Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections


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24 April 2019

The ‘Season of Place’ – learning about all things digital mapping

This post by the British Library’s Digital Curator for Asian and African Collections, Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, reports on a training ‘season’ dedicated to digital mapping.

One of the British Library Digital Scholarship team’s core purposes is to deliver training to BL staff on a wide variety of digital humanities skills, and we’ve been doing so for over seven years. Since last year, we’ve been experimenting with a new format to deliver our Digital Scholarship Training Programme (DSTP) – that would allow flexibility and adaptability through modularity. We offer a thematic series of talks, hands-on workshops and courses in different shapes and sizes. We call this series a ‘season’ or ‘strand’. Digital Curator Mia Ridge has succinctly described this experimental training format in her recent blog post.

Mia was the first to co-ordinate a series of training modules around a specific topic – content mining for digital scholarship with cultural heritage collections. I was next to organise a second series of training, which we called the ‘Season of Place’. With the help of colleagues such as Gethin Rees (Lead Curator for Digital Map Collections) and Magdalena Peszko (Curator for Map Collections), we’ve planned, co-ordinated and delivered a series of modules on digital mapping, running from December 2018 to the end of March 2019.

The ‘Season of Place’

Creating web maps, visualising collections spatially, and understanding the research potential of digital maps are all unsurprisingly very popular topics among BL staff. Our collection items are naturally rife with associated geographical information, whether place of publication/creation or the mention of place names in the text. Mapping collection items data, whether catalogue records or textual content, in isolation or in conjunction with other data, could offer fresh perspectives on heritage material, boost discovery and empower analysis and research.

The aim of the ‘Season of Place’ was therefore three-fold:

  • To demonstrate the importance of geographical information embedded within BL collections, and the applicability of geospatial tools and technologies to these collections.
  • To provide staff with the skills to use a set of online tools to perform actions such as mapping historical data, geoparsing content and enriching catalogue records with geographical data.
  • To spark inspiration through case studies and examples of cutting-edge visualisations and research using digital maps.

What did we cover?

Our training sessions included talks, courses and hands-on sessions delivered by internal and external experts covering topics such as cataloguing geospatial data, geoparsing, georeferencing, working with online mapping tools, digital research using online maps, and public engagement through interactive platforms and crowdsourcing.

Online tools and platforms included (but were not limited to):

  • Recogito: recently winning Best DH Tool Award, Recogito is an online platform for collaborative document annotation. It is maintained by Pelagios Commons, a Digital Humanities initiative aiming to foster better linkages between online resources documenting the past. Recogito provides a personal workspace where one can upload, collect and organise source materials – texts, images and tabular data – and collaborate in their annotation and interpretation. We had Dr Valeria Vitale deliver a fantastic workshop dedicated to this platform. 
  • Google My Maps: as Google Fusion Tables is shutting down in December 2019, we’ve decided to teach how to use this mapping tool instead. Google My Maps is a free tool that allows the creation of custom maps online in a straightforward way. A great BL case study is an interactive map created by Nick Dykes, visualising the spatial spread of hand-drawn maps and other documents from the War Office Archive.

  • Bounding Box: with this tool for metadata enrichment for catalogue records one can create basic geospatial metadata. This has been used, for example, in Qatar Digital Library catalogue records.
  • Palladio: this set of web-based tools, created by Stanford’s Humanities + Design Lab, can be used to create maps and network visualisations. It’s very useful for showing connections between various entities across time and space.
  • Georeferencer: this is a British Library platform created to crowdsource the georeferencing (assigning points on a map image to corresponding geographical coordinates) of over 50,000 digitised maps from the BL collection. This has been a massive hit, with many people helping us create digital geospatial data for these historic maps.



