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

16 August 2022

#WikiLibCon22: An International Experience

It was with a little bit of apprehension that I made my way to Ireland, in late July. After two years of limited travel, and international restrictions, it felt strange to be standing in line at an airport, passport in hand, on my way to an in-person conference. Mixed in with the nervousness, however, was excitement. I was on my way to the first ever Wikimedia + Libraries Convention, hosted at Maynooth University. I’m happy to report that it was a fantastic event and worth every minute of travel nerves.

Logo for Wikimedia and Libraries Convention.
Logo for Wikimedia and Libraries Convention. Image credit: Bridges2Information, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of hard work and inspiration had gone into making this event happen: with just three months to prepare, the organising committee outdid themselves at every turn. Laurie Bridges (Oregon State), Dr Rebecca O’Neill (Wikimedia Community Ireland), Dr Núria Ferran Ferrer (University of Barcelona) and Wikimedian of the Year 2022, Dr Nkem Osuigwe, arranged a weekend packed with fascinating talks, wonderful networking opportunities, and even some traditional Irish dancing. (Thankfully, the participants were observing this part!)

For me, the highlight of the weekend was meeting such a broad community of Wikimedians and library specialists. Having started my post remotely, the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world, in person, felt too good to be true, but as this photo demonstrates, it really did happen.

Group photo of participants at WikiLibCon22, outside St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
Participants in front of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth by B20180, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I did a lot of tweeting over the weekend, trying to capture these excellent presentations. You can catch a lot of impressions and fun memories of the weekend over on Twitter using the #WikiLibCon22 hashtag.

There were many highlights over the course of the two days. The keynote presentation by Dr Nkem Osuigwe was outstanding. She spoke about ‘Wikimedia Through The Prism Of Critical Librarianship’. I could not possibly do justice to the depth of thought in this excellent piece, but certain observations and quotes stood out. Nkem described critical librarianship as 'seek[ing] to find out who is misrepresented, underrepresented or not even seen at all, [a system which] seeks to uphold the human rights of user communities; to find out inequities within the system'. This is a very powerful statement which really ties in with the Wikimedia aim of knowledge equity and global knowledge. As Nkem pointed out, we have over 6000 living languages, and between 1000 and 2000 in Africa alone. Wikipedia is now extant in over 300 languages, but this is a small percentage of the world at large.

Many things in Nkem’s presentation have stuck with me, and the proverb “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” is one of the strongest. It was a true privilege to hear Nkem speak, and to meet so many wonderful people from the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA).

Image of Nkem Osuigwe presenting at WikiLibCon
Dr Nkem Osuigwe, B20180, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Participants came from all over the world, and from all different areas of Wikipedia. Viral hit Annie Rauwerda, of the famous @depthsofwiki account, was there to talk about her work in outreach and exploring the engagement potential of social media, while public librarian and author Amber Morrell spoke about her experience using TikTok @storytimeamber to educate and entertain. Unfortunately, I could not attend all of these papers in person, as I was presenting with Satdeep Gill (Wikimedia Foundation) on the work that the British Library and Two Centuries of Indian Print have done on Wikisource and Bengali books.

Other standout talks included Felix Nartey of the Wikimedia Foundation giving the second day keynote on ‘Wikimedia and Libraries: Working Together To Build The Infrastructure For Free Knowledge’. I attended an excellent workshop on importing bibliographic data to Wikidata, run by Dr Ursula Oberst (Leiden), and an insightful reflective talk by Liam Wyatt (Wikimedia Foundation) and Alice Kibombo (Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda) on ‘Libraries and Wikimedia: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Going?’. I wanted to say particular thanks to Alice, who chaired our panel on Wikimedians in Residence. I was really pleased to talk alongside Rachel Helps (Brigham Young) and Kim Gile (Kansas City Public Library), sharing our experiences of Residencies and the role of a Resident. In her presentation with Liam, Alice asked a crucial question of all participants: 'Are we equipped to lead the change we'd like to see?' That has stuck with me. I feel strongly that after an event like #WikiLibCon22, we are certainly on the right path.

NB: You can see some of the presentations on Commons, as well as images from the event.

This post is by Wikimedian in Residence Dr Lucy Hinnie (@BL_Wikimedian).

