Sylvia Aurylaite

Submitted Entry for 2014 Competition


Imagine if a 19th century image of a baseball player preparing to throw a ball were to suddenly jump off your computer screen and land on your keyboard. With just a few taps to the screen of your smartphone or tablet, the Public Domain City app would capture and share a photo-montage of this imaginary situation with your friends and (if you choose) a wider public. By montaging new imagery captured with your device’s camera with archival material from the British Library’s collections, the Public Domain City app creates a new user experience in enabling the immediate, lived present to be connected and intermingled with the archival past. It seeks to infuse everyday-life situations with historical artifacts and characters. And more broadly, it aims to be part of the construction of a new community of ‘citizen publishers’ who are engaged in the continual reinterpretation of the rich array of archival material that is in the public domain.

The city represents centuries of effort by the greatest minds in art and technology to offer a better quality of life. A lot of their achievements lie in successful design solutions which mask the growing internal complexities of big cities. The British Library, from this perspective, resembles a big city, in the way it now faces a daunting amount of newly digitized content and the challenge of finding systems to make sense of this collection of information. The Public Domain City app approaches this issue from a different angle – not that of the institution, but that of the user. It asks: what is the simplest way to get him involved, almost without his noticing, in this historical moment of digital humanities? How does the interface of this new gateway to the British Library digital collection avoid bothering him with the complexities ‘under the bonnet’ – the new and yet unsolved inner complexities, such as search engines, metadata, folders, academic and technological terminology? What qualities of the academic and technological nature of digital historical documents have to be “sacrificed” to build a gateway that offers this attractive simplicity? With this in mind, the Public Domain City app contains just three parts: the welcome screen, a very simple, curated selection of British Library collection items - which may be incorporated into new photographs and videos as they are taken - and social networking options.

The city is about the co-existence of old and new, inviting you to wander endlessly in search for unexpected, collage-like experiences. Walter Benjamin, the flaneur who, in the early 20th century, wandered in the Parisian arcades, has famously recorded his discoveries of ‘city time travel’ in his writings. One could only guess Benjamin’s facial expression if, in the course of his temporal wanderings, he happened across a smartphone camera that looked out at the city through a lens of historical images. More than ever, unexpected combinations of new and old would be made possible. The Public Domain City app aims to reintroduce a selection of historical items to the city life after their ""print carrier"" has expired. It does not make any radical change in the nature of the historical documents in use. Rather, the app continues the path they have already been following. Turning digital and entering the public domain has meant for them a gradual loss of materiality, their roots in paper, and attachment to a single ownership. The next step, as suggested by the app, is an extraction of the raw material itself, enabling endless new compositions in the contemporary city .

The city is a hub for knowledge and for the exchange of ideas. So does the Public Domain City app offer a new platform for production of knowledge through an interactive engagement with the British Library collection. It encourages its audience to be more than just a collector of images – to be the contemporary public domain publishers. As it does not require any additional artistic skills, tools or experience, the app may be used by everybody. Furthermore, the British Library would retain the right to trace the spread of the newly created works in its own social networks. It would enliven its gallery of old treasures with a contemporary collective project of bringing new life to documents that may have lain almost forgotten. As the historical items are personalised, a new window is opened for them into the lively everyday activities of social networks.

Assessment Criteria

The research question / problem you are trying to answer

What interface solution would facilitate novel creative engagement with digital collection items in everyday life situations?

Please explain the ways your idea will showcase British Library digital collections

Please ensure you include details of British Library digital collections you are showcasing (you may use several collections if you wish), a sample can be found at

The Public Domain City app’s gallery will feature a curated selection of public domain items from the British Library’s digital image collection. The images will range from cropped artifacts through patterns, figures, and to whole cityscapes and landscapes. To be suitable for the app’s gallery they would have to conducive to the creation of various unexpected contexts and backgrounds as well as being easy transformable into “digital ghosts”, made of outlines and shades. Besides the images, a selection of eye-catching, open-to-interpretations citations will be chosen from some of the most popular digitised 19th century books.

The progress of my collection, selection, and experimentation with British Library materials can be observed here:

Please detail the approach(es) / method(s) you are going to use to implement your idea, detailing clearly the research methods / techniques / processes involved

Indicate and describe any research methods / processes / techniques and approaches you are going to use, e.g. text mining, visualisations, statistical analysis etc.

