that this particular crisis (if it had to happen) happened now; when we have unprecedented access to technologies which can, for those of us lucky enough to be able to access them, ameliorate the isolation or at least stave off the boredom. Perhaps it is inevitable that the ‘digital’, as a somewhat amorphous and poorly defined category, comes to the forefront of these conversations. Puritanical notions of screen-time as something to be avoided, or at least restricted, take a back-seat as the physical world grinds to a halt around us, and the fibre-optic synapses continue to fire, faster than ever.
The UK Web Archive (UKWA) attempts to collect this online activity, capturing millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations.
For curators, cataloguers and researchers who work at, use and visit cultural heritage institutions like the British Library, the physical collections remain out of reach. They’re in isolation too. In storage areas which are less like the ancient, labyrinthine temples of happenstance so often depicted in media representations — and much more like sterile hospital wards — countless boxes of archival material and shelves of printed material sit unprocessed and unread, gathering (minimal, tightly controlled, mostly metaphorical) dust. And we’ll miss them. But we’re relieved too. Because if this particular crisis had to happen, then at least it happened now, when our capacity to share our collections with our audiences remotely is growing more quickly than ever before.
Discovering Literature is an example of growing capacity to share and re-contextualise our literary collections online. Enjoy digitised treasures from our collection, newly commissioned articles, short documentary films and teachers’ notes.
Every Wednesday a blog will go live from one of the Library’s curators or cataloguers, which will approach a different aspect of the ‘digital’ and how it relates to literature, drama and the Library.
Every Friday, a curator or cataloguer will highlight a digitised literary collection item or piece of writing from one of the Library’s many online portals, which in some way reflects upon our unprecedented situation.
None of this is to say that digital collections are easy; a fall-back option during a crisis. Archivists and other cultural heritage workers have long resisted the optimism (and hubris) of the tech-world and its zealots who claim that everything will be — or already has been — digitised. We know that the internet hasn’t superseded the Library or the Archive. We know that a future where all of our collections are available remotely, for free, online is a long, long way off. Most of us have spent too many years buried under piles of paper to confidently predict its obsolescence. We have spent too long agonising over the logistics, pragmatics and ethics of categorisation to take such systems for granted. We know that information delivery is never value-free or structure-free, and we take our roles as custodians of information seriously enough to question anything that argues otherwise. And, as the posts lined up for these coming months will prove, a significant number of Library colleagues have enough experience with these complex and various ‘digital objects’ to be all too aware that they are not post-archival in any meaningful sense, but rather present their own set of unique — and, at this point, often insurmountable — challenges for conservation, visibility and access.
The Library's Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts Department now routinely collects born-digital archive material, including the hard-drives and e-mail of prominent writers. This material presents heretofore unprecedented opportunities and challenges for the Library in terms of preservation, visibility and access.
We hope that these reflections and selections will engage your curiosity and encourage both reflection and discussion in the coming months, as more of us settle into this new way of life.
26 April 2019
The Book of Hours
a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019.
Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell
The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films.
Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.
Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton
A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images. By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons. They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.
There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints. Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.
In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone. The monastic life was seen as the epitome of proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.
A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.
The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags. This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.
Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett
What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.
Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.
Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.
All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator.
09 November 2018
C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library
a guest blog by Craig Taylor, whose latest novel, Staying On, is published by Duckworth in 2018. In 2014 he began a project with the British Library to document the creative process of writing the book, using key-logging software. You can reach Craig on Twitter at @CMTaylorStory.
Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress - actual objects showing the shaping of works of art - but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?
Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.
I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things - the lost drafts and the loneliness - and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’
He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.
It was worth a shot.
I contacted the digital curation team at the British Library in April 2013 and they could not have been more transparent, accessible and curious. We started talking about how digital production intersected with the scholarly recovery of the creation of works of art, and it turned out that my first view of things was off. Forensic curatorial techniques for salvaging the development of a manuscript on a hard drive did exist. It was just that they could not often be used, due to issues of privacy. How could you go into a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.
But a simple solution was available. To save us from running into privacy issues, I would just buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I’m not the world’s richest guy, so I bought a pretty basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.
The reconditioned keylogging laptop on my writing desk at home.
