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Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


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28 July 2014

Conference alert: Succeed in Digitisation, spreading excellence.

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On Friday, 28 November 2014 the Bibliothèque nationale de France will be hosting the final conference of the SUCCEED project and IMPACT centre of competence:  'Succeed in Digitisation, spreading excellence'.

SUCCEED is an EU funded project that promotes the take-up and validation of tools and resources for mass digitisation, with a focus on textual content. The conference will mark the end of this project and the schedule will focus on the main outcomes:

  • Libraries' experiences in the take-up of tools
  • Results on competitions
  • Roadmap for the future of digitisation in Europe
  • Interoperability of tools for text digitisation
  • Recommendations on formats, standards and licensing schemes related to digitisation
  • Panel discussions on digital humanities / digital conservation.

The 'Succeed in Digitisation, spreading excellence' conference will provide a great opportunity to network and learn more about the latest developments in digitisation. If you wish to participate, please register here.


For further information, please visit

17 July 2014

The British Library at Digital Humanities 2014

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This month Adam Farquhar and I attended Digital Humanities 2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the latest annual DH jamboree run by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.

Two contributions proposed by the British Library made it through the rigorous peer review process and into the conference proper. Adam and I presented a poster on our vision for a digital infrastructure that would enable scaleable and innovative research with our digital collections. Very much intended as a conversation starter, we were heartened by the positive and constructive feedback we received. Entitled 'Interoperable Infrastructures for Digital Research: A proposed pathway for enabling transformation' this poster is available for use and reuse via Figshare.

Along with librarians from Stanford, Columbia, Virginia, and NUI Maynooth I ran a workshop on the first day of the conference entitled 'Methods for Empowering Library Staff Through Digital Humanities Skills'. This workshop provided an opportunity not only for organisations with similar library facing digital scholarship training programmes to share ideas, but also for librarians considering putting together comparable programmes to develop and deliver a mock pitch in a friendly and constructive environment. My slides on our Digital Scholarship Training Programme are available on Slideshare.

The fact that so many librarians were at this session, and DH2014 more broadly, speaks to range and breadth of attendees at the conference. Indeed it was pleasing to find DH as studying poetry and literature with digital tools to be only one component of the work going on under the auspices of DH. Stand out papers we attended included Ian Milligan 'Clustering Search to Navigate A Case Study of the Canadian World Wide Web as a Historical Resource', Kari Kraus 'Signal & Noise: ENF as part of the sound archivist's toolkit' (which discusse using the Electric Network Frequency data embedded in audio recordings to date, timestamp, and locate them), Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell 'Towards an Archaeology of Text Analysis Tools', and stellar keynotes from Bethany Nowviskie on 'digital humanities in the anthropocene' and Bruno Latour on 'Rematerialising Humanities Thanks to Digital Traces'. All my notes from these sessions are available on GitHub under CC BY licenses .

It was also pleasing to hear our work over recent months spoken about by others. Julianne Nyhan made mention of our release of 1 million images onto Flick Commons in her talk 'Facial recognition in DH: new directions?' Elsewhere, Kim Martin and Anabel Quan-Haase analysed the Mechanical Curator alongside other serendipitous machines such as Serendip-o-matic in their talk 'Designing the next big thing: Randomness versus serendipity in DH tools'.

A running theme of DH2014 was DH beyond the Anglophonic world (see for example a session on the GO::DH Minimal Computing Group) and Digital Humanities 2015 will take the theme 'Global Digital Humanities'. And appropriately for a conference that has hitherto taken place in only Europe or North America, hosting responsibilities will pass to the University of Western Sydney's Digital Humanities Research Group. We hope to be there in some form, if not in person then at least virtually.

James Baker

Curator, Digital Research


11 July 2014

The British Library Big Data Experiment project update

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In this post, the British Library Big Data Experiment team reflect on their work in the first six weeks of the project. For more information on this collaboration between the British Library Digital Research team, University College London Computer Science, and University College London Centre for Digital Humanities see our kickoff post.

Since the project began in early June we have had an interesting time coming to terms with the typical workflow of a researcher from the arts and humanities.  One of the key tasks for this goal was conducting a focus group where we learnt a variety of different things, for instance, considering research conventions within the field, it was surprising to discover that researchers are willing to leverage modern computing tools such as text analysis.  During the focus group researchers expressed views and ideas which had never occurred to us, such as, “each instance of a book is a different object, it is unique because one specific copy is particular,” and “the person who composes the content can be different from the person who actually writes it.”  Having the researcher’s perspective conveyed to us in such a way was invaluable.  It was also useful to learn how they would improve existing search systems, “I would like intelligent suggestions” and another felt “feedback on which collection has been searched would be particularly useful.”  Overall the focus group was an essential learning exercise for getting this project off the ground.

We have also spent some time interrogating the British Library’s data and gained an appreciation for the variety, volume, velocity and veracity of its structure.  This presents a challenge which is interesting because it is not possible to resolve using familiar database software systems.  The data we have begun working with is quite diverse, it was created during the digitisation of approximately 40,000 titles (equates to approximately 65,000 volumes) which until recently been challenging for researchers and the public to access.  Now, all of the metadata, data and scans within the collection are dedicated into the public domain for unrestricted use.

The team have taken the opportunity to consult with key stakeholders and leading academics of the field.  All of this has set us up very nicely to begin development work.  In the coming weeks, we hope to build a powerful and intuitive service which will enable arts and humanities researchers to better interact with the British Library’s digitised collection of public domain books, thereby enabling them to access the data in a more meaningful way.

Nektaria Stavrou (Team Leader and MSc Software Systems Engineering, University College London), Stelios Georgiou (Testing Director and MSc Software Systems Engineering, UCL), Wendy Wong (MSc Computer Science, UCL), Stefan P. Alborzpour (MSc Computer Science, UCL)