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Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


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05 October 2015

British Library Labs Symposium (2015)

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The BL Labs team are excited to announce that the third annual British Library Labs Symposium (2015) is taking place on Monday 2nd November 2015, from 09:30 –17:00 in the British Library Conference Centre, St Pancras. The event is free, although you must book a ticket. Don’t delay, as last year’s event was a sell out!

The Symposium showcases innovative projects which use the British Library’s digital content, and provides a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field.

This year, Dr Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, will launch the Symposium. This will be followed by a keynote from Professor David De Roure, Professor of e-Research at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford e-Research Centre. The British Library’s Chief Librarian, Caroline Brazier, will then present awards to the two British Library Labs Competition (2015) winners, who will follow with presentations on their winning projects.

After lunch, Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator at the British Library, will announce the winners of the Alice’s Adventures Off the Map competition, which challenged budding designers to use British Library digital collections as inspiration in the creation of exciting interactive digital media.

Following, the winners will be announced of the British Library Labs Awards (2015), which recognises projects that have used the British Library’s digital content in exciting and innovative ways. Presentations will be given by the winners in each of the Awards’ three categories: Research, Creative/Artistic and Entrepreneurial.  

The afternoon will end with a thought provoking panel session discussing the issues of opening up digital content for memory organisations, chaired by George Oates, Director of Good, Form & Spectacle Ltd.

The Symposium will conclude with a networking reception in the Chaucer and Foyer area.

Don’t forget to book your place for the Symposium today!

For any further information, please contact

30 September 2015

New opportunities for digital humanities PhD research at the BL

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The British Library is looking for university partners to co-supervise collaborative research projects that will draw on – and develop – aspects of digital scholarship.

Funding is available from the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships (CDP) programme, through which the Library works with UK university partners to deliver a bespoke PhD research and training programme.

Our current CDP opportunities include one project to examine the culture and evolution of scientific research, another project to investigate the changing nature of publishing in digital environments, and a third project that will apply digital techniques to forge fresh insights into the construction of scientific knowledge in the 18th Century:

“The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through Personal Archives” will involve the detailed mapping of the personal relationships of 20th century British scientists. It will draw on the Library’s Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, which include personal archives and correspondence from the fields of computer science and programming, cybernetics and artificial intelligence, as well as evolutionary, developmental and molecular biology. The project will provide a unique opportunity to investigate the roles of culture, imagination, argumentation, creativity, discovery and curiosity in scientific enquiry.

“Digital Publishing and the Reader” will identify and examine new technologies used in publishing in the UK. It has a particular emphasis on examples which encourage interaction between readers, texts and authors, such as text-based online gaming, online comics, or online publishing relating to campaigns and activism. The project will inform how emerging media and new communication technologies should be recorded or collected as part of a national collection on British written culture.

“Hans Sloane’s Books: Evaluating an Enlightenment Library” will break new ground by developing digital tools to cross-reference, contextualise and analyse the intellectual significance of the library of Hans Sloane (1660-1753): physician, collector and posthumous ‘founding father’ of the British Museum. The project will draw on in-house digital-curatorial expertise to develop software tools to interrogate Library datasets and to devise ways of ordering and visualising the data. This will enable the first full evaluation of the contribution of Sloane’s library to the Enlightenment scientific community. 

Academics with interests in digital humanities and digital scholarship are invited to develop any of these research themes with a view to co-supervising a PhD project with the British Library. The projects would start in October 2016. A fully-funded AHRC studentship will be allocated to each partner university. Once recruited, the PhD students will get staff-level access to Library collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

The application deadline is 27 November.

View full application guidelines and further details about all current AHRC CDP research themes and partnership opportunities.

18 September 2015

Working with news data

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The British Library has a vast news collection. We have some 60 million newspaper issues (around 450 million pages) dating from the 1620s to the present day, 60,000 television and radio news programmes from 2010 onwards, and we are archiving over 1,000 UK news websites on a regular basis. Just as the newspaper industry is moving into other media in a cross-platform world, so we are following in how we archive news, in order that we can offer the optimum research service fin the future.


News collections at the British Library

To make such a vision work we have to get the data right. The Library's Explore catalogue works well for finding a volume of newspapers to be delivered to a researcher's desk, but is not readily open for any sort of content analysis of the news collection. Our different news collections - for newspapers, web, TV and radio - come together via Explore, but not easily so, because of the different ways in which they are held and described (most of our newspaper records are at title level, the TV and radio news records are at programme level, while the web archive operates best at page level). We are some way off from presenting the unified news collection, and could be doing so much more to serve new kinds of research enquiry by taking a more data-drive approach to our news holdings.