We negotiated a contract where (to put it crudely) the data was the British Library’s but the resultant book was mine, and then we looked round for some software. The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro about which Jonathan Pledge, a curator of contemporary archives at the British Library has recently written:
"The software used for capturing the writing process on the Craig Taylor project was the keylogging software, Spector Pro produced by SpectorSoft. In 2015 the company was rebranded as Veratio; Spector Pro is no longer part of the product range and is no longer supported. Spector Pro works with Windows variants from Windows XP to Windows 7.
After installation on a host computer, Spector Pro works by running undetected as a background application and cannot be accessed via the normal Windows user interface (it is not visible in the Applications folder). Access to the programme is by a default keyboard combination Control-Alt-Shift which brings up a password dialog box. The password is set by whoever installs the programme.
As keylogging software Spector Pro is not terribly sophisticated and seems to have been specifically designed for low-level company surveillance of employees, potentially without their knowledge. It is possible to run Spector Pro as a visible programme but this would seem to negate its original stated purpose.
Spector Pro can track and record chat conversations (as transcripts), emails (sent and received), websites visited and, most importantly for this project, keystrokes made, not only what has been typed within an application; but mouse and keystroke usage across the whole computer system."
The software was installed on my empty computer and I set to work.
But what had I done? I’d offered myself as a guinea pig, with my every wrong-turn, reappraisal, edit and mistake noted, recoverable and time and date stamped. Not only that but the novel proved punishingly hard to write. It wasn’t just that I was also writing a film script and an app, plus working as an editor of fiction and a university lecturer, and it wasn’t just that one of my young daughters was often to be found perched on my desk asking me questions, it was also the content of the book. I was aiming for a clarity of prose and of story, and for a universal relatability of protagonist, that I had never sought before.
The going was slow, but when I got the chance, and when I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018. By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.
So, what exactly do we have?
We have information on every keystroke typed:
This shot shows the raw data usage as a list. By far the largest number of keystrokes concerns writing/typing as well as work on editing (Find & Replace) with the remainder comprising system activity including backups.
Plus, we have thousands of screenshots, one captured every few seconds each time activity on the host computer is detected.
From the moment the computer is logged into until the moment it is shutdown. Screenshots allows an output as either still images (.jpg or .BMP) or as black and white video (.avi).
And we have text outputs:
Text output from ‘Keystrokes Typed’ for a single tracked session. As seen from the detail below the header provides information on the Application used, the start of activity and the title of the file being worked on. The greyed text represents the tracked movements with typed words rendered in bold. Time stamps are given, with the green text signalling the start of activity and red the end.
During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no clear sense of the data being produced. But while I never knew what it was doing, it actually did help me begin again with novel writing, to get over that initial hump in the road. Somehow the writing felt collaborative, not only because the software was recording me, but also because of the digital curation team who were taking the data.
I have been asked if knowing that the work was being recorded made me self-conscious, and, sure at first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more competent writer. But that didn’t last. Soon I realised that I quite wanted mistakes to show. It seemed an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to really show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – weak theme, two dimensional characters, flimsy plotting – and that only re-writing cures these ills. It seemed like honesty to uncover the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the solid, finished article.
Not only that. I forget about the keylogging software recording my every character because of the story itself. I wrote earlier that it was a difficult novel to write, because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope. I forgot about the keylogging going on as I wrote because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be - because my story and my characters - Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick - absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my wallpapered dungeon, the keylogging project being the booster to get the journey started.
And so now, what are we going to do with the data? Well, I’m not going to do anything with it, I don’t have the skills. The data is now placed in the public domain, under a Creative Commons BY license, running free at : https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging/. So, if you are a scholar of digital humanities, or a digital artist or a creative visualizer, be our guest. The data is there to be played with. It would be lovely to know what you did with it.
04 July 2018
Keitai shousetsu: the first mobile phone fictions
by Alastair Horne, a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD student based at the British Library and Bath Spa University. His research explores how mobile phones are changing storytelling.
The launch of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a turning point for mobile phones. It transformed the smartphone, previously a business tool exemplified by the dull but effective Blackberry, into a desirable consumer product. This transformation was embodied in the phone’s most striking feature: on a Blackberry, the screen shared the front of the phone with the physical keyboard that had given the device its name, its keys resembling the drupelets of a blackberry; on the iPhone, that screen had now consumed the keyboard to occupy the entire front of the device.
