Working with the British Library

This morning I’m at the “Working with the British Library’s Digital Content, Data and Services for your research (University of Edinburgh)” event at the Informatics Forum to hear about work that has been taking place at the British Library Labs programme, and with BL data recently. I’ll be liveblogging and, as usual, any comments, questions, 

Introduction and Welcome – Professor Melissa Terras

Welcome to this British Library Labs event, this is about work that fits into wider work taking place and coming here at Edinburgh. British Library Labs works in a space that is changing all the time, and we need to think about how we as researchers can use digital content and this kind of work – and we’ll be hearing from some Edinburgh researchers using British Library data in their work today.

“What is British Library Labs? How have we engaged researchers, artists, entrepreneurs and educators in using our digital collections” – Ben O’Steen, Technical Lead, British Library Labs

We work to engage researchers, artists, entrepreneurs and educators to use our digital collections – we don’t build stuff, we find ways to enable access and use of our data.

The British Library isn’t just our building in St Pancras, we also have a huge document supply and storage facility in Boston Spa. At St Pancras we don’t just have the collections, we have space to work, we have reading rooms, and we have five underground floors hidden away there. We also have a public mission and a “Living Knowledge Vision” which helps us to shape our work

British Library Labs has been running for four years now, funded by the Andrew Mellow Fund, and we are in our third funded phase where we are trying to make this business as usual… So the BL supports the reader who wants to read 3 things, and the reader who wants to read 300,000 things. To do that we have some challenges to face to make things more accessible – not least to help people deal with the sheer scale of the collections. And we want to avoid people having to learn unfamiliar formats and methodologies which are about the library and our processes. We also want to help people explore the feel of collections, their “shape” – what’s missing, what’s there, why and how to understand that. We also want to help people navigate data in new ways.

So, for the last few years we have been trying to help researchers address their own specific problems, but also trying to work out if that is part of a wider problem, to see where there are general issues. But a lot of what we have done has been about getting started… We have a lot of items – about 180 million – but any count e have is always an estimates. Those items include 14m books, 60m patents, 8m stamps, 3m sound recordings… So what do researchers ask for….

Well, researchers often ask for all the content we have. That hides the failure that we should have better tools to understand what is there, and what they want. That is a big ask, but that means a lot of internal change. So, we try to give researchers as much as we have… Sometimes thats TBs of data, sometimes GBs.. And data might be all sorts of stuff – not just the text but the images, the bindings, etc. If we take a digitised item we have an image of the cover, we have pictures, we have text, we also have OCR for these books – when people ask for “all” the book – is that the images, the OCR or both? One of those is much easier to provide…

Facial recognition is quite hot right now… That was one of the original reasons to access all of the illustrations – I run something called the Mechanical Curator to help highlight those images – they asked if they could have the images – so we now have 120m images on Flickr. What we knew about images was the book, and the page. All the categorisation and metadata now there has been from people and machines looking at the data. We worked with Wikimedia UK to find maps, using manual and machine learning techniques – kind of in competition – to identify those maps… And they have now been moved into georeferencing tools ( and fed back to Flickr and also into the catalgue… But that breaks the catalogue… It’s not the best way to do this, so that has triggered conversations within the library about what we do differently, what we do extra.

As part of the crowdsourcing I built an arcade machine – and we ran a game jam with several usable games to categorise or confirm categories. That’s currently in the hallway by the lifts in the building, and was the result of work with researchers.

We put our content out there under CC0 license, and then we have awards to recognise great use of our data. And this was submitted – a video of Hey There Young Sailor official music video using that content! We also have the Off the Map copetition – a curated set of data for undergraduate gaming students based on a theme… Every year there is something exceptional.

I mentioned library catalogue being challenging. And not always understanding that when you ask for everything, that isn’t everything that exists. But there are still holes…. When we look at the metadata for our 19th century books we see huge amounts of data in [square brackets] meaning the data isn’t known but is the best suggestion. And this becomes more obvious when we look at work researcher Pieter Francois did on the collection – showing spikes in publication dates at 5 year intervals… Which reflects the guesses at publication year that tend to be e.g. 1800/1805/1810. So if you take intervals to shape your data, it will be distorted. And then what we have digitised is not representative of that, and it’s a very small part of the collection…

There is bias in digitisation then, and we try to help others understand that. Right now our digitised collections are about 3% of our collections. Of the digitised material 15% is openly licensed. But only about 10% is online. About 85% of our collections cn only be accessed “on site” as licenses were written pre-internet. We have been exploring that, and exploring what that means…

So, back to use of our data… People have a hierachy of needs from big broad questions down to filtered and specific queries… We have to get to the place where we can address those specific questions. We know we have messy OCR, so that needs addressing.

We have people looking for (sometimes terrible) jokes – see Victorian Humour run by Bob Nicholson based on his research – this is stuff that can’t be found with keywords…

We have Kavina Novrakas mapping political activity in the 19th Century. This looks different but uses the same data and the same platform – using Jupyter Notebooks. And we have researchers looking at black abolitionists. We have SherlockNet trying to do image classification… And we find work all over the place building on our data, on our images… We found a card game – Moveable Type – built on our images. And David Normal building montages of images. We’ve had poetic places project.

So, we try to help people explore. We know that our services need to be better… And that our services shape expectations of the data – and can omit and hide aspects of the collections. Exploring data is difficult, especially with collections at this scale – and it often requires specific skills and capabilities.

