Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

28 October 2019

Open and Engaged: Open Access Week at the British Library


There are opportunities and benefits for growth in open access and open scholarship when experience and knowledge is shared between Higher Education Institutes and cultural heritage organisations.

On Tuesday 22nd October, The British Library celebrated Open Access Week with the event, Open and Engaged - Forging links between higher education and cultural heritage to foster open scholarship (see #OpenEngaged19). This one-day event brought together representatives from Universities, Museums, research organisations, libraries and the private sector to examine how these links can be forged.

Liz Jolly, the Library’s Chief Librarian, opened the event with the hope that the day would allow participants to gain insights into a variety of points of view, and commence a dialogue to open up the cultural heritage sector and improve the user experience for researchers across the globe.

Our first keynote was from Helen Hardy, Digital Collections Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum (pictured above). She explained the opportunities and challenges NHM face in releasing their data and the impact that digitisation is having. Helen outlined the industrial scale processes involved in creating digital images from their very varied collection of 80 million items, which range from pinned insects to dinosaur bones. Creative solutions they are using include AI for shape recognition and colour analysis in images, as well as using Lego to create custom hardware for digitisation.

Mark Sweetnam-2-smallerDr Mark Sweetnam, Assistant Professor in English with Digital Humanities, Trinity College Dublin.

The second keynote was a view from higher education by Dr Mark Sweetnam, Assistant Professor in English with Digital Humanities, Trinity College Dublin. Using his experience with the Cultura EU project Mark highlighted how the project developed an interface to access very different digital collections; as well as working with cultural heritage institutions who are a conduit to researchers and users based outside of academia.

Three parallel sessions presented attendees with a choice of topics to engage with in more detail.

The accessibility and inclusive access session saw Tom Scott (Wellcome Trust) and Ben Watson (University of Kent) share the ways in which they are supporting researchers of diverse backgrounds and ability, some with complex digital access needs. Both highlighted that designing with accessibility in mind improves engagement for all. Whether placing the full-text of digitised images into alt-text or appropriately marking up headings in documents, these simple interventions that support assistive technologies such as screen readers also increase visibility of content to search engines.

Art for All: In this session Dr Andrea Wallace and Professor Simon Tanner highlighted the risk that the UK is falling behind on OA in the heritage sector, specifically referring to the ‘Survey of GLAM open access policy and practice’. In response Simon announced the launch of ‘Art for All’, a community action group working to support UK cultural heritage organisations to open digital collections for unrestricted public reuse. The group takes the view that no new rights should arise in faithful reproductions of public domain works and they will advocate for an increase in public funding for digitization.

The open collections and impact session looked at the experience of two organisations who have increased the openness of their collections. Linda Spurdle (Birmingham Museums Trust) had identified that image charges are a barrier to academics use meaning that the Museums’ collection is “missing” from publications. Jason Evans (National Library of Wales), explained how their use of Wikidata is improving access to data as well as enriching it.

Panel-smallerThe concluding panel session on Plan S and open scholarship.

The day concluded with a panel session ‘How can higher education and cultural heritage institutions better work together to ensure the success of Plan S and open scholarship?’. Plan S launched in September 2018 and will require all publications from 2021 onwards that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms. Dr Kathryn Eccles (Oxford Internet Institute) advocated that to be open and engaged is to do more than saying that there is a route through digitised material. Engagement with open collections can lead to a greater range of novel and more playful outputs such as artist engagements or infographics. In response, Dr Torsten Reimer (British Library) observed that whilst higher education institutions focus on making research publications open there is not the same focus on increasing engagement, while for cultural heritage organisations the opposite is true.

Finally, JD Hill (British Museum) raised some concerns about the impact of Plan S on humanities publishing. The fundamental issue he identified was that given the small percentage of research funding that arts and humanities researchers receive, the combined costs of image rights and article processing charges are discriminatory. However, he did challenge arts and humanities researchers to grow their own open ecosystem for a more radical route to open scholarship.

Susan Miles

Scholarly Communications Specialist