  • OpenRefine: Owen Stephens delivered his superb OpenRefine course, teaching BL staff the basic capabilities of this tool to clean and normalise data (e.g. in preparation to be mapped). However, this time Owen added some extra location-related topics: retrieving data from online sources (using Name Entity Recognition) and using ‘reconciliation’ services to match local data to external data sources. OpenRefine is a popular tool at the BL, and Graham Jevon from the Endangered Archives Programme is now working on a sequence of regular expressions to standardise EAP data.

We were honoured to have several external speakers coming to the BL and telling us about their ideas and projects. These included Sally Bushell and Rebecca Hutcheon (Lancaster University) talking about ‘Chronotopic Cartographies and Litcraft: Mapping Space and Time in Literature’; John Hessler (Library of Congress) presenting on ‘Machine and Deep Learning for Librarians: Designing Tools for Collections Discovery in the 21st Century’; Leif Isaksen (University of Exeter) on ‘How to Decide What to Where: Semantic Geo-annotation and the Pelagios Network’; and Sam Griffiths (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) talking about ‘Exploring the interface of political meeting places and urban space in Ancoats, Manchester c.1780-1860’.

This impressive line-up was complemented by a public ‘Digital Conversation’ talk and panel on ‘Data, Place and Digital Economies’, chaired by Ian Cooke and included Mark Birkin, Miranda Marcus, Jeremy Morley and Emmanouil Tranos.

What’s next?

My colleague Stella Wisdom has embarked on her promising ‘Season of Emerging Formats’ (based on the BL Emerging Formats project), looking at publication types that are a bit more challenging to curate and preserve. Nora McGregor also has a thing or two up her sleeve, so stay tuned!


18 April 2019

Collecting Emerging Formats

The Emerging Formats project, started in 2017 by the British Library and the other five UK Legal Deposit Libraries, has been investigating the rise of new complex digital publications that could pose new challenges for libraries and other cultural institutions in terms of collection and preservation. In particular, this project has chosen to prioritise three formats: eBook mobile apps, web-based interactive narratives, and structured data.

These formats reflect the changes and developments in both technology and storytelling in contemporary digital culture. This project meets the Legal Deposit Libraries’ purpose to respond to innovation and to represent the changing nature and diversity of the UK publishing industry. It also fulfills the libraries’ role of long term preservation, as these formats are by their technical nature ephemeral and at risk of loss.

After holding a workshop last November to better define the challenges related to complex digital objects preservation, the British Library organised a series of user experience testing sessions, with the help of an external consultant, Bunnyfoot Ltd. A first round of interviews was carried out at the British Library and at the library of Trinity College Dublin and it identified a strong user interest in collecting and preserving emerging formats, which was later confirmed by two service design group workshops at Bunnyfoot Lab.

80 Days app
Interacting with the 80 Days app for iPad

We are now in the process of testing different collection management methods, using a number of publications selected during the scoping phase as case studies. For example, we are collecting Inkle’s eBook mobile app 80 Days in different file formats (Android app; PC version) and through different acquisition methods (file transfer; download via access code) to test their viability and the different implications they might have in terms of access and preservation. 80 Days is a narrative-based interactive adventure, which offers a unique take on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days – set in an alternative steampunk universe, the story requires the reader’s active participation in order to progress, with thousands of different routes and possible outcomes.

In the case of capturing web-based interactive fiction, two different web archiving tools have been tested – The British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) and Rhizome’s WebRecorder. While each tool has distinct characteristics which might make it more suitable to a specific type of interactive fiction, both tools proved effective in capturing web-based narrative to a degree. A collection around the topic of e-publishing trends and emerging formats is currently being developed on the UK Web Archive website, with the possibility of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.

As well as investigating collecting methods for complex objects, we are also exploring the requirements for access. At present, only the websites that we have collected using our ACT tool are available in the Library. We are also exploring the possibility of collecting contextual information around these publications. Collecting descriptive material around an object has been tried for time based digital media and digital games. Capturing and preserving sources of information such as websites, trailers, and press kits might prove invaluable in clarifying authorial intent and object use once a format is obsolete or cannot be accessed anymore.

