Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

5 posts from August 2013

30 August 2013

Access to everyone

This week we reveal all about a core part of our work - our science content and collections.

At the British Library we want to “enable access to everyone who wants to do research”. In fact, you could look at libraries as the physical manifestation of open access – they were helping people to connect to information for free, long before the internet. Antonio Panizzi, the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum Library said in 1835: “I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go...”

And we are still doing that – only we offer more than books today. We have two dedicated Science Reading Rooms at St Pancras where anyone who wants to do research can access our vast collection of science content. When people ask us what we have, it can be difficult to give a comprehensive answer, as we have a lot. We have been collecting for a long time but we also provide access to the latest research across all subject areas in science, technology and medicine. What many people don’t know is that we also have strong holdings of trade and professional titles and collect material from around the world. And for some research, the scientific article may not be enough – perhaps you need to see conference proceedings, reports, PhD theses, datasets, maps or sound recordings – and we have those too.

As the world of scientific information use and publishing evolves, our collection changes too. We are going digital and provide a range of electronic databases, online journals and eBooks. We continue to develop our services and appreciate the feedback we receive from our many users - each year the Library’s dedicated science reference team handles nearly 30,000 customer enquiries both in person and online.

A view of one of the Science Reading Rooms. The ability to browse the physical copies of journals and books is still possible, while having access to the latest online journals and electronic resources.

We know through reader surveys and interviews that our Science Reading Rooms are used by a diverse range of people. While many working in higher education use us, we also attract independent researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs and other professionals. If you are doing research in an obscure field of science it is likely that we’ll be able to help you – our readers identified 45 separate science subjects as research topics in one survey. Try putting any scientific search term into our catalogue – and let us know if you don’t find something! Readers have told us that the breadth of subjects we cover is the main reason they come to us, but many also just really like the experience of having a quiet space to do research, without the interruptions of the outside world.

If you want to find out more about how to use the Library, have a look at the latest videos, see how to obtain a Reader’s pass or look at the Science team’s guide. Then you too can be the ‘richest man (or woman) in the kingdom’.

Ian Walker and Elizabeth Newbold

23 August 2013

An open and shut case

To continue exploring services that we offer to contemporary researchers, today Anna Kinsey talks about Europe PubMed Central, rated the world’s best repository1 for life sciences and biomedical information...

Until relatively recently, publication practises and dissemination of scholarly works had not changed a great deal since the first journals were launched in the 17th century. However, the advent of computers and, more specifically, a worldwide network of connected computers, enabled sharing of research articles in a way not previously possible. Before the internet we were reliant on publishers to distribute research articles, as printed copies of journals had to be posted to libraries and private subscribers. Now, while publishers remain responsible for packaging research articles as digital works, the dissemination of the article can be done via a variety of other services.

This massive technological leap helped to shift the model of how we share scholarly literature in an equally spectacular way. It enabled something called Open Access.

Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white_wikimedia commons‘Open access literature is digital, online, free-of-charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions’ (Open Access, by Peter Suber, The MIT Press).

Open access is hugely beneficial for furthering research. And that, in turn, benefits society with advances in healthcare and new technologies, and greater availability of information to inform policies and decision-making. The removal of those barriers imposed by the traditional publishing model – cost to the reader, and copyright restrictions – means that the results of research are more widely available and useful, wherever and whoever you are.

The Wellcome Trust led a progressive movement by research funders by being the first in the world to mandate that papers arising from research they had funded must be open access – and that they must be made available in Europe PubMed Central. They were joined by a growing number of government and charity research funding organisations (for example, those that support Europe PMC),which also made open access publication a requirement of their funding.

Europe PMC is a free life sciences and biomedical information resource that allows you to use keywords to search for research of interest, across nearly 28 million article summaries (abstracts) and patents. Over 2.5 million articles in Europe PMC are free or open access, and the proportion of published work that is open access is growing every year.

