Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

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13 December 2019

Do you want to see my butterfly collection?

Posted on behalf of Sara Lucas Agutoli, artist, associate professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna, BL Labs Artist in residence and runner up in the BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.

Sara Lucas Agutoli
Artist: Sara Lucas Agutoli
(Copyright: Ilenia Arosio)

Sara Lucas Agutoli lives and works between London and Bologna.  Her academic research focuses on the concepts of true and false in art, in particular in photography. In her art S. L. Agutoli merges popular themes with a learned and symbolic system of citations. Working with different media, she reflects on the idea of ongoing transformation – of the spaces, of the body, as well as of aesthetics – and creates personal architectures drawing on her inner experiences, knowledge and visions.

When occupied with my full time job, I often spend the time wandering on the net, looking for pictures that trigger my interest, either because they are odd and curious or aesthetically pleasant and elegant.

Since 2011 I’ve enjoyed calling myself a cyber-flâneur1:. unlike the Parisian strollers described by Baudelaire, I walked through cyber avenues, getting lost amid different digital archives. I glimpsed through collections of images instead of windows, stared at close-ups of manuscripts instead of sunsets on rivers. The net was my city and I just followed my nose walking through it. I wanted to make my curiosity an aesthetic operation. In doing so I’ve come to believe that online archives are my personal church of Saint-Julien-le-Puvre, the chosen venue for my cyber-dadaist performances,
see: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/184056

For years my working activity followed a pattern: a few months of research – during which I spend hours and hours on Flickr Commons browsing online archives of museums and institutions saving selected images on my hard disk–, followed by months in the studio working creatively with the pictures accumulated.

I did accumulate images and emotions, from advertising to family album pictures. I wanted to explore how photography was used in different parts of the world, eras and in different economical contexts.

In 2011, while in Montreal for my first art residence, I analysed the different uses of vernacular photography in the 50s in North America and Italy. To do so, I used the open archives of most of the North American Libraries (New York Public library, Congregation of Sister of St. Joseph in Canada, California Historical Society and many others) and a private physical archive located in a tin box in my grandmother house.

This lead to a series of pictures inspired by this contrast. The series was exhibited in a solo show called Fermez les yeux.

Sara Mickey: Fermez les yeux
Sara Mickey: Fermez les yeux

The vastness and the richness of topics of the images I accumulated triggered constantly my creativity and my sense of humour. They often made me ask myself  “why do those pictures exist”?

The images – especially those more vernacular, random and unforeseen – became the objects trouvés I could rework using my imagination and reality.

During this dadaist-inspired net-surfing, the most fertile encounter of the last years has been the one with the collections of two of the major London institutions: the British Library and the Wellcome Collection digital archives.  

I was about to move from Italy to London and so my artistic research was about to change, inspired by this encounter.

I started to become interested in the aesthetics of the Victorian era and in the concept of the museum as an extension of a wunderkammer.

I started collecting  images of naturalia 2 and decided to transform them into artificialia in my studio.  And so I did, merging and morphing creatively these images. In 2013 I produced a digital collage of a butterfly scientific illustration and a medical vulva lithography and it was exhibited in public space in Bologna during CHEAP poster Festival.

Cheap Poster Festival
Posters as part of the CHEAP poster festival

This collage of images from the British Library and the Wellcome Collection became the first piece of the larger project Il muro delle meraviglie – the wall of wonders – for which I chose to use the wall of my living room in my home/atelier in NW London.

Il muro delle meraviglie started like a joke to mock the colonialist aesthetic of Victorian museum collections and it became a work of art. Among the wonders I added subsequently, you can find that first collage of the butterfly and the vulva, which I decided to call  “Do you want to see my butterfly collection?” to make my queer/ feminist perspective encounter the delicacy of the naturalistic illustration of butterfly.

The title, in Italian, refers to an apparently naïve question which has an explicit sexual allusion.

The person who asks “come see my butterflies’ collection” might be suggesting it to obtain something more, as the butterfly is used as a metaphor for the female sex.

Sara Deep Thrash
Intallazione a DEEP THRASH

This work criticises the male chauvinist obsession for cataloguing, intended as an activity aimed more at showing off, than simply showing. 

