British Library Labs Symposium

British Library Labs Symposium
BL Labs
BL Labs using Letters from the flickr 1 Million

On Monday 2nd November 2015, I attended the fascinating British Library Labs Symposium at the British Library. The event was is annual showcase for innovative projects using the British Library’s digital collections and content. The event the British Library Labs Awards for projects that integrated the BLs digital content with new work in three different categories: Research Creativity Entrepreneurship.

The event began with a keynote speech from Dr David DeRoure (@dder) Director of Oxford e-Research Centre at University of Oxford, his theme was the Humanities in the Digital World and looked at topics such as rise of social machines in response to the ‘data deluge’ that has arisen with the increase in data that is now generated such as by social media, mobile and wearable technologies. He spoke about data that was so big you had to change what you did with it and about the intersection between Big Data, Personal Data and Open Data and raised the prospect of Big Open Personal Data and the accountability of machines in the sense of harvesting data.

Venn Diagram showing intersection between Big Data Personal Data and Open Data
Intersection of data types David DeRoure and

In talking about Social Machines on the Web (whereby people do the creative work while relying on computers and machines to do the administration) he said he would focus on t Social Machines as providing the ability to create new social process given to the world at large.

Tim Berners Lee Talking about Social Machines to
Tim Berners-Lee Social machines

He referred to Wikipedia as a providing a new form of new social process, citing the different practices in different countries and how people through Twitter and Social Media create new social processes such as Cancer Research UK utilizing the #nomakeupselfie campaign even though they didn’t originate it. He also examined ideas of the Social Machine Ecosystem a community of living hybrid organisms rather simply than a collection of connected machines with people. Each systems’ success and failures inform the development of their offspring, those social networks and machines that are born or evolve from existing ones.

He covered many more topics in the course of his presentation but the overall theme and narrative was that of the combination of machines and people working in collaborative fashion to aid, generate and develop scholarship, the emergence of hybrid forms of authorship and collaborative authority – not just between people but machines and people. Elephant in the Server Room

A computationally enabled sense making network of expertise, data software, models and narratives.

He referred to a Citizen Science projects such as Zooniverse as an example of a Scholarly Social Machines whereby users add the classification and Chordify a system that turn a piece of music into chords, but which can be improved by allowing humans to edit the output. Essentially Social Machines and the web allow for the crowdsourcing of research by opening the research projects up to the amateur scientists and scholars, allowing ordinary people to contribute to curation and creation.

a Screenshot from Chordify
R Dimensions
R Dimensions

He ended by sounding a note of caution in regards to the risks of removing challenge by becoming to reliant on algorithms that are “burnt” into research. But he also advanced the notion that “the crowd is us” we are the citizens in citizen science.

The slides from the presentation are available on Slideshare.

Links for David de Roure can be found here

Competition Winners

Following on from the keynote speech Caroline Brazier, Chief Librarian of the British Library, presented the awards to the 2015 Labs competition winners, who were then invited to give a short presentation on their projects.

Dr Adam Crymble (@adam_crymble)  ‘Crowdsourcing Objects’: repurposing the 1980s arcade console for scholarly image classification’

Adam’s project looked at using the 1980’s arcade game as means for classifying the content of digitised images from the British Library’s Mechanical Curator. Building on the ‘maker’ community it takes an new approach to crowdsourcing by placing the crowdsourcing activity inside the confines of a 1980s arcade console. Players are asked to classify images using a joystick to place them into categories. Adam’s presentation took us on a journey through the rules of videogame worlds, encompassing concepts of PowerUps, fire and death! while highlighting ways in which videogames could be applied to the classification of images.

The Spatial Humanities Project ‘Combining Text Analysis and Geographic Information Systems to investigate the representation of disease in nineteenth-century newspapers’ Research Award (2015). 

Dr Ian Gregory, Professor of Digital Humanities at Lancaster University accepted the award on behalf of the Spatial Humanities team (Paul Atkinson, Ian Gregory, Andrew Hardie, Amelia Joulain-Jay, Daniel Kershaw, Catherine Porter and Paul Rayson). The project involved analysis of 19th Century digitised newspaper The Era(1838-1900) which was digitised by the BL in order to determine how disease was discussed temporally and spatially in the Victorian era.