Europe PMC
The British Library has been involved in Europe PMC since its inception in 2006. In this digital era, Europe PMC is one way that the Library is providing users off-site with access to scientific information. As engagement manager, I want to let people know about Europe PMC as a useful resource but I also help to ensure that Europe PMC delivers features that will be of benefit, by seeking and understanding community requirements. You can stay up to date by following me on Twitter (@EuropePMC_news) and looking out for more detailed descriptions of developments on the Europe PMC blog.

Of course, access to research does not necessarily equate to understanding of some of the complex ideas described in research articles. Europe PMC and the Science team at the British Library recognise that to achieve maximum benefit from research discoveries, there is work to be done to translate the technical language and scientific jargon into ‘plain English’. With that in mind, we launched a science-writing competition, Access to Understanding, where entrants were asked to do just that. Look out later in the year for an announcement about the 2014 competition.


16 August 2013

Divining the Deluge

Data visualisation isn’t just about making pretty graphics. It’s also helping scientists make new discoveries. Johanna Kieniewicz explores how data is displayed and provides a teaser for the Science Team’s upcoming exhibition.

We are awash in data. Whether it’s the vast amounts of genomic data being sequenced every day by bioscientists, data generated by human activity and transactions, or the 15 petabytes of data produced per year by the Large Hadron Collider, we are up to our necks in data. But hopefully swimming, not drowning. Mechanisms are being set up to harness the power of this data and make sure it is suitable and available for future use. DataCite is busy enabling researchers to get credit for their data, research funders are encouraging their scientists to think about where their data goes, and the open data movement and the principles of open data have been embraced by the UK Government with the development of the Open Data Institute and But when it comes to the analysis of all this data, how do we make sense of endless strings of 1’s and 0’s? C’s, G’s, T’s, A’s? One cross-cutting tool that unites fields as seemingly unrelated as genetics, climate science and finance is data visualisation.

Binary Matrix 122204205

Visualisation is key to our ability to identify trends, patterns and correlations within scientific data, thereby deriving meaning and making discoveries. While a glance at the Guardian Data Store or a website like Visual Complexity might lead you to believe that the visualisation of data is a fad that has washed in with this most recent tidal wave of data, it is actually something that has been with us much longer. On the extreme end, we can trace ideas around data visualisation to cuneiform markings on clay tablets and early maps of our universe. However, our modern graphic representation of data owes a great deal to the Scottish statistician, William Playfair, with his ground-breaking statistical graphics of social, political and economic data. Many of these techniques were adopted by 19th century epidemiologists grappling with the cholera outbreaks ravaging London. Other techniques were adopted by those who were looking at the weather; or attempting to organise and rationalise all life on our planet onto a single piece of paper.
Where data visualisation and statistical graphics, as we know them, started.  From William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas, 1786.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Thanks to John Snow, we now know what causes cholera. But we are still mapping it, and now using genomic visualisations to identify the source of the 2010 Haiti cholera outbreak. We have moved beyond the three dimensional ‘heat map’ to bring in the component of time, producing detailed visualisations of how systems evolve over seconds or decades. And data need not be static; it can be dynamic and interactive. But despite these changes to the data itself and our means of visualising it, scientists are still making the same sorts of choices as in the 19th century about visualisation—what should we display? Using what method? How do we create an image that tells a thousand words? And so on…


Data visualisation today. The interactive tool, Gapminder World, uses data visualisation for global good, looking at trends in the health and wealth of nations.

These are issues that we in the Science Team at the British Library are thinking about in particular depth at the moment. Opening in February 2014, our exhibition, Beautiful Science, will look at the past and present of data visualisation in science, bringing together classic visualisations from the Library’s collection with cutting edge visualisations from today’s scientists and designers. We will tell stories of advances both in how we think about data, along with the scientific stories that the data tells.  We aren’t quite ready to let the cat out of the bag yet in terms of what we’ll be showing… but stay tuned for a mixture of the interesting, intriguing and unexpected. We’re excited and we hope you follow us on this journey!

Johanna Kieniewicz

09 August 2013

Inspiring Science 2013

An Experiment with Ideas

This is a story of what happens when science, art, comedy, philosophy and puppets collide!

Watch the video showing highlights from Inspiring Science, our first science season, held at the British Library in March this year.


