This is a proposal to extend the BL catalogue into readers own homes. It can be summarised as follows:
BL readers are invited to take photos of their own bookshelves and upload them to a BL server.
Any recognisable books or other items are tagged with their title/author or ISBN. The software uses this tagging info to generate hyperlinks to matching BL catalogue entries.
The photos are joined together to make a large, tiled, navigable image of people's bookshelves.
This collective "bookshelf" image is viewable on a web site. By clicking on the tagged books, people are taken through to BL's catalogue where they can request them and generally gain more information.
This effectively turns readers own libraries into resources that other readers can browse and request items through. Or, looking at it from the other direction, it uses readers own collections to create a new interface to BL's own catalogue.
The project creates a way to browse collection items visually that hasn't been possible before. In common with all national libraries, the vast majority of the BL collection is in storage and not directly accessible to the public. “British Libraries” provides a way that the BL collection can be browsed by proxy, a way that reveals and is enriched by each readers personal collecting interests and in a way that is visually compelling. Who doesn't like looking at other people's book shelves?
There are several ways of thinking about this work.
It is like a virtual library operating in parallel with BL but partially run by the readers themselves.
It can turn the library catalgoue into a form of social media. It is a network through which readers can share the wider ways that they organise their collections into little “subject classes”, contextualise and personalise them with all sorts of bric-a-brac, even the design of their bookcase furniture.
It provides a way to “discover” items in the BL collection that you would not normally come across in any usual way. It takes advantage of the diversity of readers own libraries to reveal the diversity of the BL library.
There is much scope here for readers to experiment with this platform. For example, if someone uploaded a picture of a road sign, movie poster or supermarket shelves and used any visible text to retrieve items from the catalogue?
It will be fun and popular.

Here is a link to a (reduced resolution) mock up showing a composite image of peoples bookshelves (which I assembled from Facebook).
How can we invent new forms of cataloguing and searching for collections such as the British Library whose items are mainly in storage and not directly accessible? Is there a way we take advantage of visually based forms of browsing despite the fact that most items in the library cannot be seen?
How can we enhance the experience of discovering items by taking advantage of networked media, to create new forms of collective and participatory browsing?
There is already a community of readers, visitors and other users around the British Library. How can we leverage and connect their interests to enrich people's discovery of the collection?

This project will allow users to click on a book they see in someone else's library and borrow it through the British Library's own requesting system. As stated above, this project provides a way to “discover” items in the BL collection through a form of digital media. And, of course, it can expose more of the catalogue than only the digital content, in principle anything which has an Explore entry.
How to judge a book by its cover? Browsing for items by appearance and guided by their visual arrangement on a bookshelf is something that is currently not possible with the BL collection. But his way of browsing creates a means whereby readers can stumble across catalogue items they would not normally encounter and discover items outside their pre-existing interests. It takes advantage of the diversity of readers own libraries to reveal the diversity of the BL library.
The project may be seen as turning users own libaries into an extension of the British Library (and vice versa) and thereby increases the users own stake in the library's collections and their relationship with them, adding value to both. This collection of readers bookshelves will create a unique legacy, being a digital record of BL readers own library collections, sharing the expressive potential of each persons libraries and a statement of their bibliographic identities.
This basic platform has the potential to expland beyond the scope of the British Libary and make connections to other national library collections, forming a global network. Other ideas for future development include it becoming a channel whereby readers can network with each other through the medium of their own bookshelves, as facilitated by the British Library. It can be left up to the participants to chose how much they reveal about themselves and their bookshelves when they upload their photos (they may already be geo-tagged for instance). And there is much potential for ways to use this additional information to strengthen links in this social network of cataloguing.
This is the sort of social media project that one could imagine being set up as an enterprise by online publishers like Amazon to promote their business. But I think it would be more valuable to have it based at a public institution such as BL, benefitting a public resource and where the users would feel that they are part of something that has longer term goals and commitments.
Technical Methods
For this scheme I will concentrate on building a workable prototype and testing it.
Using a web site is still most flexible method to upload images, especially in terms of adding metadata, filling in release forms, etc. We can look into an app based approach as a future development.