It represents a feminist critique and re-appropriation of such images.

Here the butterflies become proper “c*nts” and give visibility to the female genitalia.

It has been exhibited for the first time in 2013 on the streets of Bologna (IT) during CHEAP festival and at Queer demonstration thanks to C*ntemporary

If I didn’t have access to the BL and the Wellcome digital archives, all of this wouldn’t have been possible.

Finally, I would like to thank the support I have received from BL Labs and am excited about the new experiments and projects waiting for me around the corner.

Footnotes

  1. Flâneur: Flâneur is a French term meaning ‘stroller’ or ‘loafer’ used by nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire to identify an observer of modern urban life. Dada raised the tradition of Flânerie to the level of an aesthetic operation. The Parisian walk described by Walter Benjamin in the 1920s id utilized as an art form that inscribes itself directly in the real space and time, rather than on a medium.
  2. Naturalia : Naturalia, which includes creatures and natural objects, with a particular interest in monsters

29 November 2019

Introducing Filipe Bento - BL Labs Technical Lead

Posted by Filipe Bento, BL Labs Technical Lead

Filipe BentoI am passionate about libraries and digital initiatives within them, and am particularly interested in Open Knowledge, scholarly communication, scientific information dissemination, (Linked) Open Data, and all the innovative services that can be offered to promote their ultimate dissemination and usage, not only within academia, but also within the wider community such as industry and society. I have over twenty years experience in developing and supporting library tools, some of which have facilitated automation over manual methods to make the lives of people who work or use libraries easier.

Before working at the British Library, I was an independent consultant in the areas of digital strategies and initiatives, library technologies, information management, digital policies, Software as a Service (SaaS) and Open Source Software (OSS). Previous to that, I worked at EBSCO Information Services in several roles, firstly as the Discovery Service Engineering Support Team Manager (Europe and Latin America) and for three years as the Software Services, Application Programming Interfaces (API) and Applications (Apps) manager. My last role at EBSCO was implementing and managing the EBSCO App Store which involved working with several departments within the organisation such as marketing and legal.

Filipe Bento giving a talk the BAD conference in the Azores
Giving a talk the National Congress of BAD (Portuguese Librarians, Archivists and Documentalists Association), in the Azores

I helped the University of Aveiro's Library become the first Portuguese adopter of reference Open Source Software (OSS)  - OJS [Open Journal Systems] and implemented the institutional digital repository DSpace for the university (which included a massive data transformation and records deposit, often from citations exported from Scopus). I started my career as a lecturer and then as a computer specialist at the University of Aveiro’s Library, coordinating the development of information systems for its many branches for over fifteen years.

My PhD research in Information and Communication in Digital Platforms gave me the opportunity to connect with my professional interests in libraries, especially in the areas of information discovery. In my PhD, I was able to implement VuFind with innovative community features, as a proposal for the university, which involved engaging actively in its developer community, providing general and technical support in the process. My thesis is available via the link "Search 4.0: Integration and Cooperation Confluence in Scientific Information Discovery".

University of Aveiro (main campus), Portugal
University of Aveiro (main campus), Portugal

I have also been very active in a number of communities;
I was the (former) chairman of the board of USE.pt, the Portuguese Ex Libris Systems’ Users Association, and a previous member of the DigiMedia Research Center - Digital Media and Interaction at the University of Aveiro.

In my personal life I had been a radio and club DJ and worked on a number of personal music projects. I enjoy photography and video and am a keen traveler. I especially like being behind the wheels of cars / motorbikes and the propellers of drones.

I am really excited in joining the BL Labs team as I believe it provides an excellent opportunity to apply my skills, knowledge and expertise in library digital collections development, systems, data and APIs in a digital scholarship and wider context. I am really looking forward in offering practical advice and implementations in providing access to data, data curation, data visualisation, text and data mining and interactive web based computing environments such as Jupyter Notebooks to name a few. BL Labs and the British Library offers a rich, innovative and stimulating environment to explore what its staff and users want to do with its incredible and diverse digital collections.

