Stewart Brookes
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London

Abstract

Like many, I begin my day with a quick browse of the Digitised Manuscripts site, often taking screenshots of the things that catch my interest. A dragon perhaps. An unusual letter-form. Often something surprising in the margins. But what then? Some of these finds end up with a catchy caption on Twitter, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to harness the efforts of the many thousands of casual and scholarly users browsing the British Library collections online? Imagine how useful it would be to have descriptions that build on those provided by the Catalogue of Illuminate Manuscripts, offering both fine-grained and more general “tags” to allow users to browse items that have been marked up by others. This project will develop a user interface to allow for images, and parts of images to be marked up with descriptive content, building on the methodology created for the DigiPal project (digipal.eu) and Models of Authority (www.modelsofauthority.ac.uk). The project will focus on the Hebrew manuscripts collection because this is an interesting an understudied corpus of material, that is both manageable in size, attractive in terms of content, and new to Digitised Mansucripts courtesy of the Polonsky digitisation project.

Research Question / Problem

The general problem is that that there is a large body of material in the Hebrew manuscripts collections that cannot be searched for content, theme, or style, and that it would be immensely useful to have a way to both interrogate content and visualise and curate the data. I'm interested whether we might build on the huge popularity of images of dragons on say Twitter and Pinterest to draw users into adding tags to the Hebrew manuscripts collection and to test the degree to which users are willing to add descriptive information. Might they be willing to move beyond say "dragon" to "green dragon", "inhabited initial" or "David enveloped by green dragon"? Would users be willing to go further and add descriptive classifications of the sort offered by the Iconclass system (http://www.iconclass.org/help/outline)? And how might we incentivise users to offer more detailed work as the collection of annotations and tags starts to build? The intention is to promote a collaborative model, bringing together scholars from different disciplines to see what they tag and in what level of detail.

Showcasing BL Digital Collections

The project is designed to showcase the Hebrew manuscripts collection as these offer a rich and yet underexplored source of images of general interest. The collections will be promoted through the use of Social Media and a series of themed classifications to capture the public imagination, e.g. hybrid creatures, add a caption competitions, and the ever popular dragons.

Methods

The project development will be in three parts:

In the first, I will use the DigiPal framework to curate and describe images from a small subset of the Hebrew manuscripts collection. This will create models of both general and detailed metadata and show how even simple tagging and annotation will offer valuable functionality. (See, for example: http://www.digipal.eu/media/uploads/images/golden.jpg).

In the second stage, with the help of the British Library Labs team, I will design a subset of the DigiPal interface to allow a swift way for users to annotate images, using the data created as a test-case.

Finally, the interface will be made available to a select set of users and beta-testers to test how much data they are willing to add.

Evidence that Entrant(s) can successfully complete the project

I have many years experience designing user interfaces and working on projects to annotate and add metadata to medieval manuscripts, most prominently through my work on the DigiPal interface. We created a user annotation tool that has proven very successful and offers a good paradigm to apply to the corpus of Hebrew manuscripts. Relevant publications include ‘The DigiPal Project for European Scripts and Decorations’, with Debora Marques de Matos, Peter Stokes and Matilda Watson in Essays and Studies, 2015: Writing Europe 500–1450: Texts and Contexts, ed. Aidan Conti, Orietta Da Rold and Philip Shaw) and the co-edited volume Digital Palaeography (Ashgate, forthcoming)

How idea is achievable on a Technical, Curatorial and Legal basis

Technical

The project will build on the existing framework created for DigiPal and use existing website technologies (HTML, BootStrap, Python, JavaScript) to display the annotations and metadata generated by the project.

Curatorial

The body of material has already been identified and in addition to my own work on the curating and describing it, a combination of niche sourcing and wider user engagement will be used to add information.

Legal

The images are all owned by the British Library.

Plan

June

  • Meet with the BL Labs team to discuss the methodology and intentions of the project

  • Discuss webspace to host blogs to promote the project and eventually display the metadata created

  • Begin work on creating annotations

July

  • Continue work on creating annotations

  • Meet with BL Labs team to refine interface based on the DigiPal framework

  • Blog about progress to generate interest

August

  • Make the tool available to a select group of beta-testers who will use it to crete content.

  • Explore potential for opening it up to a wider group of users

  • Blogging continues

September

  • Arrange a series of focus groups to assess intuitiveness of the interface.

  • Enhance interface in response to user feedback

  • Monitor data creation and users' interests and degree of engagement

  • More blog posts

October - November

  • Study the data created and determine the successes of the approach and whether it might be extended across the BL's collections

  • Evaluate both the tool and the level of user involvement with the material

  • Publicise the results