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01 September 2014

Wikimania and UK Wikimedian of the Year 2014 Awards

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This year it was very exciting that Wikimania 2014, the official annual conference of the Wikimedia Foundation, was held in the UK for the first time. It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends; such as the Library’s previous Wikipedian-in-Residence Andrew Gray, I also met new interesting folk, many from other libraries and cultural heritage institutions around the world, as there was a whole strand of the programme devoted to the GLAM sector.

Wikimedia UK used the conference closing ceremony for Jimmy Wales to announce the winners of the UK Wikimedian of the Year 2014 awards. The main award went to Ed Saperia for his hard work in organising Wikimania 2014. GLAM of the Year went to our friends (and my old colleagues) at the National Library of Scotland, Educational Institution of the Year to the University of Portsmouth; with Professor Humphrey Southall, who the British Library collaborates with on the successful Geofreferencer project, collecting their award. It was also very pleasing for Honourable Mentions to be given to Andy Mabbett, also known as Pigsonthewing, who started the Voice Intro Project and last, but definitely not least, the British Library received an Honourable Mention for the Mechanical Curator and Flickr Commons image release. Ben O’Steen from British Library Labs who created the Mechanical Curator received the award on behalf of the Library and had the privilege of shaking Jimmy Wales’ hand on stage.


Wikimedia UK 2014 Award Winners, including Ben O’Steen from the British Library

Plans are now under way for next year’s Wikimania in Mexico City, which will take place 15-19 July 2015 in a library for the first time: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos (Vasconcelos Library) also known as the Megabiblioteca ("megalibrary"); from looking at photos I can see why it has this nickname! It also includes a huge whale sculpture by Gabriel Orozco in the centre of the building, for more info on how this was created and assembled check out this Tate blog post.


Stella Wisdom

Curator, Digital Research


27 August 2014

The British Library Meets Burning Man

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Posted on behalf of David Normal (edited by Sophie McIvor and Mahendra Mahey)

The British Library meets Burning Man…

In December 2013 the British Library uploaded over a million images from our 19th century digitised books onto Flickr Commons, with the invitation for anyone to remix, re-use and re-purpose the content as they wish.

The response from the online community was outstanding, but by far the most unexpected use of the British Library’s Flickr Commons images is happening this week - the collection has inspired four large-scale artworks on display at this year’s Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, created by David Normal, a California-based artist with a special interest in 19th century illustration.

David_normal_light_box_errecting_burning_man_1One of David’s four paintings being installed at Burning Man 2014
(photographed by Andrew Spalding)

A video showing the process of one of the lightboxes being installed at Burning Man 2014 
(Courtesy of David Normal)

Before he headed off to the desert to install his “Crossroads of Curiosity’ artworks at the festival, we spoke to David about how this came about, and how he used the image collection:

What first attracted you to the idea of using 19th Century illustrations in your art?

Beginning as a teenager I was interested in making “seamless” collages, in which the elements go together so smoothly that it looks as though it were all one illustration. I love Max Ernst’s collage novel, “Une Semaine De Bonte” which took this seamless collage aesthetic to its zenith using 19th century illustration.  Recently, I began painting over digital collage prints, and this process opened up a lot of possibilities, to the point where I felt that I could use the 19th century in a fresh way that is not derivative of Ernst’s work.

How did you come across the British Library’s Flickr Commons collection?

The guitarist of the punk band “Flipper” mentioned something about it and at the time I had already initiated the plan to create paintings based on 19th Century images for Burning Man, and so learning of this vast online collection was thrilling and truly fortuitous since it was exactly what I was looking for.

How has the Library’s collection informed your artwork?

After being introduced to the collection I realized that everything I needed was there.  I decided to use the collection exclusively, and make that one of the hallmarks of the project. Indeed, I feel that the “Crossroads of Curiosity” celebrates this amazing collection.

One of the most striking aspects of the collection is its colossal size.  Having a lot of material to choose from is important in collage making, since out of excess come the chance juxtapositions that are so magical.

Another thing that was very helpful to me was the randomness.  The majority of the images are in no particular order in the photostream, and viewing the images in succession was like taking a journey through a landscape of illustrated symbols. 

How did you identify which images you wanted to use?

