Thoughts on the BL Digital Labs Symposium

Thoughts on the BL Digital Labs Symposium – joint blog post written with three other students from City, University of London’s MSc Library and Information Science course

The British Library Labs (BL Labs) Symposium showcases innovative projects that use the British Library’s digital content and data, and provides a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field. (Programme for the Sixth British Library Labs Symposium, 2018)

Stephanie McMullan:
All too often we think of data as lifeless and uncreative. Reams of numbers, words and images being collected and flashing in front of us quickly and momentarily, being used to generate statistics and graphs to reflect on what has happened in the past.
However, as I left the BL Digital Labs Symposium three weeks ago I was struck by the creative purposes data was being used for; data is bringing new things to life. I found this most striking in the “Imaginary Cities” project by Michael Takeo Magruder. Magruder is using the British Library’s collection of historic urban maps on Flickr to create artistic, fictional cityscapes for modern audiences. The images will constantly change over time and using 3D technology, these cities will become accessible to the public through VR headsets for audiences to explore.
As we discussed in CityLIS week 6, information is needed for creativity and innovation. By making available digitised images from the British Library’s collections the BL has shown how the information libraries provide can be disseminated in new ways and be used to inspire new generations of artists, researchers and scholars. The BL Labs Symposium showed us this again and again.

Sarah Feehan:
The symposium showcased the seemingly limitless uses for digitised content from the British Library Labs. The four awards – comprising the categories Research, Artistic, Commercial and Teaching & Learning – gave the audience a fascinating insight into what I’m sure is just the tip of the iceberg.
The winner of the Teaching & Learning award was Jonah Coman with their Pocket Miscellanies: a collection of miniature zines which each provide a short lesson on a different aspect of Medieval visual culture, primarily featuring marginalised bodies that are so often missing from the historical mainstream media. The zines use images from the British Library Labs Medieval digital collection, which Jonah has permission to reproduce and make publicly available online as part of a free resource. However, the copyright of the images does not allow for them to be sold – so Jonah, an artist, has instead set up a Patreon so that this work can be supported, but without infringing on copyright law which prohibits the sale of the zines.
This is an area we touched upon in our morning session with Dr. Jane Secker in week 8, and which we will no doubt be revisiting soon as it is imperative information scientists and librarians understand it fully.

Susanne Trokhymenko:
I believe the purpose of knowledge is to create meaning in our lives, and true meaning can only be achieved if something is passed on to others to enrich and benefit their lives. A product, in this case the digital content and data of the British Library, is truly meaningful when it keeps on giving.
At the British Library Symposium, not only was I amazed at the winners of the awards but at the whole range of finalists. The use of the digital content available has been such a source of inspiration for many. From research awards demonstrating the development of new knowledge to artistic awards, and from commercial to teaching and learning awards exhibiting the creation of quality learning experiences, it was truly remarkable to see the innovation and use of the BL content for sharing the knowledge and cascading it further afield.
From collections being used for a fashion show – designer Nabil Nayal researched his PhD in Elizabethan Dress – to Jonah Coman’s zines (see above), the awards celebrate and recognise creativity, and encourage international collaboration (Pocahontas and after) with effective and exciting research and activities which enhance the Library’s digital content. All in all: Go BL! Can’t wait for next year…

Tim Darach:
During Daniel Pett’s talk at the BL symposium I was struck by how unreal the 3D objects looked up on the screen, floating phantasmal as if waiting to be picked up in a computer game.
I was expecting something more realistic, after all they were made from photographs! But at that point I didn’t understand what these 3D objects were or how they are made.

During the break I put on a VR headset and tried to walk around a lion – nearly knocking over an expensive looking camera in the process.

What I’d experienced was actually a model – based on measurements derived from photographs (photogrammetry) – with colours and textures copied from the photos stretched over the top of it, bulging ever so slightly like a stuffed animal in a museum. These 3D models are an interpretation – like archeological line drawings – except they are generated algorithmically rather than with a human eye. (The person producing the drawing has to decide where the boundaries are – where one feature ends and another begins – whereas for the 3D model this is done mathematically.)

