Boom! City LIS students feel the impact of a visit to the British Library Symposium

***Adel Szeheres, Marta Szczutek, Sarah and Wai-ting Cheung***

Digital collections are at the forefront of change in the digital world – able to respond quickly to new trends they are having an impact on communities, culture and the culture sector.

Eager beavers with laptops and sharpened pencils in tow, City LIS students signed in at the Symposium, undaunted by the damp conditions and the fact that some of us spent silly time in the wrong queue.

Once inside, the chance to chat and spend time circulating amongst our own cohort over coffee was a really pleasurable experience that set the tone for the event.

What a day! In reflecting upon some key themes to write this blog-post, so many very interesting aspects vy for attention.

The two themes of collaboration and impact really stood out, with working together being the overarching theme for the day.

Institutions even as mammoth as the British Library need to ensure their survival and validate their contribution to the wider world. The creative and innovative projects presented to us throughout the day shone the light on the importance of collaboration and sharing. Collaborative working within the BL’s own teams, and in other projects where BL is collaborating with outside individuals and organisations showed how the collections are being exploited in ways which regenerate content, enliven discussion, and reach new audiences. Sharing of work meant sharing achievements to the general public, but also meant sharing work to other organisations working in the same field. In referring to “achievements” we noted that several times, the speakers were including as “achievements” the methods, process and findings from experimentation. Curiously, this included methods and findings which ultimately failed – echoes of Einstein here, in that experiencing many failures is crucial in speeding progress to successful outcomes.

The second theme of impact is linked to the first and is the one which we will focus on in this post. We were enthralled by projects which impacted on research and higher education, and on the culture sector, and those that expanded business and commercial possibilities. Our blog group was also captivated by projects which had an impact on the public with an education and community focus, and particularly those that involved the public in the creative process, bringing us back to the notion of collaboration and sharing.

To illustrate this point on collaboration by reference to the principles of the “Open Source way” ,

“Together, a global community can create beyond the capabilities of any one individual. It multiplies effort and shares the work. Together, we can do more.”

So many speakers also spoke of the conflict between lack of funds, and the urgency for rolling out more training of digital-science literate staff.

It is understandable in the current unsure economic and global-political environment that finances for the funding of such work may not be a priority in some eyes, however the solution lies in collaboration with partner groups, to devise ingenious ways of accessing targeted funds for individual projects, and the possibilities arising from having a commercial arm.

Survive or thrive: any good survivalist will tell you that survival means existing on bare bones – using digital science will enable healthy new routes to thriving activity.

On leaving the Symposium, I was suddenly reminded of how I am constantly trying to find a less reactionary response to the oft heard comment: “oh, you’re studying library science, aren’t all the libraries closing?” Well, going to the Symposium has clearly shown that recruiting digital science professionals is a hugely necessary growth area for the immediate future, which should surely raise all of our confidence levels and allow LIS professionals and students their drop-the-mic moment round the dinner party table.

The Delius Catalogue, one of the BL dataset project winners, was created as a collaboration between UK’s Oxford University, the British Library and Denmark’s Royal Library, digitalising Frederick Delius’s music manuscripts and creating an online catalogue of his works for open resource purposes.

The catalogue is a thematic catalogue, meaning that they are listed by their opening musical notations, and the Delius Catalogue is the first of its kind to be made fully digital. The British Library has other composers’ works in their collection, such as Mozart’s Musical Diary, which is a digitisation of Mozart’s listed works from his last seven years. Although it uses the thematic cataloging system, the digital catalogue offers many more specific search options, making it easier to filter through the works by searching keywords such as ‘violin’, which of course, brings up compositions that have a violin. This is an extremely useful search tool for musicologists who may wish to study the instrument development or scoring (instrumentation). Delius’ pieces are also categorised by musical genre, for example, concerto, opera.

Although some composer’s works have previously been catalogued under other recognised systems, such as Koechel numbers for Mozart, their catalogues could be digitised following the example of the Delius Catalogue, while still keeping Koechel’s cataloguing as an option when searching.

The impact of this work opens the door for future project work in transforming the cataloguing of other art and humanities areas. Though it may currently work with each individual’s works, the power of collaborating could further improve the way digital collections can be cataloged and shared as open access.


The Nomad Project was also created using BL collections and it is yet another example of innovative and collaborative work. The project had its premiere during the Somali Festival Week in October 2018 which took place at the British Library. The authors of the project created a virtual reality environment for participants which enabled them to “visit” a traditional Somali nomadic home, explore it and interact with it.

Nomad is not a simple display of decontextualized objects but a full, immersive, culturally rich experience. The project was realized by using photogrammetry techniques to create digital 3D models of Somali household objects, such as headrest or incense burner. Augmented reality was created by combining those digital artifacts with audio recordings and some photographs; which could be explored by participants via VR headset.

Participant in the Nomad project experiencing cultural object via VR headset

The project demonstrates how latest technologies can be used in a creative way to engage the public with library/museum collections. Those interested in a specific culture can now have a fully immersive experience without the necessity to travel to distant places. The project enabled Somali people born in London to connect with their culture and their ancestors’ traditions.

During workshops participants not only explored the virtual reality but also learned about techniques and were demonstrated how to use their phones to produce basic 3D models of their belongings. Photogrammetry technique enables creation of 3D models of objects by taking multiple photographs (from different angles). This technology is cheap and accessible to everybody as most people now own a smartphone with a build-in camera. All that is required for basic photogrammetry is a camera phone and special software. The Nomad project encourages people from the community to get involved and to create their own digital collections of their valuable possessions.

Digitizing collections not only helps preserving them but also makes them more accessible and relevant to everybody.

Photogrammetry rig by Cy-real

Potential project/impact: augmented reality could become part of the learning experience in schools in the near future; e.g. schools provided with VR headsets, history lessons could be enriched, students could explore everyday life of people of ancient Egypt or Rome… it’s all about making it more relevant, meaningful and interesting.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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