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22 February 2019

Digitising the Private Case

Covent-Garden Ladies title-page 1788 CROPPED

The British Library holds something in the order of 160 million collection items. Among these are millions of old and rare items that comprise texts, illustrations, maps, music scores and other content on paper or parchment. Whether printed, handwritten, drawn or painted, they need to be protected from natural decay, accidental damage or deliberate mutilation.

Many are unique: the manuscripts obviously so, but also many printed editions that may be the last survivors of their print run or carry important evidence of past ownership and use (marginal annotations, bookplates, personalised bindings, and so on). As curators, we face a dilemma. On the one hand, we want to manage access in order to help preserve these items for further generations. On the other, we have a responsibility to make them available to increasing numbers of researchers, writers, artists and designers now.

Covent-Garden Ladies illustration 1793Above: illustration from Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1793. Top: title page of Harris's list of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1788.

Part of the answer is digitisation, where we create full, high quality digital copies of these items and make them available via a computer network. It’s not that simple though: the items need to be selected, repairs may be necessary, copyright permissions obtained, searchable text files created, catalogue records enhanced, and files ingested into a digital store, to name just a few of the steps in the process. All this is a major undertaking that requires significant financial commitment. Even where the systems and resources are in place, the sheer volume of the material that we would all like to see digitised is well beyond the capacity of even the largest libraries.

Curators have wanted to digitise the Private Case collection of erotica for many years. Its content (just over 2,500 volumes printed 1634 to 1988, predominantly English and French novels) is of significant interest to both historical bibliographers and those researching past attitudes to sex and sexuality. Broadly speaking, four options are available:

  1. Seek a slice of the limited amount of funding and resources within the British Library to digitise the volumes ourselves;
  2. Seek philanthropic funding for a project run within the curatorial team;
  3. Partner with an academic institution that needs the material digitised as part of a funded research project;
  4. Work in partnership with a commercial organisation that will take on most of the costs, imaging and all of the risk in return for the ability to commercialise the content for an agreed period.

In all four scenarios, the digital images are ingested into our digital store as soon as practicable, and made available item-by-item via our online catalogues.

An advantage of options 3 and 4 is that the partner will usually build a web-based platform where digitised content can be searched, viewed and interpreted side-by-side with material they have secured from other repositories around the world. In the case of commercial partners, this platform will usually be behind a paywall – although free access will always be available from within any of the British Library’s Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire. It could also be argued that the global reach of companies such as ProQuest, Gale, Adam Matthew and Google helps us tell many more researchers about our digitised resources, placing them into a broader context and offer opportunities for new research methods such as text mining.

Cabinet-of-venus-unlockedTitle page of The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked, 1657.

We considered all four options for the Private Case. It would be just one of many projects competing for limited internal funds under Option 1. With something over 4.5 million pre-1901 British and European printed books and periodicals, we have to take difficult decisions about what we prioritise: other categories of material would always need to come first.

We were, and still are, already involved in a digitisation project run on money raised from the general public (King’s Topographical Collection), and we felt that this needed to be completed before we attempt another appeal (Option 2). No firm proposals had been received from academics that would result in the digitisation of the entire Private Case (Option 3).

We were therefore delighted when commercial publishers began to contact the British Library to ask about the possibility of digitising the Private Case (Option 4). The contract was the subject of a competitive tender, and the winning company was required to clear copyright permissions (not an easy task with so many covertly-published titles from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries) and provide data to improve our existing catalogue records.

My-Secret-Life-1880-Amsterdam-vol2-contentsContents page of volume 2 of My Secret Life by 'Walter', 1880 edition published in Amsterdam.

The Private Case is now available in Part 3 of Archives of Gender and Sexuality published by Gale. Here they can be consulted alongside similar material digitised from collections elsewhere. Although this is a subscription resource, it is available in many research libraries around the world, and can be accessed for free through any British Library Reading Room. At the end of seven years, the digitised versions will also be accessible to everyone from accompanying records in the British Library’s online catalogue, for free.

Returning to the original point about how we want to protect these materials from natural decay, accidental damage or deliberate mutilation, we can now point researchers to good quality digital surrogates. Managed carefully, this will mean that the originals are handled less often and should survive in a better state for future generations to investigate and enjoy.

Adrian Edwards

Head, Printed Heritage Collections


05 February 2019

Collaboration key for advancing open research: repository progress for Jisc and the British Library


Jisc and the British Library share an interest in the persistence and open access of the UK research record, and work together towards this aim. As the UK national library, the British Library is an integral part of the UK research infrastructure, a legal deposit library and a research organisation in its own right.  Jisc is the digital agency for UK further and higher education and research, providing research infrastructure from the Janet network and cybersecurity to open science and research analytics.  Where those missions coincide, both institutions are sharing experiences and intensifying collaborative dialogue to ensure that the new digital developments deliver the best results for the UK research community, our members, partners and users.

Repositories are now accepted as a core function of research organisations, to curate and share digital research outputs of all kinds and support open research. The BL and Jisc are working, so far as is practical, to align our development plans to maximise opportunities to cooperate in the areas of research repositories and preservation.  We will, for example, work together on preservation workflows, on the interfaces between repository and preservation systems and metadata profiles, such as those for theses.

Looking further ahead, we will continue regular meetings between our experts in these areas, to identify further prospects for cooperation, possibly in cloud storage or in stronger operational relationships between our services.