Detail of Roman bust in 3D modelling software
Wireframe detail from a PhotoScanPro 3D model of Roman bust in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The idea of copies allowing an enhanced experience is not new, see for example the plaster casts that populate the Victoria and Albert museum’s sculpture gallery and other 19th century institutions:

“In the mid nineteenth century new casting techniques allowed for the production of huge architectural fragments. Well-selected collections could ideally display perfect series in galleries in which the visitor could wander among monuments and experience architecture history on full scale (Lending, 2015).”

Although in this case the physical properties of the materials used to make the cast and the model mostly defined the outcome.

Viewing these 3D models on a screen or through a headset enhances the isolation of the artefact – that they can be objectified, can be seen on their own out of narrative context. We have been trained to accept the surreal juxtapositions of objects in museums and other cultural institutions, so in a way 3D modelling is another facet of that process.
The interposition of explanatory text and curatorial order is supposed to mitigate this surreality – or even disguise or rationalise how the artefacts came to be on display in a grand building. (Further complicated by our tendency to think we are looking at something authentic, whereas the provenance of many artefacts is in tension with this notion: such as restorations; reconstructions; fakes; copies made by the original craftsmen for collectors; authorised copies; versions made specifically for museums but left incomplete for cultural reasons…)

I wanted to learn more about the modelling process so I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum Photogrammetry workshop last week and there Daniel Pett taught us how to use modelling software to make 3D models from artefacts we photographed in the museum:

3D Model of theatre head
Click on the image above to view a 3D model of a stone head from the Fitzwilliam Museum.

If you swivel the model around you will see there is a hole in the top – you can look inside at the back of its face – I like this flaw; it is a reminder that you aren’t looking at reality.


Programme for the Sixth British Library Labs Symposium. (2018). [ebook] p.1. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2018].

Lending, M., 2015. Promenade Among Words and Things: The Gallery as Catalogue, the Catalogue as Gallery. Architectural Histories 3, np-np.



A Quick Look At Some Data Terms

If, like me, you’re fairly new to thinking about data technologies you’re likely to be feeling overwhelmed at all of the unfamiliar terms.  Here I’ve taken ten (a tiny number compared to what’s out there, I know!) and defined them, with an example.

  • data – facts or figures to be processed; evidence, records, statistics, etc. which can be organised or interpreted to become information; e.g. train times (data) can be organised into a train timetable (information).
  • big data – datasets of a size requiring handling by parallel computing tools; e.g. petabytes (1,024 terabytes) of data consisting of billions of records of millions of people.
  • metadata – data that describes other data.  There are three main types: descriptive e.g. title, keywords; structural e.g. chapters, table of contents; administrative e.g. file type.
  • structured/unstructured data – structured data are comprised of clearly defined data types whose pattern makes them easily searchable; e.g. phone numbers; unstructured data are everything that cannot be considered structured; e.g. social media posts.
  • data lake – a storage repository that holds a vast amount of data in its native format until it is needed; e.g. cloud storage services such as Azure Data Lake.
  • data warehouse – a large store of data accumulated from a wide range of sources within a company and used for business intelligence; e.g. a comprehensive database combining all the company’s information about employees, including time cards, demographic data, salary etc.
  • data mining – the process of discovering new patterns in large datasets; e.g. Amazon can use the results of data mining to upsell via ‘People who viewed that product, also liked this’ suggestions.
  • dark data – data gathered and processed by enterprises but not used for any meaningful purposes and may never be analysed; e.g. a dataset of social network feeds held by a company.
  • open data – data available for everyone to access, use and share; e.g. data published by central government, local authorities and public bodies.
  • data architecture – a set of rules, policies, standards and models that govern and define the type of data collected and how it is used, stored, managed and integrated within an organisation and its database systems; e.g. a diagram or document showing the flow of data.

I’ll likely be updating this as I go along, adding more terms as I come across them.