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

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.

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Rice University

HILT Summer School 2015: ‘Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage’

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Resources for the course on Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage at HILT 2015 I’m teaching with Ben Brumfield.

Course Google Doc for collaborative note-taking, links, etc.

Flickr Group for HILT 2015 Crowdsourcing photos

Mia’s storify of the week and the class presentation for the HILT Show and Tell.

Projects made in the class

Well done @cmderose_wisc @nebrown63 @ElizHansen @ESPaul @vac11 @kmthomas06 @WendyJ1226 @HistorianOnFire @Jim_Salmons @TimlynnBabitsky + Nancy!

Monday: overview, speed dating

HILT Crowdsourcing Slides and Exercises for Monday

Session 2: links to find a project you love! For non-English language projects, try Crowdsourcing the world’s heritage.

Prompts for thinking about projects:

  • How clear was the purpose of the site? How well was it reflected in the ‘call to action’ and other text?
  • How easy was it to get started?
  • Were the steps to complete the task clear?
  • How enjoyable was the task?
  • Did the reward (if any) feel appropriate?
  • Looking at the site overall, does the project appear to be effective?
  • What is the input content? What is the output content?
  • What validation methods appear to have been used?
  • Who is the probable audience and what motivates them to participate?
  • How does the project let participants know they’re making a difference?
  • Does the site support communication between participants?
  • How was the site marketed to potential participants?
  • Did the site anticipate your questions about the tasks?

HILT Crowdsourcing Slides and Exercises Tuesday

http://tinyurl.com/EminentScotsmen

http://tinyurl.com/Graves1845

HILT Crowdsourcing Slides Wednesday

HILT Crowdsourcing Slides Thursday

HILT Crowdsourcing Slides Friday

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HILT 2015 Crowdsourcing class

Continue reading “HILT Summer School 2015: ‘Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage’”

HILT Summer School: ‘Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage’

In August 2014 I taught ‘Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage’ with Ben Brumfield at HILT (Humanities Intensive Learning + Teaching) at MITH in Maryland. Thanks to all the participants for making it such a great workshop!

The Course Syllabus and Slide Decks are available for download below.

If you found this post useful, you might be interested in my book, Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage.

Continue reading “HILT Summer School: ‘Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage’”

Seminar paper: ‘Messy understandings in code’

I was invited to present at Speaking in Code, an NEH-funded symposium and summit to ‘give voice to what is almost always tacitly expressed in our work: expert knowledge about the intellectual and interpretive dimensions of DH code-craft, and unspoken understandings about the relation of that work to ethics, scholarly method, and humanities theory’. I’ve been writing about this for a while, so this event was both personally and professional important.

From my opening slide:

‘There’s a fundamental tension between available tools and cultural heritage data: we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Do you craft the tools to the data or the data to the tool?

So what do you do with square pegs and round holes? You can chop off the interesting edges to fit something into a round hole, you can reduce the size of the entire peg so it’ll slip through, or you can make a new bespoke hole that’ll fit your peg. But then how do we make the choices we’ve made obvious to people who encounter the data we’ve squeezed through various holes? It’s particularly important if people are using these collections in scholarly work to make the flattenings, exclusions that shape a dataset visible.

The choices you make will depend on your resources and skills, the audience for and the purpose of the final product… Will look at some examples of visualisations for exploring collections where I had to tidy the mess to make them work, and an example of designing software to cope with the messy reality it was trying to reflect.

I want to set the scene with my own experiences with cultural heritage data, but am curious to hear about your own experiences with messy data in your respective fields, and the solutions you’ve explored for dealing with it and conveying your decisions.’

Messy Understandings Speaking in Code (PDF)

Workshop: ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects’

I ran a half-day workshop on ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects’ at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference in sunny Lincoln, Nebraska.

Workshop attendees: download the slides (2mb PDF) DH2013 Crowdsourcing workshop slides and exercises handout (Word doc): DH2013 Crowdsourcing workshop exercises.

I’ve started a braindump of ’emerging best practice’ tips and questions from the workshop below…

Tips for designing humanities crowdsourcing projects Continue reading “Workshop: ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects’”

Workshop: Data visualisation as a gateway to programming

I was invited to run a workshop at THATCamp Feminisms West at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and thought ‘Data visualisations as gateway to programming’ would be a good way to provide a gentle introduction to ‘computational thinking’ by working through the effects different data structures have on potential visualisations in ManyEyes, the online visualisation tool. I also prepared some material on basic concepts in programming and put together a page of ‘Inspiring women through history’ mapped across time and space that contained heavily commented code that suggested various things to try to get a sense of how code (in this case, JavaScript, HTML, CSS) works. My slides are below, you can play with content prepared for ManyEyes, or ‘view source’ at the ‘inspiring women’ link above, save the file to your hard drive and have a play.