05 August 2022

Burmese Script Conversion using Aksharamukha

This blog post is by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, British Library. She's on Twitter as @BL_AdiKS.

 

Curious about Myanmar (Burma)? Did you know that the British Library has a large collection of Burmese materials, including manuscripts dating back to the 17th century, early printed books, newspapers, periodicals, as well as current material?

You can search our main online catalogue Explore the British Library for printed material, or the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for manuscripts. But, to increase chances of discovering printed resources, you will need to search the Explore catalogue by typing in the transliteration of the Burmese title and/or author using the Library of Congress romanisation rules. This means that searching for an item using the original Burmese script, or using what you would intuitively consider to be the romanised version of Burmese script, is not going to get you very far (not yet, anyway).

Excerpt from the Library of Congress romanisation scheme
Excerpt from the Library of Congress romanisation scheme

 

The reason for this is that this is how we catalogue Burmese collection items at the Library, following a policy to transliterate Burmese using the Library of Congress (LoC) rules. In theory, the benefit of this system specifically for Burmese is that it enables a two-way transliteration, i.e. the romanisation could be precisely reversed to give the Burmese script. However, a major issue arises from this romanisation system: romanised versions of Burmese script are so far removed from their phonetic renderings, that most Burmese speakers are completely unable to recognise any Burmese words.

With the LoC scheme being unintuitive for Burmese speakers, not reflecting the spoken language, British Library catalogue records for Burmese printed materials end up virtually inaccessible to users. And we’re not alone with this problem – other libraries worldwide holding Burmese collections and using the LoC romanisation scheme, face the same issues.

The Buddha at Vesali in a Burmese manuscript, from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or. 14298, f. 1
The Buddha at Vesali in a Burmese manuscript, from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or. 14298, f. 1

 

One useful solution to this could be to find or develop a tool that converts the LoC romanisation output into Burmese script, and vice versa – similar to how you would use Google Translate. Maria Kekki, our Curator for Burmese collections, have discovered the online tool Aksharamukha, which aims to facilitate conversion between various scripts – also referred to as transliteration (transliteration into Roman alphabet is particularly referred to as romanisation). It supports 120 scripts and 21 romanisation methods, and luckily, Burmese is one of them.

Aksharamukha: Script Converter screenshot
Aksharamukha: Script Converter screenshot

 

Using Aksharamukha has already been of great help to Maria. Instead of painstakingly converting Burmese script manually into its romanised version, she could now copy-paste the conversion and make any necessary adjustments. She also noticed making fewer errors this way! However, it was missing one important thing – the ability to directly transliterate Burmese script specifically using the LoC romanisation system.

Such functionality would not only save our curatorial and acquisitions staff a significant amount of time – but also help any other libraries holding Burmese collections and following the LoC guidelines. This would also allow Burmese speakers to find material in the library catalogue much more easily – readers will also use this platform to find items in our collection, as well as other collections around the world.

To this end, Maria got in touch with the developer of Aksharamukha, Vinodh Rajan – a computer scientist who is also an expert in writing systems, languages and digital humanities. Vinodh was happy to implement two things: (1) add the LoC romanisation scheme as one of the transliteration options, and (2) add spaces in between words (when it comes to spacing, according to the LoC romanisation system, there are different rules for words of Pali and English origin, which are written together).

Vinodh demonstrating the new Aksharamukha functionality, June 2022
Vinodh demonstrating the new Aksharamukha functionality, June 2022

 

Last month (July 2022) Vinodh implemented the new system, and what we can say, the result is just fantastic! Readers are now able to copy-paste transliterated text into the Library’s catalogue search box, to see if we hold items of interest. It is also a significant improvement for cataloguing and acquisition processes, being able to create acquisitions records and minimal records. As a next step, we will look into updating all of our Burmese catalogue records to include Burmese script (alongside transliteration), and consider a similar course of action for other South or Southeast Asian scripts.

I should mention that as a bonus, Aksharamukha’s codebase is fully open source, is available on GitHub and is well documented. If you have feedback or notice any bugs, please feel free to raise an issue on GitHub. Thank you, Vinodh, for making this happen!

 

18 July 2022

UK Digital Comics: More of the same but different? [1]

This is a guest post by Linda Berube, an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library and City, University of London. If you would like to know more about Linda's research, please do email her at [email protected].

