Friday, 19 May 2017

Experimenting with Digital Collections with the British Library

Last Friday we travelled to Sheffield Hallam University’s Art & Design Research Centre, who are working in partnership with the British Library Labs. This workshop focused on how the British Library’s digital collections team is making their data accessible to researchers, and the opportunities and challenges involved.

So far in this traineeship our focus has been on how to preserve the data, but recently we have been thinking about what to do with the data once it’s been stored. Archive records aren’t much use if nobody can read them, so how do you allow researchers to access these digital records, and what tools will they need to use it? For the British Library, the solution was to make datasets on the collections freely available through BL Labs, and allow researchers, developers and artists to reinterpret the collections in new ways.

A mixture of archivists, librarians, designers and artists at the start of the workshop.
A lot of the research has been in finding ways to automate the process of identifying what is in each collection. One starting concept was to take an ordinary face-recognition algorithm and pass it over scanned pages from 19th Century books to find drawings of people. This simple concept has been developed and expanded into the Mechanical Curator, a program which automatically identifies illustrations within the text, identifies the content and posts a random selection of pictures online. Similar algorithms can perform similar functions, such as teaching an Optical Character Recognition program to spot long-forgotten Victorian poetry in digitised journals.

The biggest point that came from this was less the technical aspect, but the human aspect. It is important to ask questions about exactly what researchers want to find, and how to help them find it. Digital collections can easily contain thousands or millions of files, and good search tools are key to letting users filter through stacks of data to get to what they want.

After the coffee break, professors from Sheffield Hallam’s ADRC shared some projects they have worked on, using new technology in new ways to display data and curate exhibitions. We saw some work by the meSch project into new concepts for presenting information. It can be all too easy for the presentation to overtake the content - the meSch project aims to develop museums technology which doesn’t interfere with the visitor experience.

A prototype guide for Sheffield General Cemetery, resembling a memorial book.
Visitors use the bookmarks to play audio recordings on different themes.
Throughout the workshop, we saw how not just how new technology can be used to engage with the museums and archive sector, but the importance of working directly with users to provide the tools they want or need to use. We’ll be keeping these lessons in mind as we continue to develop the Hull History Centre’s digital collections.

Tom & Francisco, Transforming Archive Trainees

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