To find out further information about the Emerging Formats project, please see our project page.

This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari.

16 April 2019

BL Labs 2018 Commercial Award Winner: 'The Library Collection'

This guest blog post is by the team led by fashion designer, Nabil Nayal - winner of the BL Labs Commercial Award for 2018 - for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection, presented at the 2018 London Fashion Week.

Nabil Nayal's SS19 Collection: fashion shoot at the British Library

The Nabil Nayal SS19 collection (The Library Collection) made history by becoming the first fashion show, on the official London Fashion Week schedule, to be hosted at the iconic British Library. The British Library’s digital archives deeply informed the collection. The Tilbury Speech, delivered by Queen Elizabeth I ahead of the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588, was central to the use of print, as were other manuscripts, digitised images, maps and hymn sheets from the era. The collection encapsulates Nabil’s obsession with Elizabethan craftsmanship, whilst symbolising the power and strength of a woman who succeeded in bringing England into its Golden Age.

Nabil undertook historical research in the British Library for his PhD on Elizabethan dress, so the opportunity to collaborate with the Library in order to emphasise the importance of research in fashion education and practice was something he felt passionately about doing. Paying particular attention to the Library’s Elizabethan and Medieval Manuscripts archives, Nabil conducted his research with guidance from expert curators and with support from the Reading Room staff. Using key word search terms and date limitations to search through the digitised archives was particularly useful to find historically accurate documents to incorporate into the collection.

Nabil's design takes inspiration from the British Library's digitised 1588 manuscript of Queen Elizabeth I's 'Tilbury Speech'  © Nabil Nayal 2018

Elizabethan silhouettes were modernised in this collection by printing these manuscripts onto Nabil’s designs, including a three-metre-long cloak featuring the Tilbury Speech. A UK-based supplier, Silk Bureau, digitally printed the archival material on to a range of fine silks and cottons, which were then used to make garments within the collection. Nabil’s love of the classic white shirt was further explored too, offering a puritan backdrop that ‘whitewashes’ the complex hand-cut embellishments made of bonded poplins and marcella.

The designs in the SS19 collection have been sold to prestigious international stores such as Dover Street Market and Joyce and the collection will be launching exclusively in Selfridges this May (2019). The presentation also generated a huge response in key press and social media, including coverage in Vogue.

5 models together
Nabil's Elizabethan-inspired designs at the BL Fashion Shoot © Nabil Nayal 2018

Nabil’s interest in promoting historical research within fashion was not limited to this collection. Currently, the brand is working with Collette Taylor of Vega Associates to continue to raise awareness of the potential of the Library’s collections to inspire the next generation of fashion researchers. Nabil held a Research Masterclass at the British Library in November 2018 to work with emerging designers as part of a fashion research competition to develop a capsule collection inspired by the Library’s collections.

This collaboration between Nabil Nayal and the British Library highlights the importance of design education and research for the future-proofing and continued success of UK creative industries, which is a pressing issue. Since 2010, there has been a 34% drop in GCSE entries across the arts, despite the fact that the UK fashion industry supports over 880,000 jobs and delivered a direct contribution of £28 billion to the UK economy in 2015. The wealth of free resources at the British Library provides ample opportunity for design students to explore how education and research can enrich their creativity and allow them to succeed within the fashion industry.

Nabil’s work has received praise from the late Karl Lagerfeld and celebrities such as Rihanna, Lorde and Florence Welch. His SS19 collection epitomises the way that the use of archival research within fashion can generate commercial success, suggesting that the ever-changing fashion industry can benefit from becoming more historically informed and that modernity can be evoked through an interest in the past.

Watch Jennifer Davies receiving the Commercial award on behalf of Nabil's team, and talking about the collection on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 7.26): 

You can read other blogs about Nabil Nayal at London Fashion Week and the fashion show at the British Library, and if you're feel inspired, use the British Library's online Fashion resources.

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.