When I last wrote a post for the Digital Scholarship blog in 2020 (Berube, 2020), I was a fairly new PhD student, fresh out of the starting blocks, taking on the challenge of UK digital comics research.  My research involves an analysis of the systems and processes of UK digital comics publishing as a means of understanding how digital technology has affected, maybe transformed them. For this work, I have the considerable support of supervisors Ian Cooke and Stella Wisdom (British Library) and Ernesto Priego and Stephann Makri (Human-Computer Interaction Design Centre, City, University of London).

Little did I, or the rest world for that matter, know the transformations to daily life brought on by pandemic that were to come. There was no less of an impact felt in the publishing sector, and certainly in comics publishing. Still, despite all the obstacles to meetings, people from traditional[2] large and small press publishers, media and video game companies publishing comics, as well as creators and self-publishers gave generously of their time to discuss comics with me. I am currently speaking with comics readers and observing their reading practices, again all via remote meetings. To all these people, this PhD student owes a debt of gratitude for their enthusiastic participation.

British Comics Publishing: It’s where we’re at

Digital technology has had a significant impact on British comics publishing, but not as pervasively as expected from initial prognostications by scholars and the comics press. Back in 2020, I observed:

  This particular point in time offers an excellent opportunity to consider the digital comics, and specifically UK, landscape. We seem to be past the initial enthusiasm for digital technologies when babies and bathwater were ejected with abandon (see McCloud 2000, for example), and probably still in the middle of a retrenchment, so to speak, of that enthusiasm (see Priego 2011 pp278-280, for example). (Berube, 2020).

But ‘retrenchment’ might be a strong word. According to my research findings to date, and in keeping with those of the broader publishing sector (Thompson, 2010; 2021), the comics publishing process has most definitely been ‘revolutionized’ by digital technology. All comics begin life as digital files until they are published in print. Even those creators who still draw by hand must convert their work to digital versions that can be sent to a publisher or uploaded to a website or publishing platform. And, while print comics have by no means been completely supplanted by digital comics (in fact a significant number of those interviewed voiced a preference for print), reading on digital devices-laptops, tablets, smartphones-has become popular enough for publishers to provide access through ebook and app technology. Even those publishers I interviewed who were most resistant to digital felt compelled ‘to dabble in digital comics’ (according to one small press publisher) by at least providing pdf versions on Gumroad or some other storefront. The restrictions on print distribution and sales through bookstores resulting from Covid lockdown compelled some of the publishers not only to provide more access to digital versions, but some went as far to sell digital-exclusive versions, in other words comics only offered digitally.

Everywhere you look, a comic

The visibility of digital comics across sectors including health, economics, education, literacy and even the hard sciences was immediately obvious from a mapping exercise of UK comics publishers, producers and platforms as well as through interviews. What this means is that comics-the creation and reading of them-are used to teach and to learn about multiple topics, including archiving (specifically UK Legal Deposit) (Figure 1) and Anthropology (specifically Smartphones and Smart Ageing) (Figure 2):

Cartoon drawing of two people surrounded by comics and zines
Figure 1: Panel from 'The Legal Deposit and You', by Olivia Hicks (British Library, 2018). Reproduced with permission from the British Library.

 

Cartoon drawing of two women sitting on a sofa looking at and discussing content on a smartphone
Figure 2: Haapio-Kirk, L., Murariu, G., and Hahn, A. (artist) (2022) 'Beyond Anthropomorphism Palestine', Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) Blog. Based on Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho’s research in Al-Quds (East Jerusalem). Available at: https://wwwdepts-live.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/assa/discoveries/beyond-anthropomorphism/ . Reproduced with permission.

Moreover, comics in their incarnation as graphic novels have grabbed literary prizes, for example Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth (Jonathan Cape, 2001) by Chris Ware won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, and Sabrina (Granta, 2018) by Nick Drnaso was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 (somewhat controversially, see Nally, 2018).