We share a common belief in advancing open research, including ensuring that research remains available for scrutiny and reuse into the future, which underpins our collaboration. At the same time, we are aware that there is a lot to do to enable UK research organisations to meet this challenge. We hope that a focused collaborative effort between Jisc and the British Library will contribute to reaching this goal.

Neil Jacobs, Head of open science and research lifecycle, Jisc

Torsten Reimer, Head of Research Services, British Library


Image: 'Collaboration' (c) Opensource via Flickr, CC BY-SA


14 January 2019

‘Rub the shin of the person on your left. With your face.’

As well as being the archival home of P G Wodehouse and Michael Palin, the British Library also plays occasional host to live comedy. Featuring the likes of This Is Going to Hurt author Adam Kay, Sofie Hagen on her debut book Happy Fat, lead Taskmaster assistant Alex Horne, and many more, the Chortle Comedy Book Festival took over the Library’s Knowledge Centre on 13 January.

In my role as a fan of both comedy and books, and a writer, editor and Tweeter of things for the British Library, I went along.

Alex Horne. Photo by George Torode.
Alex Horne. Photo by George Torode

Task #1

Sneak into some of the excellent sessions taking place at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival. Write about 10 things you learn during the day. You have 800 words. Your time starts now.

1. You wouldn’t want to be behind Alex Horne in the morning Reader queue. A massive cotton fried egg. A driving theory test card game. Toilet roll holders daubed in Marmite. Those who arrive early to the Taskmaster session have the opportunity to watch Alex Horne unpack a suitcase full of enough random task props and ‘money has bought’ prizes (I’ll let you guess which are which) to confuse the most experienced bag searcher.

2. More children watch Taskmaster than Dave probably expected and a lot of them are in the British Library audience. And on stage doing tasks. ‘Do cheer on your favourite child’ instructs Alex as they rush to put up tents in which to change into adult-size onesies.

The hour is punctuated by enthusiastically-entered audience tasks (‘Eat the best picture out of your slice of bread. You have 200 seconds.’) The public’s appetite for ridiculous things to do (there have apparently been two Taskmaster weddings; no Taskmaster funerals thus far) and their desire for Alex Horne to be the one to set them was what led him to write the Taskmaster book, as the Twitter requests and emails from schools became increasingly hard to keep up with.

3. The British Library’s status as a legal deposit library features in task #154. If you think applying for a Reader Pass in order to complete a task shows dedication, spare a thought for the comedians on the show, who do seven or eight tasks a day for six days, for each series. OK, so the six days are often spread over a six month period. But everything is a genuinely unscripted surprise. 

Robin Ince. Photo by George Torode
Robin Ince. Photo by George Torode

4. Robin Ince often forgets to mention his book on his book tour. I’m a Joke And So Are You asks what we can learn about human beings through looking at a particular branch of them: comedians. Both inspired and provoked by some media responses to the death of Robin Williams and the comedian stereotypes they drew on, the book targets common clichés about comics and asks whether they really are just clichés, and what they can tell us about people more generally.

5. Actors don’t like it when you tell them that you perform your internal monologue in their voice. And it turns out Robin Ince is pretty good at impressions. Alexei Sayle, Kenneth Williams, Brian Cox, 1970s Actor With an Open-Necked Shirt, his own compulsive thoughts (although I suppose we have to take his word for it on the last one).

Deborah Frances-White and Jessica Fostekew. Photo by George Torode
Deborah Frances-White and Jessica Fostekew. Photo by George Torode

6. We should all be really cross at ploughs but you’ll need to read Deborah Frances-White’s The Guilty Feminist to understand exactly why.

7. Comedians sometimes risk severe abdominal discomfort to avoid visiting the toilet after gigs in case they overhear audience members discussing how bad they thought they were. But Deborah Frances-White believes her brilliantly successful podcast is built on responding to criticism. If people love the podcast but think it’s got something wrong, she wants to know, and it may well inform the theme of a future episode. As much as we all try to be as empathetic and inclusive as possible, sometimes, unless it is your lived experience, you don’t get it, and you need someone who does to tell you.

8. ‘I’m a feminist and’ may be what you really mean; ‘I’m a feminist, but’ sounds funnier, and the first responsibility of The Guilty Feminist podcast is to be funny. The laughter that accompanies so many of the episodes, which are often recorded with a live audience, also helps foster a sense of community. Hearing other women respond to things in the same way you do, having your experiences endorsed by others, shows us we are not alone.

John Robins and Elis James. Photo by George Torode
John Robins and Elis James. Photo by George Torode

9. John Robins and Elis James have mastered the literary challenge of representing two voices in print: use different fonts.

Their session on The Holy Vible has the feel of both the book and their Radio X show and podcast – like you’re having a good time with your extremely funny friends. The Q&A has a similar…vibe, if you will…like the audience are catching up with their mates after the Christmas break: did John enjoy the Bohemian Rhapsody film? We’ve just seen Alex Horne - would you go on Taskmaster as a pair?

10. John Robins is after my job. Anyone who speaks with such intensity on the different uses of inverted commas in British and American English and the unique misery of a missed typo is clearly angling for some time with the British Library style guide and a bit of proofreading.

Obviously this event has happened now, but you can find out what else we have coming up at

Ellen Morgan, Content Officer at the British Library