Andrew Taylor

Submitted Entry for 2015 Competition


The British Library Collection Explorer (“BLCE”) will be an intuitive, flexible web interface that enables users to explore an online collection dynamically through its metadata. Unlike a traditional search engine, a faceted semantic browser allows users to explore or browse the collection based on the selections they make from a number of pre-determined categories. As part of the project, I will carefully refine existing metadata for the collection to best utilize the strengths of the BLCE interface. In addition, the BLCE will encourage user feedback and participation in crowdsourcing initiatives already under development.

The first proposed target for a BLCE interface is The Unveiling of Britain (“UoB”), a British Library online exhibition first published in 2005. UoB is made up of archival drawings (maps) that depict places within the British Isles (or English-controlled areas on the French mainland such as Brittany or Normandy), the remainder of the manuscript pages being written descriptions of regions within the British Isles.

The layout of the BLCE interface is relatively simple. On each side of a central column will be six semantic categories, each containing six terms, with grey numbers indicating how many items in the exhibition match each selected term. Based on the terms selected, the BLCE immediately returns the collection items that match user specifications. The user can also visualize the exhibition materials in a number of different ways, including basic lists, interactive maps, timelines, pie charts, line charts or word clouds (examples: There is also a conventional keyword search window that can be used to look for text in UoB that is not included in the specified categories.

The goal of the BLCE interface project is to allow the entire British Library audience to engage with its online materials in a more meaningful way.

You can explore a fully-implemented BLCE-type Interface I created in 2013, American Furniture, 1635-1900. I have also created a preliminary BLCE for the UoB Exhibition.

Assessment Criteria

The research question / problem you are trying to answer

Please focus on the clarity and quality of the research question / problem posed:

The web interfaces normally used to present/publish archival collections online do not adequately support access and meaningful use of archival materials.

My project endeavors to improve discovery and browsability of the BL Collections with the assistance of crowdsourced tagging tools that are published to a semantically-enabled browsing engine.

The BLCE’s dynamic and responsive interface empowers users to explore online exhibitions in an unprecedented way, leading to greater user understanding, engagement, and investment in the British Library as a cultural institution. Users can also contact exhibition curators with questions, feature requests, and suggestions for improving an exhibition’s BLCE categories and terms. The robust BLCE back-end tools will allow curators to respond to users in a timely fashion.

I believe this project can result in a larger community of engaged users who are invested in the fabulous materials held by the British Library.

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

An online exhibition has a very limited time window during which it can capture a visitor’s interest. The current UoB Exhibition does an excellent job at this. The curator’s introduction is interesting and the highlights are engaging. However, the collection is less successful at the next important step–creating sustained user engagement. This is where the BLCE concept is most able to showcase BL’s digital collections.

Search engines are wonderful tools, but they can only give access to items with which the user is already familiar. Using the BLCE interface, users receive almost instantaneous response to their queries and are visually able to drill down into the collection without a lot of clicks. By using the category selection tools, users can explore every item in the collection that matches the characteristics they have specified. They are able to mix and match their categorical selections, viewing their results in real time and creating myriad unique combinations that can be adjusted on the fly. This enables serendipitous discovery. The crowdsourcing element allows users to take part in the experience, leading to more user engagement and an improved interface. The metadata curator will be able to customize the BLCE interface in response to user feedback, providing customized views that respond to the requests of engaged users.

While I will focus on the UoB exhibition and other map collections for this project, the same techniques and processes are equally applicable to other types of BL collections.

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.
I will use an iterative user-centered design methodology. The design cycles are purposefully rapid, fitting in well with the British Library Labs’ relatively short project timeframe. There are three basic components to the project: metadata optimization, which allows for stronger user visibility and accessibility; prototype design and development; and integration of specific user feedback. All components are integrated into each design cycle. The project's stages contain clear checkpoints, as detailed on the timeline.

The platform to be implemented is Recollection—free, open source software supported by information science experts and representing the cutting edge of semantic web technology and linked data concepts.
The legacy data for The Unveiling of Britain is hard-coded in an Excel spreadsheet, optimized for importation into the Recollection platform. The resultant optimized spreadsheet doesn't need to be added to a database. However, if later exhibition (or collection) metadata is currently housed in a BL database, it would be beneficial to optimize the data on its existing platform and export it directly from the database to Recollection rather than exporting first to a spreadsheet platform and from there to Viewshare.

Because Recollection is a stable, robust platform it is possible to make changes quickly, immediately implement user feedback, and even develop multiple versions that illustrate progress.

I plan to become intimately familiar with the metadata, removing errors, reducing redundancy and making language consistent. Completed metadata work will include new options for user visibility. For example, most people do not want to view metadata in multiple fields, separated by unnecessary space. My solution is to combine multiple metadata fields into an optimized display field that contains all the desired information from the various fields for solely for display purposes. Because the BLCE interface is fully HTML-5 compatible, I will be able to customize the BLCE with tooltip floatovers, hyperlinks, text formatting (font color, size) and other HTML customizations.
As part of my outreach effort I will keep an online blog detailing my work on the project, and have written an example blogpost, A Problem of Description.
Using Photoshop and visualization best practices, I will optimize the viewing experience using a process that includes adjusting item descriptions, selecting succinct descriptions for each item summary, and considering how best to represent the original object so that the meaning of the archival objects is communicated to viewers.