Tagging items in the photos. Some OCR may be worth experimenting with to extract text and automate tagging but we will probably concentrate on ways to encourage users to tag their own photos at the point of upload, and/or crowd-source the tagging. (It is also worth mentioning that even if users upload photos where the items cannot be identified, this will still help to add to the visual richness of the overall image and help to break up areas that might become monotonous such as any uniform rows of book spines).
It might be best to eventually give each registered user an “account” area. This where people would be able to upload, tag their photos, add optional information, submit them and also come back later to edit them. In addition, any registered user should be able to help by tagging any photo as well. However, at this early stage of development it might be easier to implement a “open” access where anyone can tag anything. We'll see.
Cross-referencing the tags with matching BL catalogue entries. The user must enter enough information to identify the items if they exist in the catalogue – e.g. title and author or preferably ISBNs. Catalogue searches this will at this stage mean the ALEPH databases. (We can think about extending it to SAMI as a future possibility). Non-roman alphabets and languages will need to be accommodated, although possibly not for this prototype. Cross-referencing tags would also be the time to check for typos and other error checking. If an item is not in the BL catalogue we can use a default, but I expect the number of items not in BL collection to be relatively small.
We will need a suitable graphics engine to display the large composite image online. This will also be a clickable image with areas that link through to the BL catalogue entries. There has been some work done over the last ten years in displaying extremely high resolution images over networks, such as Microsoft's Seadragon. There is an opensource OpenSeadragon (implemented in Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) and used in SimpleDL. This task might be accomplished using a combination of loading image tiles on the fly and progressive refinement tehniques.
We would follow the strategy of testing early and often and use an iterative approach to development. This early version could be tested on a defined group such as selection of BL staff. They will be monitored for user experience, ease of use, user retention, etc.
Engagement and Dissemination
As such, the audience for the work will be quite general, although may appeal particularly to bibliophiles. (Most people just seem to enjoy showing off their bookcases).
Researching and designing the user experience at the point of engagement will be critical. The instructions for how to participate in the network should be very simple indeed. It is better to allow users to correct things later when they see how things work than bury them under information at the start. For examples, guidelines as to how to photograph your collection could be - spines readable, enough light, use a tripod if you have one. Then how to tag your items, etc.
There are several options for how users can engage with the graphics and navigation of the big bookshelf. They could enter the image at some random point or at the point where they last left it. And there is quite a nice interface that Google Photos uses for moving around an image, for instance.
Emphasis should also be placed on how to present the project such that users will be most actively engaged, feel they have a stake and their sustained commitment encouraged. One exmple is to make people feel that this is a way their personal collections can become part of the British Library and leave a public legacy. There are also some specific publicity channels we can explore, such as BL's Readers Bulletin.
We should explore strategies for a future full public roll out, such as enlisting the participation of celebrities associated with this cultural sphere and securing their endorsement. (Personalities like Stephen Fry and Richard Ayoade are well known for their interests in new media). Celebrities may tag their own images so they can be identified easily or they could just leave a clue on their bookshelf as to their identity and invite users to guess.
I have worked with many forms of computational and audio visual media as an artist since the 1980s. I have written software for animation, multimedia, networked media and built Linux based servers. I have also made animated films, live action and general media art based on websites, screensavers, smartphone apps, telephone networks, computer controlled kinetic installations as well as print based media (like posters). As well as being a practicing artist I have also taught and conducted research in these areas. Below are a few of my more networked based and participatory projects that seem most relevant. (For this application I've concentrated on technical competencies).
“Bank of Time”, 2001.
This is an early online screensaver that visualised users idle time by growing timelapse plants on their desktops. The entire project was designed and coded by myself, using mulitmedia scripting (Director and Lingo) and Perl on the server side. Artistically, this can be thought as a modern day digital vanitas work. The project was nominated for a BAFTA in 2001.
“The Mimeticon”, 2007.
This is an online artwork and image based search engine about the visual history of the alphabet. I designed and coded everything using a Flash and Actionscript based front end and Perl scripted interface to an open source image recognition engine. (Unfortunately most of the image links have disappeared since it was made).
“Tantalum Memorial” and “Telephone Trottoire”, 2008.
