THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

Introduction

Tracking exciting developments at the intersection of libraries, scholarship and technology. Read more

17 January 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Keynote Talk by Josie Fraser

The fifth annual British Library Labs Symposium kicked off with an inspiring keynote speech by Josie Fraser, entitled ‘Open, Digital, Inclusive: Unleashing Knowledge’.

As well as working as senior technology adviser within the National Technology Team at the UK Government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Josie is currently the Chair of Wikimedia UK.

Josie discussed the impact of the open knowledge movement on education and learning. She looked at the powerful role that Wikimedia UK and Wikimedians have played in bringing UK cultural institutions and their digital collections to new and wider audiences. Her talk also explored how open knowledge partnerships are driving diversity and better representation for all online. At the end, she took questions from the audience and invited them to join her in exploring ideas and opportunities for the future.

You can see a video the full talk, with an introduction by Dr Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, here:

You can follow this link to see her slides:

 Josie slide 1

 https://www.slideshare.net/labsbl/open-digital-inclusive-unleashing-knowledge

The sixth BL Labs Symposium will be on the 12th November 2018.

Posted by Eleanor Cooper, Project Officer BL Labs.

30 December 2017

The Flitch of Bacon: An Unexpected Journey Through the Collections of the British Library

Digital Curator Dr. Mia Ridge writes: we're excited to feature this guest post from an In the Spotlight participant. Edward Mills is a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on Anglo-Norman didactic literature. He also runs his own (somewhat sporadic) blog, â€˜Anglo-Normantics’, and can be found Tweeting, rather more frequently, at @edward_mills.

Many readers of [Edward's] blog will doubtless be familiar with the work being done by the Digital Scholarship team, of which one particularly remarkable example is the ‘In the Spotlight‘ project. The idea behind the project, for anyone who may have missed it, is absolutely fascinating: to create crowd-sourced transcriptions of part of the Library’s enormous collection of playbills. The part of the project that I’ve been most involved with so far is concerned with titles, and it’s a two-part process; first, the title is identified out of the (numerous) lines of text on the page, and once this has been verified by multiple volunteers, it is then fed back into the database as an item for transcription.

PlaybillsPizarro
In the Spotlight interface

Often, though, the titles alone are more than sufficient to pique my interest. One such intriguing morsel came to light during a recent transcribing stint, when I found myself faced with a title that raised even more questions than Love, Law, & Physic:

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Playbill for a performance of The Flitch of Bacon

In my day-job, I’m actually a medievalist, which meant that any play entitled The Flitch of Bacon was bound to pique my interest. The ‘flitch’ refers to an ancient – and certainly medieval –  custom in Dunmow, Essex, wherein couples who could prove that they had never once regretted their marriage in a year and a day would be awarded a ‘flitch’ (side) of bacon in recognition of their fidelity. I first came across the custom of these ‘flitch trials’ while watching an episode of the excellent Citation Needed podcast, and was intrigued to learn from there that references to the trials existed as far back as Chaucer (more on which later). The trials have an unbroken tradition stretching back centuries, and videos from 1925, 1952 and 2012 go some way towards demonstrating their continuing popularity. What the British Library project revealed, however, was that the flitch also served as the driver for artistic creation in its own right. A little bit of digging revealed that the libretto to the 1776 Flitch of Bacon farce has been digitised as part of the British Library’s own collections, and the lyrics are every bit as spectacular as one might expect them to be.

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Rev. Henry Bate, The Flitch of Bacon: A Comic Opera in Two Acts (London: T. Evans, 1779), p. 24.