With the strap-line – Experiment with Ideas – Inspiring Science gave people a range of opportunities to explore thought-provoking scientific ideas and engage with challenging topics in an accessible and enjoyable way. The season showcased the scientific aspects of what we do across the British Library, highlighting both the cross-cutting nature of science, and its interplay with the arts, humanities and social sciences. Science is part of the cultural experience at the Library, as well as an integral part of the information resources and services that we provide.

Thousands of people took part in an inspiring series of events, learning lectures and workshops, or visited the Encounters science-art exhibition, entered the Access to Understanding writing competition, or viewed content online. Events such as Ideas in the Bath saw scientists debating the role of serendipity in research and in Addictive Personality explored the biological and social drivers of addiction. In a lighter vein, Your Creative Brain was an on-stage extravaganza involving neuroscientists (from University College London), musicians, artists, philosophers, historians and puppeteers, exploring the conditions for creativity.

With Go, Go, Gadget, we helped aspiring inventors in a speed-mentoring workshop in the Library’s Business and IP Centre, and the Inspiring Science Learning Lectures for A-level students saw us collaborating with the Francis Crick Institute. Sir Nigel Shadbolt led a lively TalkScience discussion on the role of open data in fostering innovation, scientific and social advancement.
Science, smells, puppets and prizes – something for everyone at Inspiring Science 2013

Full Frontal Nerdity, the season finale, saw Festival of the Spoken Nerd taking on the British Library and rummaging through the collections, unearthing bizarre facts, quizzing resident experts, investigating the chemistry of books and developing performances based on our patents collection and ecology sound archive. A series of ‘labs’ provided an opportunity for the audience to have hands-on experiences of science at the Library and even to taste ‘Musty Book’ cocktails.

Inspiring Science 2013 was a great opportunity for people to connect with science at the Library, providing inspiration and enjoyment. In 2014, we will be doing it all again, with an even more ambitious season to tie in with Beautiful Science, an exhibition which will explore the power and beauty of data visualisation in science. Watch this space…

Allan Sudlow

02 August 2013

Show me more data

Expanding on last week’s post on open data, today we look at our role in DataCite and how we are supporting the UK research data community.

The British Library is one of the founding members of DataCite, an international organisation bringing together the research data community to work collaboratively on the challenges of making research data visible, accessible and citable. DataCite is a registration agency for Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), and the British Library is an allocating agent on behalf of DataCite. We provide an infrastructure that supports simple and effective methods of discovery and access. We work with data centres and other organisations to enable them to assign to DOIs to data. 

Since 2011, the Library’s Science team has been developing DataCite services in the UK. In practical terms, this has involved working with a range of organisations that create, manage or archive data, setting them up on the system, so that they can assign DOIs (a process known as minting - we even have mints, pictured, to prove it!), Mints1working on the DataCite metadata schema and ensuring our community’s needs are represented within the global DataCite membership. To support this work, we have organised a series of workshops, exploring the various aspects of data citation, as well as the requirements for working with DataCite and DOIs.

We’ve covered a lot of topics in the last year. From the basics - such as what does minting a DOI actually mean and how do I do it? (you can find out how in our YouTube video) and what should I put a DOI on - to more complex subjects such as how do I deal with sensitive data or different versions? We’ve had lively discussions at all of the workshops, supported by excellent presentations from colleagues who are working with research data. You can see the full list of topics covered and presentations from the workshops on our webpages


In addition to running workshops, we’ve been out and about talking to colleagues in universities - discussing how they can use the service as well as hearing about the challenges they face in managing research data. These meetings and workshops have provided opportunities to explore how we can work together – across a range of institutions and disciplines. What is certain and, I think reassuring for everyone, is that no one has all the answers – processes and practices are evolving but it is encouraging that we can work on solutions together. If you’d like to talk to us or arrange a workshop for your organisation, then do get in touch ([email protected])

We’ll be coming back to issues in research data management and data citation in future posts but for now we’re looking forward to a week of discussion and debate at the Research Data Alliance meeting and DataCite Summer meeting in September.

Elizabeth Newbold