2018: an overview

Projects

2018 finished with a bang, as the press release for the British Library/Alan Turing Institute’s Living with Machines project went live. In this project, we’re experimenting with ‘radical collaborations’ around applying data science methods to historical newspaper collections to advance the potential of digital history.

Talks and teaching

January: a lecture on ‘Scholarly crowdsourcing: from public engagement to creating knowledge socially’ for the Introduction to Digital Humanities Masters course at King’s College London, and an ‘Overview of Information Visualisation’ for the CHASE Winter School: Introduction to Digital Humanities.

February: a full-day workshop on Information Visualisation for PhD students in the Digital Humanities for CHASE.

March: a talk on ‘Crowdsourcing: the British Library experience’ for CILIP’s Multimedia Information & Technology (MmIT) Group’s event on ‘The wisdom of the crowd? Crowdsourcing for information professionals’.

April: a talk on ‘Challenges and opportunities in digital scholarship’ for a British Library Research Collaboration Open House, and took part in a panel for the Association of Art Historians (AAH) conference on ‘Sharing knowledge through online engagement’ around Art UK’s Art Detective project at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

May: I was in Rotterdam for a EuropeanaTech panel on User Generated & Institutional Data Transcription projects and gave a talk on ‘Open cultural data in the GLAM sector’ for a CPD25 workshop on The GLAM sector: what can we learn from Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums

June: with Thomas Padilla I co-taught ‘Collections as data‘ for the HILT Digital Humanities Summer School, June 4–8, 2018, University of Pennsylvania. I then went onto Oberlin College to give a keynote on ‘Digital collections as departure points’ at the Academic Art Museums and Libraries Summit.

September: a talk on ‘Crowdsourcing at the British Library: lessons learnt and future directions’ for the Digital Humanities Congress, Sheffield. And a ‘provocation’ for the Building Library Labs event, ‘A modest proposal: crowdsourcing is good for all of us’.

November: I travelled to Bonn to do a keynote on ‘Libraries and their Communities: Participation from Town Halls to Mobile Phones’ for the Semantic Web in Libraries (SWIB) conference, and gave a preview talk on Living with Machines for the British Library Labs Symposium.

Publications

An article on Breathing life into digital collections at the British Library for ACCESS / Journal of the Australian School Library Association, 2018.

A chapter for a Routledge publication on research methods in the Digital Humanities, called ‘Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: a practical guide to designing and running successful projects’ (currently doing final edits)

Other

I was a peer reviewer for conference proposals and articles for museum studies and digital humanities events and journals.

I also gave internal talks on IIIF and the Universal Viewer and taught Data Visualisation and Crowdsourcing workshops on the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Training Programme.

I’ve collected some blog posts and newsletter updates for the British Library at Updates from Digital Scholarship at the British Library.

Conference presentation: How should Cultural Institutions Open and Connect Data?

I was invited to Taichung, Taiwan to present at Link and Linkage: 2017 International Digital Culture Forum on ‘Connected heritage: How should Cultural Institutions Open and Connect Data?’.

From my opening note: ‘I will approach the question by describing the mechanisms organisations have used to open and connect data, then I will look at some of the positive outcomes that resulted from their actions. This is not a technical talk about different acronyms, it’s about connecting people to our shared heritage.’

As I had to prepare speaker notes for the translators, I’m able to share my notes with you: Connected heritage: How should Cultural Institutions Open and Connect Data?

Taichung City Government CIO, Ching-Teng Hsiao’s closing remarks

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Conference presentation: Crowdsourcing in libraries and museums: Challenges, opportunities and digital impacts

I was invited to do a presentation for a conference organised by the Chinese Association of Museums in Taipei, Taiwan. I gave a version of ‘Crowdsourcing in libraries and museums: Challenges, opportunities and digital impacts’ tailored for their audience.

Abstract:

Crowdsourcing in museums and libraries involves asking the public to help with tasks that contribute to a shared, significant goal or research interest related to cultural heritage collections or knowledge. This talk will introduce some key examples of successful crowdsourcing projects that have transcribed, categorised, linked and researched millions of cultural heritage and scientific records, and discuss some of the reasons for their success. Digital technologies have enabled exciting new forms of public participation in cultural heritage and the sciences, but they can also challenge museums, libraries and archives to manage the changes that these new opportunities bring. Audience expectations have changed as social media and digital technologies have encouraged greater organisational transparency, and more flexible digitisation and information management practices. How can museums and libraries work with the public to make collections more accessible while making room for people to explore and enjoy collections in new ways?

Conference presentation: Cross-sector collaboration on digital museum and library projects

I was invited to do a presentation for a ‘VIP workshop’ for the Chinese Association of Museums in Taipei, Taiwan. They asked me to talk about ‘Cross-sector collaboration on digital museum and library projects’.

In my talk, I discussed collaboration through:

  • MCG, MCN: informal support through practitioner groups
  • Culture24’s Let’s Get Real: action research
  • Finland100, BnF: selective digitisation
  • Sharing audience data: MHM, Audience Agency segments
  • UK Libraries taskforce
  • Sector-wide approach: DCMS #CultureIsDigital
  • Europeana – international collaboration on shared infrastructure

As I had to make extensive notes on my slides for the translator, I’m able to share my slides with notes: http://www.miaridge.com/wp-content/uploads/CAM-afternoon-Taiwan-2017-Collaboration-M-Ridge.pdf

The talk lead to some wide-ranging discussion and gave me the opportunity to hear from several directors of Taiwanese national museums and libraries.

