#citylis Student Perspectives: British Library Digital Conversations: EThOS & Multimedia PhD Theses by Thomas Ash

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Thomas Ash.


Kicking off the autumn season of LIS related events, I recently attended an excellent #bldigital talk on EThOS and Multimedia Thesis, alongside #citylis students @NowrinShohana and@Chrisjph. The event hosted in the British Library’s Bronte Room was described as a celebration of non-text and multimedia outputs being submitted with digital theses, and was full of intrigue and surprises.

EThOS and the PhD Theses

EThOS is the UK national database for theses, operated by the British Library, it stores details of all UK PhD theses, and provides full-text downloads for the majority of submissions either directly or through links to individual institutions. Traditionally PhD Theses are heavily text-based and although there have been previous attempts to incorporate multimedia outputs into them, there is still limited support for these, as we learnt during the evening and where they have been included it has largely been in analogue format as part of the appendices. To date only one

The event focused on the issues faced by PhD candidates who are innovating with digital and multimedia as part of their research, but face difficulties in incorporating such outputs into their theses. The evening began with a brief introduction from Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom) Digital Curator at the British Library, who welcomed everyone to the event which before handing over to the evenings chair Coral Manton (@CoralAnimation). Coral is herself a current PhD candidate, at University of Plymouth’s i-DAT research and design collective, she has professional background working in Libraries, Museums and Immersive Digital Practice (something that sounds very relevant to #citylis, which often talks about how we can records immersive documents and experiences). Coral’s current research is focused on the development of an immersive museums collections database, creating data visualisations of collection data enabling “enhanced curatorial and visitor understanding”1

As part of a research placement with the British Library, Coral has been investigating multimedia and non-text PhD research and examining ways in which EThOS can adapt to meet the challenge of such outputs. This has led her to meet a variety of PhD candidates whose theses don’t conform to the traditional text based output or whose research has led them to use digital technologies, such as motion capture, virtual avatars or apps for data-collection. Among her discoveries was that many of the researchers she spoke to had had very little or no contact with their Library, especially with regards to issues of data management and archiving, leading to situations whereby they were unable to include images and artwork,that formed an integral part of their work, in their final submission. (See this blog post more details of Coral’s work).

Imogen Lesser

The first speaker of the evening was Imogen Lesser (@ImogenLesser) from the University of Kent, her doctoral research is on the architecture of the language used Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, and the spaces created within the texts. As part of her research she has used both digital technology and traditional media, such as drawing and sculpture to convey her ideas and map out the spaces and relations between spaces created within the text of Peake’s work. Her first step was to compile a digital document in the form of an excel spreadsheet identifying spaces within the text, from which she produced a digital map, using AutoCad of the relationship between spaces found in the four texts. To better understand the spaces detailed in Peake’s work Imogen produced a series of incredibly detailed drawings as well as models.  She took the digital maps and printed them out at before drawing over them to create A1 1:10,000 scale maps as an aid to her writing.

To help showcase her work and make it more accessible she put on an exhibition in which she displayed her drawings and sculpture alongside excerpts from the texts. One of the main problems that Imogen is facing is that while the maps and architectural drawings are the most effective way of representing the spacial data, extracted from the text providing a more accessible means of disseminating her research, there is no effective means of incorporating such work into her thesis. Even though her drawings and models are the most effective means of conveying and examining the spaces in the text she is still expected to  write 80,000 words, architecture is a language in itself, which can not  effectively  be related through text, this relates closely to something that Coral Manton said about video, arguing that rather than having to describe a video, it would be simpler to be able to include the video as part the thesis.

This would be a common theme for the evening, how to effectively convey research that doesn’t lend itself to textual methods of description, the emphasis on text based thesis, excludes the use on non-text media, even when they are the most effective means of relating information. For Lesser one of her main concerns is the storage and archiving of her work such as drawings through her library and their accessibility. If she submits her drawings as an appendix to her thesis, they won’t be stored or accessible through the Library. A better system for archiving and making them accessible is needed.

Craig Hamilton and Harkive

Craig Hamilton (@craigfots) from the School of Media at Birmingham City University was the evenings second speaker. Craig’s research focuses on “how the experience of listening to and consuming popular music is changing, with a particular focus on digital technologies.”2 In order to do this Craig developed Harkive an online platform that utilises digital crowd-sourcing techniques to collect stories and comments about the how, where and why of people’s music listening habits.

Craig’s background is in music and music technology but he had develop skills of a data scientist and programmer in order to make sense of the data he has collected through the Harkive project. He spoke about how he had to learn R, a programming language for handling data (see here for more  details) and was able to develop his skills through utilising podcasts, meetings with “tech-guys” and attending conferences, in order to understand how to utilise and harness the data he would be gathering. It took him 9 months to learn R from scratch, through a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration with members of the R online community, something he believes he would never have achieved through reading a manual.

His research has produced to a range of non-text and multimedia outputs, which has helped him in explaining his research to others, attract collaborators and disseminate his research. All of the outputs he has created he considers part of the work he has done for his PhD and include a Data Explorer, the Harkive API, and code repository. The latter allow others to reuse and build upon his existing code, or reuse the data in their own work. He has also created a series of blogs, how-to-videos and a Harkive Podcast, to aid the dissemination of his research. For Craig dissemination and finding ways to bring his research to a wider audience is important and he cites the fact that he receives public funding makes it his responsibility to ensure that his research is widely disseminated and accessible. On the question of archiving his research or data with the Library, Craig said that it wasn’t something he had considered or been asked. He uses GitHub to manage his code and said that the his funders (AHRC) did not appear to be directly concerned with the infrastructure surrounding his data, but were very pleased that he appeared on Radio 4.