This symbolised the smartphone’s conversion from a tool for writing emails to a consumer device: one on which media could be consumed easily and pleasurably. That is one of the reasons why I take the iPhone’s launch as the starting-point for my research, which explores how storytelling – the kinds of stories we tell, and how we talk about stories – is being transformed by these devices and their affordances: their connectivity and ability to respond to our input, their capacity for playing different kinds of media, and their portability and the fact that they know where we are.
These highly capable devices seemed a world away from the first mobile phone I’d owned when working as an English teacher in Japan at the turn of the millennium, its tiny square screen able to display maybe a hundred or so characters, and its twelve or so keys rendering typing an awkward, sometimes painful experience. And yet as my research progressed, I discovered that these very basic phones had given rise to their own kind of mobile-specific storytelling, which had some surprising elements in common with the new kinds of stories I was examining.
Credit: Joi Ito
The first mobile phone fictions had begun to appear even before I left Japan in 2001: the first, Deep Love, was written by a former teacher who posted it to his mobile-friendly website in 2000, using the pseudonym Yoshi. Telling the story of a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl who takes up prostitution to pay for an operation for her boyfriend, and dies after contracting HIV, the novel established the template for the stories that would later form the cellphone novel genre: colloquial and confessional in tone, like the messages people were used to reading on their phones; dark, sensational, and sexual, in content.
The cellphone novel – ‘keitai shousetsu’ in Japanese – had two parents: the long and crowded journeys silently endured each day by Japanese commuters, and the enthusiastic adoption of comparatively advanced mobile phones by the country’s young people. Serialised in short chapters of between fifty and a hundred words that could be downloaded quickly and cheaply and read between stops, these stories rapidly became a massive participatory phenomenon in Japan. Inspired by Yoshi, thousands of Japanese people began to publish their own stories using homepage building sites – the local equivalent of Geocities – which responded by developing templates to suit these new types of serialised fictions.
Like the smartphone stories that are the main focus of my study, these stories refashioned the roles of author, text, and reader in fascinating ways. Their writers bore little resemblance to the authors published by established Japanese publishers and had rather more in common with their readers. Mostly women in their teens and twenties who had never written before – the modest cellphone seemingly unlocking the creativity of an entire demographic – they often wrote their novels in just the same context as their readers consumed them, typing them out on their phones’ tiny keypads on their journeys to and from school and/or work.
Their readers, also mostly women in their teens and twenties, few of whom read traditional print fiction, had correspondingly little in common with conventional Japanese readers. Most intriguingly, they enjoyed relationships with the stories’ authors that go considerably beyond what we see today on social media, even though most authors, like Yoshi, used pseudonyms to hide their true identities not only from readers but also from schoolfriends, colleagues, parents, and their fellow commuters. The websites that published these novels enabled readers and authors to send each other messages: consequently, readers offered authors their thoughts on the novels, pointing out errors and offering suggestions for future developments. (Most cellphone novels were written, as they were published, in instalments.) The writing process correspondingly became collaborative, as writers incorporated these ideas into their work. (Yoshi, for instance, has said that the idea of his heroine contracting HIV came from a reader who told him of her own experiences.)
With their colloquial language and shocking storylines, the stories themselves were also very different to traditional Japanese novels. Significantly, when these cellphone stories began to be published in print form, enjoying such phenomenal success that at one point four of the five bestselling novels in Japan had begun life on a cellphone, it was by newer, less conventional publishers who retained the left-to-right, top-to-bottom formatting the stories had had on-screen, rather than the top-to-bottom right-to-left reading order of traditional Japanese script; unlike the conventional publishers who had approached Yoshi soon after Deep Love became a mobile success, they did not attempt to censor their content, either.
Though the cellphone novel was in many respects a peculiarly Japanese form, drawing upon the specific cultural and technological conditions in Japan at the start of this millennium, its influence can still be seen today. Its most obvious heir is Wattpad, the storytelling site whose 65 million users now spend 23 billion minutes every month reading its 400 million stories. Originally envisaged as a way to read on mobile phones, Wattpad retains the collaborative, community, and episodic aspects of cellphone novels; newer apps like Hooked, Tap, and Yarn, meanwhile, have updated the colloquial tone and mobile-specificity of keitai shousetsu by telling stories through text and multimedia messaging; the reader taps the screen to read the next part of the story.