So far, so … unique. But, of course, the medievalist that dwells deep within me couldn’t resist digging into the history of the tradition, and once again the British Library’s collections came up trumps. The official website for the Dunmow Flitch Trials (because of course such a thing exists) proudly asserts that ‘a reference … can even be found within Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales‘, which of course can easily be checked with a quick skim through the Library’s wonderful catalogue of digitised manuscripts. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue opens with the titular wife describing her attitude towards her first three husbands, whom she ‘hadde […] hoolly in myn honde’. She keeps them so busy that they soon come to regret their marriage to her, forfeiting their right to ‘the bacoun …that som men fecche in Essex an Donmowe’ in the process:

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‘The bacoun was nought fet for hem I trowe / That som men fecche in Essex an Donmowe’. From the Wife of Bath’s Tale (British Library, MS Harley 7334, fol. 89r).

Chaucer’s reference to the flitch custom is frequently taken, along with William Langland’s allusion in Piers Plowman to couples who ‘do hem to Donemowe […] To folwe for the fliche’, to be the earliest reference to the tradition that can be found in English literature. Once again, though, the British Library’s collections can help us to put this particular statement to the test; as you’ve probably guessed by now, they show that there is indeed an earlier reference to the custom waiting to be found.

Baconanglonorman

Our source for this precocious French-language reference is MS Harley 4657. Like many surviving medieval manuscripts, this codex is often described as a ‘miscellany’: that is, a collection of shorter works brought together into a single volume. In the case of Harley 4657, the book appears to have been designed as a coherent whole, with the texts copied together at around the same time and sharing quires with each other; this is perhaps explained by the fact that the texts contained within it are all devotional and didactic in nature. (Miscellanies that were, by contrast, put together at a later date are known as recueils factices – another useful term, along with the ‘flitch of bacon’, to slip into conversation with friends and family members.) The bulk of the book is taken up by the Manuel des pechez, a guide to confession that was later translated into English by Robert Manning as Handling Synne. It’s in this text that the flitch custom makes an appearance, as part of a description of how many couples do not deserve any recompense for loyalty on account of their mutual mistrust (fol. 21):

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22 December 2017

All I want for Christmas is... playbills!

Digital Curator Mia Ridge with an update on our playbills crowdsourcing project (with apologises to Mariah Carey for the dodgy headline)...

What do you do once you've eaten all the chocolates and cheese and watched all the Christmas movies? If you haven't had a go at transcribing historic playbills yet, the holidays are a great time to start.

Home, Sweet Home from: A collection of playbills from miscellaneous theatres: Nottingham - Oswestry 1755-1848 Collection Item, ([British Isles]: s.n.], 1755-1848.) <http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100022589132.0x000002>

As 2017 turns into 2018, we thought it was time for an update on our progress with In the Spotlight. We've had over 20,000 contributions from over 2,000 visitors from 61 countries. Together, they've completed 21 sets of tasks on individual volumes - a wonderful result. We're still analysing it but the transcribed data looks good so far. Our next step is agreeing the details of including the results in the Library's catalogue - once that's done, information from individual playbills will be searchable for the first time.

Since the project launched in early November we've had some fantastic feedback, questions and comments on our forum and on social media. For example, Sylvia Morris @sylvmorris1 has written two blog posts, International Migrants Day: Ira Aldridge and theatre and British Library project enlists public to transcribe historical playbills.Twitter users like @e_stanf shared fantastic images they'd discovered, and we even made The Stage and the Russian media! Look out for more updates and blog posts from project participants in the new year.

Questions from our participants include a request from a PhD student to collect references to plays set at fairs. A question about plays being 'for the benefit of' led to the Wikipedia entry for 'benefit performances' being updated with one of our images. Share your curiosities and questions on our forum or twitter - we love hearing from you!

We haven't forgotten about Convert-a-Card in the excitement of launching In the Spotlight. Since launch, this project for digitising information from old card catalogues has had over 33,000 contributions. Early in the new year, we'll be adding a thousand new records to the Library's catalogue. Our thanks to everyone who's made a contribution.

So if you're looking for entertainment these holidays, we invite you to step Into the Spotlight at http://playbills.libcrowds.com and discover how people entertained themselves before Netflix!