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

Workshop: Information Visualisation, CHASE Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age 2017

I ran a full-day workshop on Information Visualisation for the CHASE Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age training programme at Birkbeck, London, in February 2017. The abstract:

Visualising data to understand it or convince others of an argument contained within it has a long history. Advances in computer technology have revolutionised the process of data visualization, enabling scholars to ask increasingly complex research questions by analysing large scale datasets with freely available tools.

This workshop will give you an overview of a variety of techniques and tools available for data visualisation and analysis in the arts and humanities. The workshop is designed to help participants plan visualisations by discussing data formats used for the building blocks of visualisation, such as charts, maps, and timelines. It includes discussion of best practice in visual design for data visualisations and practical, hands-on activities in which attendees learn how to use online tools such as Viewshare to create visualisations.

At the end of this course, attendees will be able to:

  • Create a simple data visualisation
  • Critique visualisations in terms of choice of visualisation type and tool, suitability for their audience and goals, and other aspects of design
  • Recognise and discuss how data sets and visualisation techniques can aid researchers

Please remember to bring your laptop.


Exercises for CHASE’s ADHA 2017 Introduction to Information Visualisation

  • Exercise 1: comparing n-gram tools
  • Exercise 2: Try entity extraction
  • Exercise 3: exploring scholarly data visualisations
  • Viewshare Exercise 1: Ten minute tutorial – getting started
  • Viewshare Exercise 2: Create new views and widgets

Talk: Planning for big data (lessons from cultural heritage)

I was invited to give an hour-long talk for the Association for Project Management’s Knowledge Management SIG event on ‘What does big data mean for project and knowledge managers?’. I shared lessons from work in cultural heritage, including the British Library and Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, on ‘Planning for Big Data’.

Panel: Build the Crowdsourcing Community of Your Dreams, SXSW

Panel photo

Having successfully passed the SXSW ‘panel picker’ process, I went to SXSW Interactive 2016 to discuss ‘building the crowdsourcing community of your dreams’ with Ben Brumfield, Meghan Ferriter and Siobhan Leachman (aka @benwbrum, @meghaninmotion and @SiobhanLeachman). We were in the ‘Art, Science, & Inspiration’ track, and while it may have been luck with timing or our title, the venue was standing room only for a while.

Our slides are online, and we put together a list of further resources to tweet during the panel at http://bit.ly/GLAMcrowd.

Siobhan storified our session and also posted her talk notes. She’s such a passionate volunteer, and you couldn’t get a better account of ‘How cultural institutions encouraged me to participate in crowdsourcing & the factors I consider before donating my time‘.

Panel photo
SXSW crowdsourcing panel photo by Effie Kapsalis @digitaleffie


If you’re interested in our panel, you might also be interested in the later ‘SXSW 2016 – Give It Away to Get Rich: Open Cultural Heritage‘.

Everything SXSW - lamp posts protected from extreme flyering, pedicabs, sunshine and a lounge
Everything SXSW – lamp posts protected from extreme flyering, pedicabs, sunshine and a lounge

Talk: St. Edwards University, Austin

View of downtown Austin
View of downtown Austin
The view of downtown Austin from St Edwards

As part of my trip to Texas for SXSW, I was invited to present on ‘Crowdsourcing, learning and citizen scholarship’ at St Edwards University on March 10, 2016.

Having given an online seminar for Rebecca Frost Davis in a previous role, it was a pleasure to meet her at last, and hear about her work as Director of Instructional and Emerging Technology.

My talk discussed how crowdsourcing projects might offer an opportunity for students to contribute to both cultural heritage and citizen science projects.

Talk: Crowdsourcing in Cultural Heritage, iSchool, UT Austin

As part of my trip to Texas for SXSW, I was invited to present on ‘Crowdsourcing in Cultural Heritage’ at a colloquium at a School of Information Research Event at UT Austin on March 8, 2016.

My thanks to the organisers for their excellent hospitality, and to the attendees for their thoughtful and probing questions!

My abstract: Why and how are museums, libraries, archives and academic projects creating crowdsourcing projects to help digitize collections or enhance their knowledge about them? Based on a review of hundreds of heritage crowdsourcing projects, this talk will highlight examples of successful projects, discuss why members of the public volunteer their time, and consider the different outcomes possible.

Austin's Capitol building
Austin’s Capitol building

Workshop: Crowdsourcing and Cultural Heritage, Rice University

Photo of campus gate

As part of my trip to Texas for SXSW, I was invited to give a workshop on ‘Crowdsourcing and Cultural Heritage’ in the Fondren Library at Rice University’s Humanities Research Center Sawyer Seminar series on March 7, 2016. My slides are below. My visit was a great chance to find out more about the teaching and projects at the Research Center, and my thanks go to the organisers for their excellent hospitality.