Compared to the interactive, multimedia, location-aware fictions of today – stories like Eighty Days and The Cartographer’s Confession – the Japanese cellphone novels of the 2000s may seem limited. In their use of the admittedly limited mobile technology available to them, however, to tell new kinds of stories and rework the roles of author, text, and reader, they set the scene for today’s mobile fictions, and for my own research.
Alastair tweets as pressfuturist and blogs at www.pressfuturist.com.
Anyone interested in mobile fictions might be interested in attending the British Library Interactive Fiction Summer School, which begins on Monday 23 July and runs for five days; booking details are available here.
04 July 2017
First Steps into Interactive Fiction
by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Printed Collections
It won’t be long until the Infinite Library Summer School. In preparation for this I’m considering choices. What will I speak about? Where will my session led? How should I introduce my subject? What is too much?, Where to begin?
When I say considering choices, what I actually mean is I am considering how narratives take twists and turns, and how great stories can pivot on a single choice which leads the protagonist to the enviable ending. Do these so called choices actually influence the destination or simply the route?
The Infinite Library
In literary crime and historical fiction the doctoring of the historical narrative as a device often used to present a rich fictional world in which characters meander through historical events into fictional events. Two such examples constructed around an alternate history of the Second World War are SS-GB by Len Deighton and Richard Harris’s Fatherland. Such a literary method opens an avenue of free agency for the personae dramatica allowing them to operate in an alternative universe, but one which is tied to recognised conventions of good and evil.
A fundamental of shifting the lens from the historical is under pinning its transition of familiar waypoints in a recognisable environment. For instance Harris references Albert Speer’s architectural plans and models of a post war reconstruction of Berlin when his fictional protagonist Xavier March travels around the composite Berlin of 1964 in the course of his investigations. Harris himself describes Fatherland as a ‘huge geopolitical "what if"’ thereby raising wider questions relevant historical questions by using alternate history.
Map of Berlin 1964 from the 1993 edition of Fatherland interesting the first edition does not contain this map.
In making these choices and blending the historical and the fictional it is possible to take the next logical step and give the reader agency in the creative process. One of the finest examples of this is 80 Days, by innovative Cambridge based games developer, Inkle. They completely reimagined Jules Verne’s travelogue classic Around the World in Eighty Days. This work literally puts the reader in the driving seat for a trans-continental race against time. Where the reader is presented with a range of choices on how to proceed, who to interact with and what to read within the narrative.
Over recent years the British Library has taken an interest in interactive works; as part of last year’s International Games Day @ your library (now International Games Week for 2018) we hosted a WordPlay festival, to showcase of some of the best current international interactive fiction and earlier this year, as part of the London Games Festival fringe, we ran Off the Page: Literature and Games, looking at how the fictional worlds of our favourite novels and plays are represented in games and in return what games bring to the written word.
The Wondering Lands of Alice by Off Our Rockers
Continuing on from these initiatives, next month, the Library is teaming up with award winning poet Abigail Parry to run an Interactive Fiction Summer School. So if you have aspirations to lead your readers down the rabbit hole of the infinite library into stories where they choose the outcome, then you may wish to drink me….
English and Drama blog recent posts
- Writing Tools for Interactive Fiction
- Collecting Literature on the Web: a Q&A
- Born-digital Literary Archives — How We’re Capturing the Future
- Digital Literary Collections — Variety, Complexity and Curiosity under Lockdown
- The Book of Hours
- C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library
- Keitai shousetsu: the first mobile phone fictions
- First Steps into Interactive Fiction
- Animal Tales
- Artists' books
- Banned Books
- Black & Asian Britain
- British Library Treasures
- Contemporary Britain
- Crime fiction
- Digital archives
- Digital scholarship
- Discovering Literature
- East Asia
- Legal deposit
- Literary translation
- Live art
- Medieval history
- Modern history
- Murder in the Library
- New collection items
- Printed books
- Rare books
- Research collaboration
- Romance languages
- Science fiction
- Sound and vision
- Sound recordings
- Unfinished Business
- Video recordings
- Visual arts
- Women's histories
- World War One
- Writing Britain