Map: place names in England & Wales that collocate with a range of 19th century diseases in The Era
Map: place names in England & Wales that collocate with a range of 19th century diseases in The Era

Dr Katrina Navickas (@katrinanavickas) ‘Political Meetings Mapper: Bringing the British Library maps to life with the history of popular protest’

Katrina’s project made use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR)  technology to extract the details of Chartist meetings from the Northern Star in the Nineteenth Century Newspapers collection and then georeferenced the locations of meetings against the Digitised Maps collection leading to a “spatial and temporal mapping” of the movement.

The project required that the original OCR be redone, and that the programme constructed to parse the dates and times had to extrapolate dates from terms such as tomorrow makes use of Python coding and regular expressions.

The full slides are available via Slideshare

The Mechanical Curator

Image taken from page 625 of 'Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme ... La publica con un atlas, notas, y ilustraciones J. F. Ramirez, etc'
Image taken from the mechanical curator set on Flick

The Mechanical Curator is a ‘bot’ developed by the BL Labs team that locates images from within the digitised books collections of 17th, 18th and 19th (65,000 books), the images are then uploaded online. The range of images is startling, and include maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and many more. To date more than 1 million digitised have been uploaded and were uploaded to Flickr. When they are uploaded the only metadata available for them is related to the book from which they were sourced. The purpose of the BL Labs competitions is to aid in classifying the content of these images.

Mario Klingemann (@quasimondo)’The Order of Things BL Labs Creative/Artistic Award (2015)
Describing himself as an ‘Obsessive Compulsive Orderer’ Mario Klingemann is a new media artist who uses images from the Mechanical curator to create new works. Using coding, algorithms and machine learning he can create programmes to analyse and sort images based upon colour or features such as faces. The images are then clustered and arranged leading to works like this:

16 Very Sad Girls Mario Klingeman and the British Librtary Collection
16 Very Sad Girls – Mario Klingeman and the British Librtary Collection

Klingemann is seen as something of a one man Social Machine, having used machine learning to help tag many of the million images on Flickr and creating thematic sets and tagged searches like ‘maps’.

Dina Malkova – Lewes Bow Ties -Labs Entrepreneurial Award (2015)
Dina is a fashion designer who specialises in vintage fabrics. A self – professed fan of Lewis Carroll ‘s Alice in Wonderland she teamed up with Etsy and the British Library to create a series of products to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. She used digitised images of Carroll ‘ s original manuscript to create her fabrics.

Lewes Bow Tie made by Dina Malkova - based upon the digitised manuscript of Lewis Carroll
Lewes Bow Tie made by Dina Malkova – based upon the digitised manuscript of Lewis Carroll

The day ended with an interesting discussion on “The Ups and Downs of Open”, hosted by George Oates (Good, Form & Spectacle Ltd) and panelists Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator at the British Library, Jenn Phillips-Bacher, Web Manager at the Wellcome Library, and Paul Downey, Technical Architect at the Government Digital Service (GDS). They provided a fascinating discussion into the challenges posed by opening up the collections of memory institutions through digitisation.

Mia Ridge talked about moving away from search as a means of accessing collections and approaching collections by looking at the story behind them. She talked about trying to understand how curators approach their collections and creating pipelines between collections.

Jenn Phillips-Bacher talked about the “What’s in the Library Project” which was a collaborative project between Wellcome Library and Good, Form & Spectacle Ltd that looked at ways of developing ‘prototype views of the Library Catalogue that didn’t rely on a search box. She said they were looking at ways of exposing their database content to staff and talked about the problems of using a thematic approach to a collection with over 35000 Subject Headings. They had a lot of digitised images but no way to share them or even know what they were.