Just Like Reading a Book, But Not…

But by extending the definition of digital comics[3] to include graphic novels mostly produced as ebooks, the ‘same-ness” of reading in print became evident over the course of interviews with publishers and creators. Publishing a comic in pdf format, whether that be on a website, on a publishing platform, or as a book is just the easiest, most cost-effective way to do it:

  We’re print first in our digital workflow—Outside of graphic novels, with other types of books we occasionally have the opportunity to work with the digital version as a consideration at the outset, in which case the tagging/classes are a factored in at the beginning stages (a good example would be a recent straight -to-digital reflowable ebook). This is the exception though, and also does not apply to graphic novels, which are all print-led. (Interview with publisher, December 2020)

Traditional book publishers have not been the only ones taking up comics - gaming and media companies have acquired the rights to comics, comics brands previously published in print. For more and different sectors, comics increasingly have become an attractive option especially for their multimedia appeal. However, what they do with the comics is a mixture of the same, for instance being print-led as described in the above comment, and different, for example through conversion to digital interactive versions as well as providing apps with more functionality than the ebook format.

It's How You Read Them

Comics formatted especially for reading on apps, such as 2000 AD, ComiXology, and Marvel Unlimited, can be variable in the types of reading experiences they offer to readers. While some have retained the ‘multi-panel display’ experience of reading a print comic book, others have gone beyond the ‘reads like a book’ experience. ComiXology, a digital distribution platform for comics owned by Amazon, pioneered the “guided view” technology now used by the likes of Marvel and DC, where readers view one panel at a time. Some of the comics readers I have interviewed refer to this reading experience as ‘the cinematic experience’. Readers page through the comic one panel or scene at a time, yes, as if watching it on film or TV.

These reading technologies do tend to work better on a tablet than on a smartphone. The act of scrolling required to read webcomics on the WEBTOON app (and others, such as Tapas), designed to be read on smartphones, produces that same kind of ‘cinematic’ effect: readers of comics on both the ComiXology and Web Toon apps I have interviewed describe the exact same experience: the build-up of “anticipation”, “tension”,  “on the edge of my seat” as they page or scroll down to the next scene/panel. WEBTOON creators employ certain techniques in order to create that tension in the vertical format, for example the use of white space between panels: the more space, the more scrolling, the more “edge of the seat” experience. Major comics publishers have started creating ‘vertical’ (scrolling on phones) comics: Marvel launched its Infinity Comics to appeal to the smartphone webcomics reader.

So, it would seem that good old-fashioned comics pacing combined with publishing through apps designed for digital devices provide a different, but same reading experience:  a uniquely digital reading experience.

Same But Different: I’m still here

So, here I am, still a PhD student currently conducting research with comics readers, as part of my research and as part of a secondment with the BL supported by AHRC Additional Student Development funding. This additional funding has afforded me the opportunity to employ UX (user behaviour/experience) techniques with readers, primarily through conducting reading observation sessions and activities. I will be following up this blog with an update on this research as well as a call for participation into more reader research.

References 

Berube, L. (2020) ‘Not Just for Kids: UK Digital Comics, from creation to consumption’, British Library Digital Scholarship Blog”, 24 August 2020. Available at: https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/2020/08/not-just-for-kids-uk-digital-comics-from-creation-to-consumption.html

Drnaso, N. (2018) Sabrina. London, England: Granta Books.

McCloud, Scott (2000) Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form.  New York, N.Y: Paradox Press. 

Nally, C. (2018) ‘Graphic Novels Are Novels: Why the Booker Prize Judges Were Right to Choose One for Its Longlist’, The Conversation, 26 July. Available at: https://theconversation.com/graphic-novels-are-novels-why-the-booker-prize-judges-were-right-to-choose-one-for-its-longlist-100562.

Priego, E. (2011) The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction. [Thesis] University College London. Available at: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.754575.v4, pp278-280.

Ware, C. (2001) Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth. London, England: Jonathan Cape.

Notes

[1] “More of the same but different”, a phrase used by a comics creator I interviewed in reference to what comics readers want to read.↩︎

[2] By ‘traditional’, I am referring to publishers who contract with comics creators to undertake the producing, publishing, distribution, selling of a comic, retaining rights for a certain period of time and paying the creator royalties. In my research, publishers who transacted business in this way included multinational and small press publishers. Self-publishing is where the creator owns all the rights and royalties, but also performs the production, publishing, distribution work, or pays for a third-party to do so. ↩︎

[3] For this research, digital comics include a diverse selection of what is produced electronically or online: webcomics, manga, applied comics, experimental comics, as well as graphic novels [ebooks].  I have omitted animation. ↩︎