Certain images have some symbolic power or strangeness that intrigues me and those are the images I am drawn too.  This has to do with thematic preoccupations that percolate up from my subconscious on the one hand, and with my taste in things on the other, and also with the specific theme I am working with on the Burning Man project, which is “Caravansary - The Silk Road”.  I have favorited nearly 3000 images on my own Flickr page.

What happens next?

I start with selecting several images that I think will go together well.  I bring them into Photoshop and then begin to arrange and play with them.  As the composition develops the images are increasingly cleaned up, edited, and composed together. 

These images below outline the development of the collage painting, “Conflamingulation”, one of four which will be featured on 8’x20’ lightpanels at Burning Man:

David_normal_flickr_commons_favouritesThe chance conjunction of the machine gunner and the skunk suggests an idea for a collage.

 David_normal_machine_gun_skunkA rough collage is made.

David_normal_collage_1Different arrangements are experimented with.

A final version is arrived at that is the basis of the painting.

David_normal_collage_3Finished painting: 
“Conflamingulation”, Acrylic on polypropylene film, lightpanel,  35” x 96”, 2014

Which is your favourite of all the images you’ve discovered on the Flickr Commons collection?

I think I have not viewed more than 10% of the collection altogether, so I can’t say that I have enough familiarity to choose a favourite fairly.  However, if I had to select a single image then perhaps I would choose this skunk because of his great versatility as a piece of clip art.


Image available at the British Library Flickr Commons page
Taken from  page 42 of the book, OUR EARTH AND ITS STORY, A Popular Treatise on Physical Geography, Edited by Robert Brown, Published by Cassell and Company Limited

What is special about a collection like this?

Being able to use illustrations as a way of approaching books is interesting - typically the reverse is the case;  reading a book you find the illustrations and not vice versa.

What do you hope that people at Burning Man will take from the finished pieces?

Larry Harvey, the director of Burning Man, has said that he hopes the pieces will evoke a feeling of “romance”, in the sense of the romanticism of myths and fairytales such as the Arabian Nights.  I will concur with that.  The pieces are meant to show the intersections of distant times, places, peoples and things in humorous and thought provoking ways.  It is a cabinet of curiosities that has opened up to encompass the world in series of dramatic tableaux.  I hope the Crossroads of Curiosity fills the viewer with wonder, and arouses their own curiosity.

David Normal’s ‘Crossroads of Curiosity’ artworks are on display at the Burning Man Festival from 25 August – 1 September.

Here is one his illuminated panels from Burning Man 2014:

David_normal_light_illuminatedOne of David Normal's illuminated panels for Burning Man 2014.

You can discover more about his work at


20 August 2014

Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the Lines in the Ice Exhibition

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From this week onwards, visitors to the Library may come face-to-chest with the institution’s very own example of cryptozoology. An enormous specimen, hunched (though only when passing through doorways) and pallid from too much time spent in the Rare Books Reading Room, this survival of an earlier era can most often be found in the foyer lapping at the water fountain, reading quietly on his iPad, or roaming the canteen, hunting for delicious vegetarian prey.

The British Library is very pleased to welcome the Library's first Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence: Rob Sherman is a writer and games designer whose first digital project, the enormous and sprawling browser-based storygame The Black Crown Project, was published by Random House and challenged digital expectations in the publishing industry. Another notable project is his recent Twine game for Shelter about the housing crisis; called The Spare Set .

Rob has successfully acquired CreativeWorks London funding from their entrepreneur-in-residence scheme; to be the attached digital writer for the Library’s upcoming exhibition, Lines In The Ice, which will display documents, maps and paraphernalia relating to arctic exploration expeditions, including John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. The ensuing tales of cannibalism, exposure and desperate contact with the local Inuit are sure to suit Rob’s nightmarish yet delicate prose, once compared to ‘knitting intestines’ by a staunch admirer.

As well as being glimpsed in the corner of your eye as you walk around the Library, Rob will be researching the collections and producing original and unique digital and physical works to accompany the exhibition. While the details are still being finalised, rest assured that you will not need to visit the Library physically to experience Rob’s work; everything will be released online, and any physical works will be digitised. He will also be documenting his progress via a research blog, and hosting events, where he will be sharing his work and documenting his journey into the farthest reaches of our collections.

However, he would like to point out that he is not as scary and legendary as all that, and if you spot him, he will happily stop for a chat.

Rob Sherman cropped

Rob Sherman, Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the Lines in the Ice Exhibition