This was a large scale project made as part of the then artists group Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji. “Telephone Trottoire” was built in collaboration with the Congolese radio programme Nostalgie Ya Mboka. It consisted of a telephone network which I designed to record and pass around messages by Congolese participants. Briefly, this telephone network was then used to trigger a gallery based installation built out of old Strowger electro-magnetic telephone switches. These together created an artwork called “Tantalum Memorial” that suggested connections between the Coltan wars in the Congo, the history of telecommunications and global migration. The work was commissioned by the Zero1 festival in San Jose, the Manifesta 7 biennale in Italy and won the Transmediale 09 award in Berlin. I was centrally involved in the whole process from conception to exhibition, and technically for building the web site that exhibited the telephone messages and supervising the production of the computer controlled installation.
Between 2004 and 2009 I was also involved in several related participatory projects in which people contributed content that was presented on web based platforms (such as “Phone Wars” commissioned by the Science Museum).
Each of these projects also involved designing and distributing publicity to attract users or recruit participants.
In terms of research, I gained a practice based PhD in 1998 in the aesthetics of digital moving image and animation. Since then I have been Principle Investigator in two other AHRC funded research projects. I am currently the creative practitioner for the AHRC funded IoCT project where I am researching the use of data visualisation to make public art at the British Library.
However, I would certainly not expect to cover every single technical or even artistic and design skill myself and would look forward to working with the BL Labs team and anyone else required.
There are many projects now that assemble images from people's uploaded “user generated content”. http://thepeoplespicture.com/ is a good example of using a web site for a very “establishment” level of project.
Tagging is a commonly accepted mode of adding different kinds of metadata. Crowd-sourcing is now a well known way of collective participation and of accessing labour. BL Labs already uses this for its LibCrowds web site. As for the catalogue hyperlinks, it should be sufficient to build URL's to the relevant Explore catalogue entries. Other options might be possible.
Graphics technologies to compile, display and navigate composite images over a network now exist. OpenSeadragon is the open source example that I referred to above but there may well be others more suitable. It might be worth looking at using readers online account areas as possible spaces in which to display this project. Otherwise a dedicated project web site hosted by the BL servers should be feasible.
There may be some profitable cross-overs with my work as artist-in-residence at BL. I am currently looking at building platforms with similar elements of functionality (the “Book Aquarium”), that include uploading photos, searching the ALEPH catalogue or ABRS and displaying quantities of graphical assets. (David Waldock is the main person I have been working with here).
In all these areas I would also seek the advice of BL Labs team who have had experience in using both BL servers and external facilities and developing digital media projects in general.
The project applies generally to most of the BL collection, especially the books, periodicals and possibly audio visual media at a future point.
There are some curatorial issues in options for displaying the work. For instance, there could be an installation version in the BL public space, such as a video projection with a simple kiosk interface. Possibly siting it next to the Kings Library Tower would provoke comparisons with that publicly visible collection that is its inspiration. (I have already had some discussions with Geraldine Kenny and Jamie Andrews about how installations for IoCT might be exhibited).
The main legal requirement would be for participants to agree to the use of their images. These release forms should probably be made into part of the upload process.
The other issue that may come up is copyright compliance for display of photos that include images of copyrighted publications. I will be seeking advice but some possibilities are that “snippets” might be usable in the same way as on the Amazon site and Goodreads. Or else the project might be displayed in readers own online spaces as a “research tool”.
June 2016
Scoping out project with BL Labs team and identifying key technical, artistic and logistical / institutional challenges. (Should this be limited to a BL staff test group?)
Clarify the easiest route for querying ALEPH catalogue and building Explore links.
Web site hosting and server side technologies options.
Options for image synthesis for online graphics display and navigation.
Some initial test data for each stage.
July 2016
Software development and initial interface designs.
Clarify decisions on technical options, such as OCR and/or LibCrowd style manual tagging.
At the same time, image databases can be compiled for testing the image synthesis and graphics navigation side of the project.
August 2016
Continuing software development and design for tagging, generating links and graphics display.
September 2016
Starting to connect main components together. Aim to have some workable route through the system during this month. Uploading through a web site portal, an online tagging interface, display and navigation of the composite image and click through to catalogue entries.
October 2016
Completing design of interfaces, especially at point of engagement.
Final testing , debugging and any issues with user experience and interface. Consulting with test users.
Texts for web site, exlore options for more general publicity (although this might only be used on test groups for this prototype).