26 November 2019

The British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership Project Hack Day - Theme: Collaboration

Introduction

On October 16th 2019, the BL/QFP Project opened its doors to its third and biggest Hack Day to date. After the success of the first two, it was decided to extend participation beyond the Imaging Team and invite everyone from the rest of the project to get involved. We wanted to utilise the unique way the BL/QFP is set up within the Library, with different teams and specialities all working in one place, and emphasise collaboration across these different teams. The diverse people and teams within the BL/QFP bring a wide variety of skills and experience, from language and collections knowledge to artistic and technicial expertise. By bringing these together, we were able to learn from and teach each other whilst engaging with the collections and producing a variety of fascinating and thought-provoking hacks.

 

The Hacks

During the launch workshop the vast array of skills and expertise within the team were evident, as well as the abundant enthusiasm and ambition people had. After the proposed projects were raised and discussed, five teams were formed focusing on a wide range of ideas. On the day, almost half of the BL/QFP staff participated in some way, proving the collaboration objective was well and truly met. The diverse outputs, from animations and games to pinhole cameras and data visualisations, were presented at a “show and tell”, and some were displayed on the BL/QFP Twitter page.

Below is a summary of the day, including descriptions of the hacks from each of the five teams, enjoy!

 

Games

Team: Renata Kaminska, Mariam Aboelezz, Anne Courtney, Susannah Gillard and our Quality Assurance Officer

For our Hack Day project, we wanted to make the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) more accessible to non-experts, or people who might not be looking at it with a specific research aim. With this in mind, we decided to develop some quick and easy games to engage users with the collections. Using free browser-based software, we created a word search, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and a game of hangman. These all drew on the collections which were already digitised. Where possible, we tried to include links to the items on the QDL. Although the free software had some limitations, we feel that these games offer a foundation to build on in the future.

Games

Crossword using information from a letter from Lieutenant William Bruce, Resident, Bushire, 1814 (IOR/R/15/1/14, ff 125v-127)
Play: https://tinyurl.com/yespowj7

Jigsaw using image from Tarjumah-ʼi ʻAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt (Or 1621, f 391v)
Play: https://tinyurl.com/yjuf9d7o

Jigsaw using image of ‘Persia and Afghanistan. Map I’ (IOR/R/15/1/730, f 87)
Play: https://tinyurl.com/yhpv3erw

Hangman game using words from the QDL collection
Play: https://tinyurl.com/yftf5vca

Word Search using words from the QDL collection
Play: https://tinyurl.com/yj9nugb9

 

Photogrammetry: Astrolabe Quadrant

Team: Darran Murray, Tony Grant, Nick Krebs, Matt Griffin, Rebecca Harris, Matthew Lee, Daniel Loveday and Annie Ward

Our Hack Day project centred on what the Library's Imaging Services can do with the technology and expertise they offer, in particular photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a photographic process where any type of object can be rendered into a 3D image for display on a 2D screen. This process is beneficial as it displays the complete item, allowing users to see and understand collection items without having to handle them.

We chose an Astrolabe Quadrant from the collection and created a rendition but also an animation of the same object. As you can see from both renditions, they have certain advantages over a single photograph of a 3D object, bringing the object to life.

 

Camera view during photogrammetry creation
Camera view during photogrammetry creation

 

BL St Pancras Studio during photogrammetry creation
British Library St Pancras Studio during photogrammetry creation

 

Photogrammetry rendition of astrolabe quadrant

 

 

Animation created using images from astrolabe photogrammetry rendering
Animation created using images from astrolabe photogrammetry rendering

 

Obscura / Pinhole / Cyanotype

Team: Rebecca Harris, Matthew Lee, Daniel Loveday, Darran Murray and Annie Ward

Our team explored early types of photography. First off, we created a camera obscura in one of the bays in our Imaging Studio by blocking out the light and creating a small hole by the window. An optical phenomenon, this simple hack allowed us to create an upside-down projection of the London skyline, complete with moving clouds and the Shard. Viewing sessions were arranged throughout the day and resulted in a stream of curious visitors.

As well as the camera obscura, we each built our own pinhole cameras using card, stripy tape and light-sensitive paper. Once we can set up a temporary darkroom we plan to take and develop photographs illustrating different aspects of the BL/QFP Project. Lastly, an experiment using cyanotype paper in an old brownie camera is still in progress, taking a long exposure still-life of a spirit level borrowed from the Conservation Team.