Abstract: This workshop will provide an overview of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage and consider the ethics and motivations for participation. International case studies will be discussed to provide real life illustrations of design tips and to inspire creative thinking.

Photo of campus gate
Rice University

Exercises for CHASE’s Introduction to Information Visualisation

These exercises were prepared for the CHASE Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age event’s workshop on Information Visualisation but they’re also useful for people who want to learn more about data visualisations in cultural heritage and the humanities.

Exercise 1: compare simple text tools

Time: c. 5 minutes.

Goal: compare the ability of two different tools to help you understand a new text corpus

1.     Load the word cloud site

2.     Then, grab some text:

  • Open another browser tab
  • Go to http://pastebin.com/Nd0a86tm
  • Select and copy the 8 lines of text. The easiest way is to click into the box under ‘RAW Paste Data’
  • Paste them into the text box on the Wordle site and hit ‘go’
  • You can customise your visualisation using the menu. Which options create a more informative visualisation?

3.     Load the word tree site

  • Go to http://www.jasondavies.com/wordtree/
  • Paste the text into the ‘Paste Text’ box and hit ‘Generate WordTree!’ (Grab the text again from Step 2 if necessary)
  • You can click on words on the screen – which words produce the most options?

4.     Discuss

Bearing in mind that this is an unusual corpus, which tool gave you a better sense of its content? Why?

Are these tools better for exploring or explaining data? Why?

If tidying up the data provided – removing punctuation, making spelling consistent, etc – would improve the visualisation, then try editing the text and re-running the visualisation. Did it help? What else could you do?

Exercise 2: exploring scholarly data visualisations

Time: c. 10-15 minutes.

Goal: get hands-on experience and practice critical analysis.

Pair up with your neighbour to explore and discuss one of the visualisations listed on the following page.


  1. In your browser, go to one of the sites below
  2. Take a few minutes to explore the visualisation
  3. Then discuss with your neighbour:
    • What do you think is being presented here?
    • Can you easily see where to start and how to use it?
    • What stories or trends can you start to see?
    • Does it work better at one scale over another?
    • Do you find it more effective at aggregate or detail level?
    • Does it present an argument or provide a space for you to explore and develop one?
    • What arguments (statements about the data) does the site present?
    • What have you learned from visualisation that you might not have learned from looking at the data or reading a description of it?
  4. Be prepared to report back to the group. e.g. summarise the site’s purpose, visualisation formats and data types, or share unresolved questions or the most interesting parts of your discussion

University of Richmond, ‘Visualizing Emancipation’


Further information: http://dirt.terrypbrock.com/2012/04/visualizing-emancipation-examining-its-process-through-digital-tools/

Stanford ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters’


Further information: http://openglam.org/2012/03/21/mapping-the-republic-of-letters/, http://danbri.org/words/2010/11/22/603

Locating London’s Past


GAPVis Ancient Places


Further information: http://googleancientplaces.wordpress.com/

Digital Harlem :: Everyday Life 1915-1930


Further information: http://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/ http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evidence/robertson-2012-spring/

Digital Public Library of America’s timeline, map, bookshelf


Further information: http://dp.la/info/ and http://dp.la/info/news/blog/



Further information: http://hestia.open.ac.uk/updating-orbis/

Lost Change


Further information: http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/02/19/lost-change-mapping-coins-from-the-portable-antiquities-scheme/

The State of the Union in Context


Further exercises

Learn more: explore and analyse more visualisations

Sketch out ideas for a visualisation

  • Work out what data you need and the best way to prepare and present it. http://www.dear-data.com has some lovely examples of creative sketches.

Create your own visualisations

These sites can be used with your own or public data:

If you have sensitive data you must check whether any data you load will be made public.

Talk: Designing Successful Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects, Berlin

I was invited to Berlin to give a public lecture on ‘Designing Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects’ at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institute of the Free University of Berlin on 7 December 2015.

Abstract: Based on a review of the most successful international crowdsourcing projects, this talk will look at the attributes of successful crowdsourcing projects in cultural heritage, including interface and interaction design, participation in community discussion, and understanding participant motivations.

Talk and workshop: Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Sector: approaches, challenges and issues, Glasgow

Slides for the Crowd-sourcing, Co-creation and Co-curation in the Cultural Sector workshop by the Scottish Network on Digital Cultural Resources Evaluation

I was also invited to run a workshop on the basics of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage for a Knowledge Exchange Event, jointly organised by the Scottish Network on Digital Cultural Resources Evaluation and the Museums Galleries Scotland Digital Transformation Network. Aimed at cultural heritage professionals, it was a hands-on exploration and exchange of different approaches to crowd-sourcing and co-creation.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum!