BL Labs Symposium

***Megan Cross, Monica Boria and Mary Blomley***

Attending the Labs Symposium at the British Library for the first time was an inspiring, eye-opening experience. We were all impressed by the amazing work carried out by the BL teams, the dedication of the staff to enhance their collections in our digital era, the creativity unleashed by the Library’s projects in collaboration with artists, schools, and communities.

The impact on the development of new research methodologies and new knowledge afforded to scholarship, as well as the opportunities offered to high-tech companies for new scientific exploration is also a remarkable on-going effect of the Labs. Among this incredible richness, and enriching material, we have selected a few examples that resonated with our individual interests, personal and professional.

Digital Scholarship (Monica Boria)

Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, presented the Institution’s mission for the future: to make the Library’s intellectual heritage available to everyone for enjoyment, inspiration, education. The BL has, for example, over 1m images freely available on Flicker, but to further the digitisation agenda expertise, funding and time are necessary. Collaboration is another key component, something that the academic community, chronically on a lean budget, has long realised.

No surprise then if this year’s Research Award went to the amazing Frederick Delius Project made possible thanks to the experience, knowledge and resources of institutions like Oxford University, the Royal Library of Denmark, AHRC and the BL’s collection of materials relevant to Delius. One of the major outcomes is a freely-available on-line catalogue of the works of the composer. The runner-up of the Award was Prof. Catherine Montgomery (Bath University), whose work is perhaps more representative of the kind of research that most academics, pressed for time as well as money, more typically engage with.

By searching the UK doctoral theses database at the BL (EThOS) the project aimed to investigate the impact of internationalisation both as a topic of research and as an epistemological tool by focusing on students from ‘Southern’ cultures. The (unsurprising) outcome is that PhDs, in these cases, tend to generate … research conformism. The post-colonial world is still very much a colonial one, I’m afraid!

Jonah Coman (Mary Blomley)

A presenter whose work is anti-conformist, Jonah Coman, phD student of Medieval Studies at the University of St Andrews, drew images from repositories like the BL Labs to create a series of zines called Pocket Miscellany. The zines began exploring topics of under-represented bodies (Transgender, People of Colour, Disability) in late Medieval visual culture. Additional zines were created covering topics such as Sex. The revised editions include a reading list on the topics covered.

The size of the zines is not accidental, miniature publications date back to the Medieval ages as the size was suitable for travelling monks and nuns. In the 14th Century, Middle English translations of the Bible were banned, and the small sizes could be concealed. This ban occurred after John Wycliffe (1330–1384) an early reformer, expressed the radical idea of the Bible being available to the poor in order to improve literacy. He was posthumously burned alongside his translation and many of his followers were punished including Jan Hus, a Czech priest who completed a full Czech translation of the Latin Bible.

The small size of the zines well represents the scale of ‘marginalised bodies’ in Medieval visual arts. Barely seen, still existing. Perhaps the ‘taboo’ topics also influenced the scale. As an owner of Coman’s zines, he rightfully won the British Library Labs Teaching and Learning Award.

Elastic Systems

Richard Wright, a previous artist in residence at the British Library created an online resource that employed the use of visual data and online systems to create an interactive artistic rendition of the collections at the British Library. These collections are not immediately available to the public, in the sense that they are stored in the basement at St Pancras and it becomes something that must be actively sought out. Wright attempted to bring the existence of the collections into a more public view through this site that has a visual representation of all the books available in the collections.

When viewed as a single entity rather than separate items a picture of the librarian Thomas Watts is visible, and once a book has been taken out through the online request system it is removed from the piece to reveal an underlying collage of faces. These faces are the human element that is still present in an increasingly digital age, and these are the people that work behind the scenes with these collections. In total there are around 4,300 photographic representations of the books at St Pancras.

Listening to Wright talk, he had an obvious passion for what he was talking about, and his interest in the topic shone through to really engage the audience, along with the way in which he had made something so simple and interactive yet complex.

Richard Wright’s Elastic Systems talk and Donald Cousins’ Accessible Photogrammetry talk. were deeply engaging to me personally, and I’m sure I would have found the third one just as interesting. However, the bright yellow background meant I had to avoid looking up for extended periods of time, and I didn’t fully grasp what was being said without the use of the visual aids that were provided.

Accessible Photogrammetry

Donald Cousins spoke on accessible photogrammetry; something that on the surface sounds like just another way to try and bring history to an unwilling general public by creating a hip, fresh gimmick. However, after listening to the Lightening talk, his project is one that attempts to bring Historical artefacts to the masses through a battle for accessibility and ultimately improves the potential relationship between artefacts and the public. His aim was to create 3D models in primarily virtual space with the potential for various uses; from providing 3D images that can be embedded into web pages, to providing more accessible educational services. He uses the science of taking measurements from numerous photographs at different angles in order to create a detailed model in 3D Space.

Cousins’ talk resonated with me personally and I was not sure as to why until I spoke with my mother about it a few days later. I was pushing her round the science museum in a wheelchair, and her comment in response to the idea of printing out the 3D models made my fascination with the subject click into place. My mother has a variety of medical conditions, many of which affect her fine motor skills, and we agreed that it would make these Historical Artefacts far more accessible if they could be handled.

Visually impaired people would be able to get a tactile feel for what the artefacts look like, while people like my mother would be able to get close to the artefacts without the rented wheelchair getting in the way, and without the danger of breaking an item of historical importance. Her excitement at the possibility of handling a replica of an enigma machine (what we were looking at while we were talking) was something that I’m sure would be the case for many people for whom historical works were not so easily accessible before Cousins’ project.

Sources:

– BL Timeline. Illegal English Bible. Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item107718.html (Accessed: 24 November 2018)

– http://www.elasticsystem.net/WWWMuse/About.html

– https://blogs.bl.uk/living-knowledge/2016/11/the-elastic-system-what-can-you-do-with-a-library.html

– https://blogs.bl.uk/living-knowledge/

– https://www.cyreal.com/3d-360

– https://www.cyreal.com/about-us

– History Extra (2016) Murderous History of Bible Translations. Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-murderous-history-of-bible-translations/ (Accessed: 24 November 2018)

-Patreon (2018) Jonah Coman Patreon Page. Available at: https://www.patreon.com/MxComan (Accessed 25 November 2018)

Lightening Talks (Megan Cross)

 

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science. He teaches at several universities including City, Rose Bruford College, and UEL. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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