British Library Labs working with University of Edinburgh and University of St Andrews Researchers

“Text Mining of News Broadcasts” – Dr. Beatrice Alex, Informatics (University of Edinburgh)

Today I’ll be talking about my work with speech data, which is funded by my Turing fellowship. I work in a group who have mainly worked with text, but this project has built on work with speech transcripts – and I am doing work on a project with news footage, and dialogues between humans and robots.

The challenges of working with speech includes particular characteristics: short utterances, interjections; speaker assumptions – different from e.g. newspaper text; turn taking.  Often transcripts miss sentence boundaries, punctuation or missing case distinctions. And there are errors introduced by speech recognition.

So, I’m just going to show you an example of our work which you can view online – Here you can do real time speech recognition, and this can then also be run through the Edinburgh Geoparser to look for locations and identify their locations on the map. There are a few errors and, where locations haven’t been recognised in the speech recognition they also don’t map well. The steps in this pipeline is speech recognition… ASR then Google Text Restoration, and then text and data mining.

So, at the BL I’ve been working with Luke McKernan, lead curator for news and moving images. I have had access to a small set of example news broadcast files for prototype development. This is too small for testing/validation – I’d have to be onsite at BL to work on the full collection. And I’ve been using the CallHome collection (telephone transcripts) and BBC data which is available locally at Informatics.

So looking at an example we can see good text recognition. In my work I have implemented a case restoration step (named entities and sentence initials) using rule based lexicon lookup, and also using Punctuator 2 – an open source tool which adds punctuation. That works much better but isn’t up to an ideal level there. Meanwhile the Geoparser was designed for text so works well but misses things… Improvement work has taken place but there is more to do… And we have named entity recognition in use here too – looking for location, names, etc.

The next steps is to test the effect of ASR quality on text mining – using CallHome and BBC broadcast data) using formal evaluation; improve the text mining on speech transcript data based on further error analysis; and longer term plans include applications in the healthcare sector.


Q1) Could this technology be applied to songs?

A1) It could be – we haven’t worked with songs before but we could look at applying it.

“Text Mining Historical Newspapers” – Dr. Beatrice Alex and Dr. Claire Grover, Senior Research Fellow, Informatics (University of Edinburgh) [Bea Alex will present Claire’s paper on her behalf]

Claire is involved in an Adinistrative Data Research Centre Scotland project looking at local Scottish Newspapers, text mine it, and connect it to other work. Claire managed to get access to the BL newspapers through Cengage and Gale – with help from the University of Edinburgh Library. This isn’t all of the BL newspaper collection, but part of it. This collection of data is also now available for use by other researchers at Edinburgh. Issues we had here ws that access to more reent newspaper is difficult, and the OCR quality. Claire’s work focused on three papers in the first instance, from Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh.

Claire adapted the Edinburgh Geoparser to process the OCR format of the newspapers and added local gazetteer resouces fro Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh from OS OpenData. Each article was then automatically annotated with paragraph, sentence, work mark-up; named entities – people, place, organisation; location; geo coordinates.

So, for example, a scanned item from the Edinburgh Evening News from 1904 – its not a great scan but the OCR is OK but erroneous. Named entities are identified, locations are marked. Because of the scale of the data Claire took just one year from most of the papers and worked with a huge number of articles, announcments, images etc. She also drilled down into the geoparsed newspaper articles.

So for Abereen in 1922 there were over 19 million word/punctuation tokens and over 230,000 location mentions Then used frequency methods and concordances to understand the data. For instance she looked for mentions of Aberdeen placenames by frequency – and that shows the regions/districts of abersteen – Torry, Woodside, and also Union Street… Then Claire dug down again… Looking at Torry the mentions included Office, Rooms, Suit, etc, which gives a sense of the area – a place people rented accommoation in. In just the news articles (not ads etc) then for Torry it’s about Council, Parish, Councillor, politics, etc.

Looking at Concordances Claire looked at “fish”, for instance” to see what else was mentioned and, in summary, she noted that the industry was depressed after WW1; there was unemployment in Aberdeen and the fishing towns of Aberdeenshire; that there was competition rom German trawlers landing Icelandic fish; that there were hopes to work with Germany and Russia on the industry; and that government was involved in supporting the industry and taking action to improve it.

With the Dundee data we can see the Topic Modelling that Claire did for the articles – for instance clustering of cars, police, accidents etc; there is a farming and agriculture topic; sports (golf etc)… And you can look at the headlines from those topics and see how that reflect the identified topics.

So, next steps for this work will include: improving text analysis and geoparsing components; get access to more recent newspapers – but there is issing infrastructure for larger data sets but we are working on this; scale up the system to process whole data set and store text ining output; tools to summarise content; and tools for search – filtering by place, data, linguistic context – tools beyond the command line.

“Visualizing Cultural Collections as a Speculative Process” – Dr. Uta Hinrichs, Lecturer at the School of Computer Science (University of St Andrews)

“Public Private Digitisation Partnerships at the British Library” – Hugh Brown, British Library Digitisation Project Manager

“The Future of BL Labs and Digital Research at the Library” – Ben O’Steen

Conclusion and wrap up



This entry was posted in Events Attended, LiveBlogs by Nicola Osborne. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicola Osborne

I am Digital Education Manager and Service Manager at EDINA, a role I share with my colleague Lorna Campbell. I was previously Social Media Officer for EDINA working across all projects and services. I am interested in the opportunities within teaching and learning for film, video, sound and all forms of multimedia, as well as social media, crowdsourcing and related new technologies.

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