Upside-down projection of the London skyline created using the camera obscura
Upside-down projection of the London skyline created using the camera obscura

 

Pinhole cameras
Pinhole cameras

 

Time-lapse video showing creation of pinhole cameras

 

Behind The Scenes: Visualisations

Team: Jordi Clopes Masjuan and Sotirios Alpanis, with translation assistance from George Samaan

Our Hack Day project aimed to illuminate some aspects of our digitisation workflow that are not directly represented in the material displayed on the QDL. We wanted to represent and celebrate some of the hard work that goes into the creation of digitised material, particularly the tasks and processes that most people wouldn’t necessarily think about. The 45+ people involved in our workflow have a huge variety of skills and expertise, and it was some of this that we wanted to capture. We decided to use ‘every day’ objects from our workflow and picture them in interesting ways. Then pick out some interesting facts and figures about the processes they represent. Using Photoshop these two were combined to present the facts in their ‘every-day’ setting.

QDL Homepage combined with a picture of the BL/QFP Team
QDL Homepage combined with a picture of the BL/QFP Team

 

Permission letters sent by Rights Clearance Team to people identified as Rights Holders for material being digitised
Permission letters sent by Rights Clearance Team to people identified as Rights Holders for material being digitised

 

A book undergoing conservation treatment
A book undergoing conservation treatment

 

The British Library’s digital servers
The British Library’s digital servers

 

A Leading Library Assistant’s trolley in the lift carrying collection items
A Leading Library Assistant’s trolley in the lift carrying collection items

 

The Workflow Team’s Kanban Board
The Workflow Team’s Kanban Board

 

A Foliator’s desk drawer
A Foliator’s desk drawer

 

Visualising Data

Team: David Woodbridge, Sotirios Alpanis, Laura Parsons, with assistance from Anna Waghorn

We had the idea to display data about the Project in visually dynamic and appealing ways. We thought we could experiment with displaying authority terms used in the Project’s catalogue records and see what we could learn about data manipulation and data visualisation along the way.

Whilst we were able to export data about the Project and collections from SharePoint (the platform we use to manage items through the digitisation workflow) and IAMS (the Library's cataloguing system for archives, manuscripts, photographs and other visual materials), we needed to tidy up the data to make it useful. For example, the IAMS data is exported as code in an XML file format so Sotirios experimented with extracting particular elements. This work highlighted how data visualisations rely on having well-organised and complete data.

Using Microsoft Power BI, we tried a variety of ways for displaying the data, including network and force-directed graphs. These graphs show relationships between data points, such as the authority terms assigned to different shelfmarks. We also created other visualisations, such as pie charts, that quantified specific aspects of the data, for example showing the numbers of person authorities according to gender, or the language of their name. The challenge being to create something visually appealing but still meaningful.

 

Dashboard displaying data visualisations including network, force-directed and pie graphs.

 

Weaponry on Walls

Team: Hannah Nagle & the British Library’s BAME Staff Network

Working in collaboration with the Library’s BAME Staff Network, we wanted to investigate people’s perceptions of weaponry displayed in our offices. We prepared a survey and sent it out to the BL/QFP Project staff, asking them to fill it in. A work in progress, the results, quotes and related imagery will be collated into a zine illustrating the survey responses to the weapons. We will be using original photographs, images from the QDL and public domain images found on Flickr, including from the British Library’s Flickr account. With this, we hope to start a conversation about what the weaponry can represent to different people and why this is important to keep in mind.

Example of images created to respond to the weaponry on the walls
Example of images created to respond to the weaponry on the walls

 

Further information

If you would like to explore the photographs and documents used in our Hack Day projects from the Qatar Digital Library or find out more about the India Office Records please follow the links below:

 

You can also read about the previous Hack Days in the blog posts below:

 

This is a guest post by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership, compiled by Rebecca Harris and Laura Parsons. You can follow the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership on Twitter at @BLQatar.

The BL/QFP Project’s Imaging Team won the Staff Award at the British Library Labs Symposium 2019 for their Hack Days.