These needs were the drivers behind a workshop on 7 September 2015, co-organised by BL Labs and the Library's News & Moving Image team, entitled Working with news data across different media. This brought together researchers, developers and content owners to look at ways in which changes in \archive news data management can be of benefit to researchers. The event was part of an ongoing process from BL Labs looking at how the Library's digital collections can be made available for researchers, but was the starting point for a discussion we need to have with researchers and content managers as to how best to pursue an archive news data strategy.

The day began with an introduction to the Library's digital collections and the work of BL Labs by Mahendra Mahey. Luke McKernan, Lead Curator News & Moving Image, then gave a talk on the Library's news collections. He outlined what the Library has to offer researchers at present in terms of news data for onsite analysis: 

  • 2 million 19th century British newspaper pages (XML, page images)
  • UK television news data 2010 onwards – EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) data for 45,000 programmes, subtitles (XML) for c.25,000 programmes, some speech-to-text files for 2011 broadcasts (XML)
  • UK radio news data 2010 onwards – EPG data for 15,000 programmes, some speech-to-text files for 2011 broadcasts (XML)
  • a possible selection of Web news data

Additionally there is selected data and page images from The Financial Times. The Financial Times is partnering with The British Library to make its historical archive available on a royalty free basis for academic research purposes. Any researcher interested in taking advantage of this should contact Luke McKernan for further information.

The British Library is also planning to make available title-level records for all 34,000 newspaper titles that it holds as open data. We will have more news on this initiative in due course.

There are goals beyond these that the Library could strive for. What about an open news dataset shared with other institutions? What about an archive news data model to bring together such collections? And how about the ultimate aim of having all of our news collections identified at issue rather than title level? That will be a huge undertaking, but the goal must be for us to be able to offer to future users a digital picture of what happened in any one place at any one time, contributing to an overall 'news' picture. This would mean not just what was reported in a local newspaper on any one day, but what people from that locality heard, read or saw that helped make up their understanding of the world. That's how we gather our news today; it is also a model for understanding how news has maybe always operated, certainly how news archives can be approached in their totality.


Laughing at Victorian jokes

A number of short presentations then followed, from projects either using the Library's news collections or with whom we have collaborated on news-related initiatives:

  • Glen Robson of the National Library of Wales spoke about implementing the IIIF image format for their public domain newspapers, which could lead to cross-institutional sharing of newspaper collections by using this standardised image retrieval framework.
  • Dr Katrina Navickas of the University of Hertfordshire, a BL Labs competitition winner talked about developing her winning idea, the 'Political Meetings Mapper' which is using automated processes to identify meetings of the Chartist movement in 19th century newspapers.
  • Dr Bob Nicholson, Edge Hill University, winner of the 2014 BL Labs competition, spoke about the Victorian Meme Machine project, tracking down jokes in Victorian newspapers and mapping these automatically to contemporary images. he called for focussed datasets rather than just presenting digitised newspapers in their entirety, and for newspaper data to be linked out to other forms of data.
  • Martin Stabe, Head of Interactive News at the Financial Times spoke on ways in which the newspaper's archive could be opened up for research. The newspaper is taking bold steps in exploring alternative ways of opening up its archives beyond the tried-and-tested subscription models.
  • Melvin Wevers, PhD student within the Translantis project at the University of Utrecht, introduced the Texcavator tool, which is being used to analyse the Dutch National Library's digital newspaper collection to study Dutch public discourse, and which has also been applied to some UK newspapers (including sample data from the Financial Times)
  • Ian Tester, director of Partner Products at Findmypast Ltd, who manage the British Newspaper Archive of digitised newspapers from the British Library, spoke on the diverse researchers opportunities that the archive now provides, with an emphasis on the many kinds of book now being published that have made often unexpected use of the digital archive.
  • Mark Flashman and Michael Satterthwaite from the BBC Rewind project spoke about the ways the BBC is applying innovative digital applications to digital storytelling and opening up news archives through projects such as the World Service Radio Archive, News Timeliner and Your Story. They stressed the importance of achieving good things with small amounts of data first, and of working for 'good enough' results rather than perfection.

The workshop then divided up into four groups to consider four questions which could help us shape how we develop things next. They were:

  • What’s the best way to get the most out of hack events? What have people learned, what are the issues, the best way to overcome them and how to get the most from them?
  • What is the best way to work across a heterogeneous collection of news data, with particularly focus on the data available from the British Library (though not exclusively). What are the challenges and how to get over them?
  • How might the British Library most usefully work with third parties to get the best out of news data. What are the issues and challenges?
  • What do researchers want from news data? What are the issues and the challenges?

We're still working on assimilating the answers to those questions, as we start to shape our new data plans, including further such events. our thanks to everyone who attended the workshop and who supplied such stimulating and useful contributions. The next step will be a news hackathon, which we will be hosting on November 16th at the British Library in London. More news on this will be published soon.