Tara Copplestone Archeogamer

The last speaker of the evening was Tara Copplestone (@gamingarchaeo) a PhD Student at the universities of York and Aarhus. Her research looks at how the creation and communication of video games might provide new methods of building arguments about archaeology. She focuses on making arguments through the narrative of games and game-play  rather than through reading. She had written a postgraduate thesis about

Her research into “Archaeogaming” interrogates how creating and communicating through the video-game media form might provide novel methods of assembling arguments about archaeology. Part of her thesis involves creating games and examining the ways in which video-games depict past. This involves going out to archaeological sites and creating video-games with the archaeologists on-site, working with games publishers to find out why they depict the past in the way they do and considers other ways in which they could present history in games. She also gets archaeologists to make their own games and observes how the medium of games influences their choices and narratives in the depiction of archaeology.

Although Tara’s focus is on archaeology through games, it  could be argued that her work is highly relevant to LIS. At #citylis we have often discussed the challenges that LIS practitioners face when recording and documenting immersive experiences and documents, as well as considering the nature of the document in the age of virtual reality and the evolving internet. The forthcoming Documenting Performance symposium will examine the document in relation to theater and performing arts and considers how we can document and preserve the essence of live performance and it seems to me that Tara’s practice and work could could be another perspective that informs documentation in this sense.

Her approach has been to focus on the process and the branching narratives of the video game are examined placing her  research “at the intersection of code, art and narrative and has a particular focus on challenging how academic and creative practices can interpolate with each other through the video-game medium.3

For Tara using games is an effective way of exploring how archaeology is carried out and how archaeology is explored and thought of. Although she has produced 8 different case studies, its not the outcomes that are important to her compared to the process. She made reference concept of procedural rhetoric‘ coined by Ian Bogost,as well as to Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ to affirm that the process and experience of gaming is an argument (rhetorically)in itself.

A significant problem she faced was how to record all aspects of the process, which couldn’t necessarily leading her to create various additional outputs that could be included in her thesis such as the Archaeogaming idea generator as well a various Dummies  In addition to this she created her own application system in order to record all the many elements of the process, beyond what screen capture or code itself could achieve, leading to to questions of how to store the 32 terabytes of data that she has generated from working on this every day for two years. The most common suggestion she gets from well meaning advisers is to transcribe it and  “Put it in the appendix” effectively putting her in a position of having to produce two PhDs!

Another difficulty she has faced is issues of Copyright and plagiarism. She had to stop publishing her games to online open platforms because of the risk of self-infringement. A third issue she has had to deal with relates to issues of co-creation, co-authorship and deviating away from the linear structure of traditional documents and models of knowledge transmission, towards more branching narratives, where the reader is also author.


Following on from the presentations was ain which the panel took  questions from the audience. One of the more interesting questions from an LIS perspective was about what support could Librarians provide. This was met with somewhat muted response from the panel, who stated that they had little to no help from their Librarians.Hamilton stated he hadn’t considered asking the Library about storing his data, although he said he could consider giving his code to the Library, he wasn’t fully sure if this would be of value. For Lesser, she felt that their needed to be greater advocacy from Librarians about how they could support candidates pursuing no-traditional PhDs, especially at the start of the process. Copplestone on the other-hand said that she was working with the Library to develop best practices, whilst she learnt about Copyright the Library learnt about games, in many cases she said that people only understood her research once they had participated in it.

All on the panel agreed that Multimedia PhDs enabled research to be more widely disseminated to the public and felt that they had an important responsibility to disseminate and communicate this knowledge to the public as widely as possible. Asked about the sector is adapting to better support non-text and multimedia PhDs they said that its a slow process of incremental change, but changes are taking place, although its still down to researcher to initiate the dialogue.


This was a great  evening with some great speakers, whose passion for their work is unmistakable despite the challenges they face.  The evening brought into focus the question of what is a PhD, to paraphrase fellow guest Karolina Andersdotter (@Karolingva) is it merely a 80,000 word PDF?, oral defense (viva) or are we measuring something more?How important is the presentation of knowledge and learning to understanding? And does the formal language of PhDs and academic writing impede the wider understanding of academic research. In many ways this also ties into the question of whether knowledge and academic research should be consider public good? And if it is how do we go about making it accessible to the wider public.

For the LIS community we can consider questions of how we can assist in the documenting and recording of non-text outputs and processes. We have been considering what a document is and how we can record immersive experiences, we should look for input from researchers such as Craig, Imogen and Tara and see what their perspective is.

We also need to consider how we can provide better solutions for the storage and accessibility of research data and even non-text outputs  whether they are games, video audio or other forms that are not yet obvious for PhDs and communicating such solutions to the wider community. Clearly, as well, we should be proactive in our approaches, it’s not enough for us to sit an wait for researchers to come to us, we need to be collaborating with them to develop these soloutions.


  1. i-DAT.org Digital Conversations @ British Library: Ethos & Multimedia Phd Theses
  2. British Library Digital Scholarship Case Studies Craig Hamilton: multimedia PhD research
  3.  Description: British Library Digital Conversations: EThOS & Multimedia PhD Theses (1/2: Talks)

Further Reading

Videos from the evening are available via YouTube:


About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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