Selection of historical images/texts from the digital collection (the author of the concept)
Identifying and grouping the most provoking and unexpected content - that which has the potential to become so-called “memes” in the Internet. Running a blog to raise public interest in the project and to help to identify the most interesting materials.

Building of a user friendly interface (BL Lab technical support)
Discussing the layout and the main functionalities of an app. Ensuring the transmission of metadata into the newly produced works and thus their traceability once released into social networks. Building an extension of the BL image gallery for display of the new images.

Preparing the first collection of images/texts
Endowing the items with basic adjustment possibilities, such as resizing and re-orientating, and integrating the gallery with the device’s photo and video functionality to facilitate the montaging of the old and new images.

A good example of a similar type of app is Echograph, which creates from video files GIF images in which gestures are used to determine areas of movement to be retained. The structure of this app is exemplary simple – it contains the gallery, the production and sharing screens.

The Public Domain City app, as open source software, would become a prototype in digital humanities facilitating the relocation of public domain items to everyday life situations.

Please provide evidence of how you / your team have the skills, knowledge and expertise to successfully carry out the project by working with the Labs team

E.g. work you may have done, publications, a list with dates and links (if you have them)

Public Domain City is a newly initiated e-publishing project conceived by historian and curator Silvija Aurylaite.

Silvija has a Master’s degree in comparative history from Central European University in Budapest. She specializes in intellectual and urban history. In her short academic carrier Silvija has presented her research about historical urban experience at international historian conferences in Budapest and Vienna. She has extensive experience in organising, curating and coordinating cultural events. She has worked at such institutions as the National Gallery of Art, the Art Information Centre and Vilnius City Municipality in Lithuania. She has organized a series of events at the National Gallery of Art (Vilnius) about modern dance, digital technologies and architecture.

Currently Public Domain City is at its most exciting - starting - period. The main e-publisher’s aspiration is to research how digital inventions can enliven public domain historical materials; and vice versa – how the latter could become a compelling source for innovations in digital publishing. Public Domain City seeks collaborations with contemporary artists from various fields to explore novel ways of using public domain historical materials in e-books, urban media installations, and apps.

Please provide evidence of how you think your idea is achievable on a technical, curatorial and legal basis

Indicate the technical, curatorial and legal aspects of the idea (you may want to check with Labs team before submitting your idea first).

The residency at the British Library Labs provides sufficient time to develop the prototype of an app with, as well as the possibility to make further development that do not dilute its minimalist character. The main technical challenge is to build a platform which would simplify process of making new additions to the collection.

For the purpose of promotion, curation of content and feedback, the author of the concept will run a blog. It will highlight the most interesting captures and collect suggestions from the public concerning what they would like to see added to the gallery of BL material.

The app’s gallery section will feature only images and texts in the public domain, while the newly produced content will remain the property of the user who created it. The British Library Labs would retain the right to preserve their copy. All the legal issues concerning creative adaptations of public domain materials will be discussed in detail with curators.

Please provide a brief plan of how you will implement your project idea by working with the Labs team

You will be given the opportunity to work on your winning project idea between May 26th - Oct 31st, 2014.

Most of the work collecting and selecting the gallery items will be done before the first meetings with the Labs team.

July 2014
Week 1-2: Drawing together the guidelines of the app’s gallery section. Selecting and grouping the suitable items. Collecting and collating the metadata of the works. Discussing with curators the legal aspects of creative adaptations of public domain material.
Week 3-4: Preparing the collected raw material. Drawing the first sketch of the app’s interface.

August 2014
Week 1: Finishing the preparation of the first batch of public domain material, as well as the app’s interface sketch.
Week 3-4: Developing the functions of image/text adjustment.

September 2014
Week 1-2: Developing the functions of image/text adjustment.
Week 3-4: Developing the integration of gallery with camera functionality.

October 2014
Week 1-2: Finishing the integration of gallery objects with camera functionality.
Week 3: Designing an app interface that draws together the gallery, camera, and social network elements. Testing of the app.
Week 4: Finalisation and preparation for presentation.