31 March 2022
Back in 2016 we wrote a post on this blog entitled News is Beautiful. It looked at the art of infographics and data visualisations in explaining the news of today. How interesting it would be, we speculated, if the infographic artists of today could work with data from historical newspapers. What would the results look like and what would we learn from them? Six years on, we have some answers.
Advocates of Freedom infographic by Ciaran Hughes
On 1 April 2022 a small exhibition opens at the British Library's St Pancras site, entitled Visualising Victorian News. Inspired by the questions we raised back in 2016, a project was established as part of the Library's Heritage Made Digital programme to commission three infographic designers to work with data derived from nineteenth-century British newspapers digitised by the British Library to illustrate significant news themes from the Victorian era. The three artists we commissioned were Tiziana Alocci, Ciaran Hughes and Erik Nylund.
The work began in 2018 with the intention of exhibiting the results in the summer of 2020. Covid-19 put paid to such plans, but the extra two years turned out to be necessary for the learning process we needed to go through. Our original plan was to work from the raw text created by by the process of digitising a newspaper (known as OCR, or Optical Character Recognition), extracting keywords to show patterns of development that we could ask the designers to express visually. It soon became clear that the raw text, though forming an essential component, was too impressionistic on its own and needed to be supported by data from other sources. We learned the importance of have a strong story; of having datasets that complemented and contrasted with each other, enabling comparisons to be made clear; and of the balance required between text, tables and image.
We learned that some stories that we would like to have told did not have the right datasets available. We learned that some datasets were of great interest as datasets, but did not necessarily produce satisfactory stories. Crucially, we learned the importance of working with researchers who had already used data in their work, or who had produced datasets as an output of their research. They could supply the materials needed and explain the themes and arguments that such such data could best serve. Above all we learned that most important of all was a productive, co-operative relationship with the designers, sharing ideas and understanding by the process of building up a complex design what would work best in telling the story.
Visualising Victorian News is the result. There are seven designs, on the themes of Abolitionism, Newspapers, Crime, War, Health, Machines and Tea. Each uses data from digitised newspapers, augmented by data from other sources, to illustrate these news themes. Each follows the original brief we gave to the designers, of looking striking from a distance, then to be full of information for the viewer to discover as they get up close. Each design is accompanied by a panel naming the artist, researchers, data sources and other sources. The designs are on display in the upper ground area of our entrance hall. The exhibition is free, and runs to 21 August 2022, accompanying our major exhibition on British news, Breaking the News, which opens on 22 April and run to the same date.
As it says on the introductory panel of the exhibition, when we digitise a historic object, we do not simply reproduce what the original looks like, but that we untap a wealth of new information from the data it provides. To digitise is to create new histories.
To accompany the exhibition there is an event being held at the Library on 26 April, 19:15-21:00, Beautiful News / Visualising Victorian News. This will bring together the three designers behind our exhibition and David McCandless, the 'king of infographics', whose bestselling books Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful have been joined by his latest, very appropriate title, Beautiful News. There will be a special viewing of the exhibition beforehand with the designers present between 17.45 – 19.00.
- Visualising Victorian News exhibition: https://www.bl.uk/events/visualising-victorian-news
- Beautiful News event: https://www.bl.uk/events/beautiful-news-visualising-victorian-news
- David McCandless's Beautiful News: https://informationisbeautiful.net/beautifulnews
- Tiziana Alocci: https://www.tizianaalocci.com
- Ciaran Hughes: https://www.ciaranhughes.design
- Erik Nylund: http://eriknylund.se