Paul Downey highlighted the difficulties faced in the GDS with standardisation and a lack of clear ownership of something as simple as a list of countries: citing different lists between departments such as the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence which are deemed ‘authoritative’, multiple spellings of the word Scotland and, Foreign policy issues surrounding the official status of some countries such as Tibet (considered part of China by UK foreign policy). He talked about encountering resistance to change due to a ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ culture in some areas such as the Land Registry. It took many years before he was able to fully challenge Ministers’ often mistaken assertion that they were required by Legislation to follow certain archaic practices.

As with the rest of the day the session provided an opportunity to think about the ways in which we use Digital Collections and the way in which we make them available to users in new, interesting and meaningful ways that perhaps don’t rely on search boxes. It also gave an insight into the unprecedented challenges faced as a result of digitisation, particularly when it comes to know what the images are about.

For a further write-up of day please see the Digital scholarship blog

Thanks for reading –


A walk amongst the Gravestones

A walk amongst the Gravestones

I had the opportunity of visiting Highgate Cemetery the other week and though I’d share a few thoughts and photos from it.

Myself and some other classmates from #citylis explored the East cemetery on a suitably sunny morning, visiting the graves of a myriad of notable historical figures, some perhaps more well known and obvious than others.

Grave of Karl Marx
The Grave of Karl Marx (b.1818 -d.1883)

The most famous resident(if that is the appropriate term) must surely be Karl Marx, certainly he has the largest grave (in fact he has two, although I only found the more obvious one), however there are many more significant and notable residents which may pique your interests.

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams – (b1952 – d2001)

 One good example might be the writer Douglas Adams, who as you may or may not know wrote that  “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42″ in the now famous Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Colin St John Wilson RA
Sir Colin St John Wilson RA (b1922 – d2007)

For a more Library related entry perhaps we should consider the grave of Sir Colin St John Wilson RA architect of the British Library at St Pancras.

So far I have mentioned three people out of a total of 17,000, three graves out of 53,000 (source:, if we begin to look at Highgate as an archive that’s a minimum of 17,000 records, 1 per person. Each person is resident in 1 grave (with the possible exception of Marx) and for each person in the cemetery we will have a minimum of the following information:

  • Date of Birth
  • First Name
  • Family Name
  • Date of Death
If we imagine our Cemetery as an archive we need access points, we could start with surname, this would be of genealogical value, or if you are perhaps are looking for a list of burials from a particular year, but we can expand our records further by information about the occupant, some of which which can then form the basis of classification scheme.
Gender maybe one scheme of classification which means we can add gender to the records of our occupant – we could create a separate table form gender and store it as a foreign key or lock up value in our main records table.
Occupation or Profession may be the next information to add to our records, this is certainly known for many of the notable residents, and indeed Highgate Cemetery website provides the following categories for listing the more notable occupants:
  • Art and design
  • Commerce
  • Heroism
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Others
  • Politics philosophy and public life
  • Science technology and nature
  • Theatre, film and television
Within a category such as Art and Design we find notable Painters, Designers, and Architects. The  Commerce category includes confectioners, instrument makers and inventors. The definitions for categories are quite broad so it would be possible to subdivide them further, for example science might have sub categories for Mathematicians, Chemists, and Natural Science.

Alternative classifications

There are some other ways in which we could classify the Cemetery, which is too look at the graves rather than the occupants as a subject for classification.

We could look at a classification by materials:

  • Granite
  • Stone
  • Wood
  • Marble
  • Metal
 We could consider occupancy:
  • Single
  • Double
  • Multiple
Furthermore we could classify by design:
  • Crosses
  • Angel
  • Horizontal / vertical
  • Vertical
 For repair
However, we choose to classify we have still barely scratched the surface of finding out about the lives, and deaths of the many occupants of Highgate Cemetery. Last of all I want to pose the question of maintenance and care, for if we treat Highgate as an archive and the graves as the collection, what happens to those graves that are overgrown and broken? For it is not so much the famous and well known residents that we should be concerned with, but those of the ordinary men and women who now reside within Highgate. What do we know about those whose graves are overgrown, broken  and neglected and how can we preserve the information that is marked upon their gravestones?


Overgrown graves
Overgrown graves