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

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

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!

Talk: Choosy crowds and the machine age: challenges for the future of humanities crowdsourcing, KCL

I gave a presentation on ‘Choosy crowds and the machine age: challenges for the future of humanities crowdsourcing’ at Kings College London for Citizen Humanities Comes of Age: Crowdsourcing for the Humanities in the 21st Century (9th – 10th). This lead to a co-authored publication, Citizen Humanities Comes of Age: Crowdsourcing for the Humanities in the 21st Century Event Summary.

Some of the points I raised are discussed in ‘How an ecosystem of machine learning and crowdsourcing could help you‘ and ‘Helping us fly? Machine learning and crowdsourcing‘.

Talk: ‘Small ontologies, loosely joined’: linked open data for the First World War, DH2015

I presented a paper, ‘Small ontologies, loosely joined’: linked open data for the First World War, in a panel on Linked Open Data and the First World War at Digital Humanities 2015 (based on my experiences as a Fellow at Trinity College Dublin working on histories of World War One with the CENDARI project).