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Position paper: From libraries as patchwork to datasets as assemblages?

Photo of beach view

My position paper for Always Already Computational: Collections as Data. Every attendee wrote one – read the others at Collections as Data – National Forum Position Statements.

From libraries as patchwork to datasets as assemblages?

Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator, British Library

The British Library’s collections are vast, and vastly varied, with 180-200 million items in most known languages. Within that, there are important, growing collections of manuscript and sound archives, printed materials and websites, each with its own collecting history and cataloguing practices. Perhaps 1-2% of these collections have been digitised, a process spanning many years and many distinct digitisation projects, and an ensuing patchwork of imaging and cataloguing standards and licences. This paper represents my own perspective on the challenges of providing access to these collections and others I’ve worked with over the years.

Many of the challenges relate to the volume and variety of the collections. The BL is working to rationalise the patchwork of legacy metadata systems into a smaller number of strategic systems.[1] Other projects are ingesting masses of previously digitised items into a central system, from which they can be displayed in IIIF-compatible players.[2]

The BL has had an ‘open metadata’ strategy since 2010, and published a significant collection of metadata, the British National Bibliography, as linked open data in 2011.[3] Some digitised items have been posted to Wikimedia Commons,[4] and individual items can be downloaded from the new IIIF player (where rights statements allow). The BL launched a data portal, https://data.bl.uk/, in 2016. It’s work-in-progress – many more collections are still to be loaded, the descriptions and site navigation could be improved – but it represents a significant milestone many years in the making. The BL has particularly benefitted from the work of the BL Labs team in finding digitised collections and undertaking the paperwork required to make the freely available. The BL Labs Awards have helped gather examples for creative, scholarly and entrepreneurial uses of digitised collections collection re-use, and BL Labs Competitions have led to individual case studies in digital scholarship while helping the BL understand the needs of potential users.[5] Most recently, the BL has been working with the BBC’s Research and Education Space project,[6] adding linked open data descriptions about articles to its website so they can be indexed and shared by the RES project.

In various guises, the BL has spent centuries optimising the process of delivering collection items on request to the reading room. Digitisation projects are challenging for systems designed around the ‘deliverable item’, but the digital user may wish to access or annotate a specific region of a page of a particular item, but the manuscript itself may be catalogued (and therefore addressable) only at the archive box or bound volume level. The visibility of research activities with items in the reading rooms is not easily achieved for offsite research with digitised collections. Staff often respond better to discussions of the transformational effect of digital scholarship in terms of scale (e.g. it’s faster and easier to access resources) than to discussions of newer methods like distant reading and data science.

The challenges the BL faces are not unique. The cultural heritage technology community has been discussing the issues around publishing open cultural data for years,[7]in part because making collections usable as ‘data’ requires cooperation, resources and knowledge from many departments within an institution. Some tensions are unavoidable in enhancing records for use externally – for example curators may be reluctant or short of the time required to pin down their ‘probable’ provenance or date range, let alone guess at the intentions of an earlier cataloguer or learn how to apply modern ontologies in order to assign an external identifier to a person or date field.

While publishing data ‘as is’ in CSV files exported from a collections management system might have very little overhead, the results may not be easily comprehensible, or may require so much cleaning to remove missing, undocumented or fuzzy values that the resulting dataset barely resembles the original. Publishing data benefits from workflows that allow suitably cleaned or enhanced records to be re-ingested, and export processes that can regularly update published datasets (allowing errors to be corrected and enhancements shared), but these are all too rare. Dataset documentation may mention the technical protocols required but fail to describe how the collection came to be formed, what was excluded from digitisation or from the publishing process, let alone mention the backlog of items without digital catalogue records, let alone digitised images. Finally, users who expect beautifully described datasets with high quality images may be disappointed when their download contains digitised microfiche images and sparse metadata.

Rendering collections as datasets benefits from an understanding of the intangible and uncertain benefits of releasing collections as data and of the barriers to uptake, ideally grounded in conversations with or prototypes for potential users. Libraries not used to thinking of developers as ‘users’ or lacking the technical understanding to translate their work into benefits for more traditional audiences may find this challenging. My hope is that events like this will help us deal with these shared challenges.

[1] The British Library, ‘Unlocking The Value: The British Library’s Collection Metadata Strategy 2015 – 2018’.

[2] The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) standard supports interoperability between image repositories. Ridge, ‘There’s a New Viewer for Digitised Items in the British Library’s Collections’.

[3] Deloit et al., ‘The British National Bibliography: Who Uses Our Linked Data?’

[4] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:British_Library

[5] http://www.bl.uk/projects/british-library-labs, http://labs.bl.uk/Ideas+for+Labs

[6] https://bbcarchdev.github.io/res/

[7] For example, the ‘Museum API’ wiki page listing machine-readable sources of open cultural data was begun in 2009 http://museum-api.pbworks.com/w/page/21933420/Museum%C2%A0APIs following discussion at museum technology events and on mailing lists.

Photo of beach view
The view from UC Santa Barbara is alright, I suppose