Philosophy of practice:

“The Map is not the Territory”
The target of an exhibition is not the objects it contains; it is the utilization of those archival items to communicate meaning to audiences. What is being communicated? The thoughtful reframing of these items by the Exhibition curators allows audiences to consider how earlier peoples utilized technology and skills available to them to describe the geography, political regions and cultures that made up their world.

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)

I am Associate Curator of Visual Resources for the Department of Art History at Rice University in Houston, Texas, with a background in Library Science. I administer their 50,000-image art collection, and in 2012 I successfully converted and imported all of the metadata and image files from a Rice-hosted image database to ARTstor’s Shared Shelf (see my metadata crosswalk, with commentary here:

My personal scholarship focuses on finding new and more effective ways to represent information so that it becomes more accessible. I’m often aided by my private-sector background in presentation development and by my Photoshop skills.

In Fall 2013 I built a BCSE-type “faceted semantic browser” that is still available online which explores 200 assets (images + metadata) from the Rice Art History database I manage (American Furniture 1635-1900). This limited-scope project (published to the Library of Congress’ Recollection-based platform Viewshare) was both instructive and successful. I wrote a summary of the project on my WordPress blog.

From January 2011 through September 2013 I worked closely with History and Architecture professors at Rice, building a course-specific image database collection used by students for a cross-discipline Rio de Janeiro project which spanned several semesters (and included Excel-based metadata creation utilizing controlled lists: That database is now part of the foundation of “Imagine Rio,” a GIS/Timeline/Images project which received an NEH grant in 2014.

I am very excited at the prospect of working with the British Library. While I have worked on projects in my current position, I am part of a small Department (Art History) at a small University (enrollment about 7,000), and therefore have a limited mandate for digital projects. The BL Labs Competition would be a perfect fit for me.

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 BLCE is based on a customized adaptation of Recollection, a free, fully-implemented open-source platform developed by pioneers of the Linked Data/Semantic Web movement. The British Library is already working closely with Recollection’s lead developer, Eric Miller, on a separate project – the LoC’s Bibliographic Framework Initiative or BIBFRAME, a new Linked Data bibliographic format intended to eventually replace the MARC format.

I have corresponded with Recollection developers at both Zepheira and the Library of Congress. They have been responsive to my queries and seem to consider the goal of setting up a separate Recollection platform to be a viable one.

Their installation instructions for Recollection are located on the Library of Congress’s GitHub site:

The BLCE proposal will build on the significant community outreach projects that the British Library team is already engaged in. The Mechanical Curator project has already published one million images to the Flickr website, including 12,000 images identified as maps-in-books. The maps-in-books images are likely to be a good target for a BLCE-type interface. The King George Topographical Collection, which is currently being digitized by the British Library could also benefit from the BLCE proposal, as it would allow audiences to browse currently digitized materials and hopefully inspire them to fund further digitization efforts.

The Recollection platform is supported by a team of information management experts heavily invested in the open source, free software movement. Because of this, I do not believe there would be any legal concerns regarding the British Library’s customization of the platform, and in fact such customization could lead to further collaboration between the British Library and the United States’ Library of Congress.

All targeted materials are held by the British Library, so there should not be any copyright concerns. BL Labs did mention that there is one maps collection for which the metadata has copyright issues, but I do not believe it is a current target for a BLCE interface.

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 June 2015 - October 2015.
Over the course of the project I will blog my progress and provide detailed screenshots, illustrating key concepts . Examples of my approach can be viewed on my blog: (Prior to beginning public documentation, I will consult with BL Labs how to best present such a blog as part of the British Library’s community outreach efforts.)

While I am based in United States, I will be in London in early July, as I am presenting at the 2015 International Conference for Historical Geographers. (I extensively documented the first stage of that project on my blog: I will be staying near the British Library that week and would love to meet with the British Library Labs team.

It may not be relevant, but I am also a British citizen, as both of my parents were from Scotland.


Work closely with BL Labs Technical Lead Ben O’Steen and project manager Mahendra Mahey to begin implementation of a customized British Library adaptation of the (open source) Recollection platform.

Continue developing a BLCE prototype for “The Unveiling of Britain” exhibition (metadata optimization). Consult with the British Library’s Map Collections team about representing cartographic information for BL audiences. Learn more about the King George Topographical Collection, the Mechanical Curator Collections in Flickr, and BL’s use of Wikimedia and GitHub, in support of crowdsourcing efforts.


Meet with BL Labs team in London. Complete BLCE optimization for the “Unveiling of Britain” exhibition. Publish a live-but-internal BLCE prototype interface for the Unveiling of Britain, accessible to . Evaluate the UoB BLCE in consultation with the BL Labs and receive feedback from the BL Map Collections team. Receive feedback from ordinary users, preferably from a small (6-7 person) focus group. Continue learning more about map-based collections such as the King George III Topographical Collection and the BL’s ~12,000 maps-in-books assets in Flickr. Consider how/whether to create BLCE interfaces for these collections both immediately and in the future. Identify one or two other BL online exhibitions and refine/optimize them in support of new BLCE interfaces.


Introduce dynamic user feedback and crowdsourcing options to the BLCE interface, including a system whereby users can help with handwriting transcription (I have already set up a related transcription demo project utilizing another established open-source platform, FromthePage, that could be linked to from the BLCE). Give a presentation to BL staff about the BLCE tool and receive feedback. Meet individually with interested BL people and show them how to use the Recollection platform in their own projects and with various types of collections.


Prepare final presentation on the BLCE project and consider how it might continue to be a helpful tool going forward.