Building Britain's digital library
How is the UK’s national library tackling the mass digitisation of its collections? Jo Russell visits the British Library to find out.
Last year, the British Library became one of the youngest buildings to be given Grade I-listed status for ‘outstanding architectural and historic interest’. But it is inside that the real gems are to be found – everything from the Magna Carta to handwritten Beatles lyrics.
The library’s collection is vast. It is home to around 170 million items, and acquires three million new items a year. As its helpful facts and figures sheet tells you, if you see five items each day, it would take more than 80,000 years to see the whole collection. But in a collection that size, real gems can also be hidden gems, made even less accessible to those outside London by their physical locality within the capital.
In an attempt to increase accessibility, the British Library has embarked on a number of digitisation projects. Discovering Literature, aimed primarily at the formal learning sector, is one of the latest of these initiatives.
As the project manager, Alex Whitfield, who manages the library’s learning team and the online learning resource, explains, there was a natural fit between the library’s literary collection and the learning resources’ target audience – mainly A-level and undergraduate students, although it also includes ‘the general public’, which covers all bases.
For generations, schoolchildren have been introduced to great British classic authors such as Bront, Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare. But increasingly, there is a disconnect between these authors and the lives of young people. In a report commissioned by the library, 76 per cent of teachers said their students find it hard to perceive the classic authors as ‘real people’. The findings led Whitfield and the learning team to adopt a different approach.
“We could have just digitised unique collection items and had a fabulous website filled with beautiful things that people would have found interesting. But the context was where we felt we could play a unique role. We set out to explore literary works thematically and digitise other collection items, for example ephemera, newspapers, posters and prints that really help young people understand the historical, social and political context,” she explains.
Rather than a mass digitisation project, the team is also sharing expertise. The end result is a learning website with more than 8,000 pages of items, highly contextualised by a team of researchers who spend countless hours immersed in the vaults, scouring for interesting collection items. There are also commissioned articles, short documentaries and lesson plans exploring the featured authors and the times in which they lived.
The idea for the project was conceived five years ago, although things began in earnest in 2012. It is a multi-phase project, with the first (and largest) phase, focusing on the Romantics and Victorians, having launched in May 2014.
The next phase, split into Shakespeare and 20th-century authors, will launch in March (to tie in with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death) and May 2016 respectively, with the third phase to be completed by March 2018.
The 20th-century collection had originally been scheduled for November 2015, but internal restructuring within the curatorial department – on which the learning team is dependent – caused an initial delay. The press team has subsequently decided that the launch will wait until May of this year, despite the collection being ready earlier, in order to avoid clashes with Christmas or the launch of the Shakespeare exhibition.
As a project manager, Whitfield is fortunate in that the delay will have no financial ramifications. Funders are aware of the importance of good press coverage to entice as many visitors to the site as possible.
Given that the collections and content are fairly limitless, funding is the limiting factor on the scope of the project. The first phase cost around £600,000, and Whitfield says that fundraising has been challenging. “This is a difficult time for the cultural sector. Funds are limited and government grants-in-aid are getting smaller,” she says. The vast majority of the project has been funded philanthropically, with generous support from a number of benefactors.
Phase one was scoped based on the income available at the time. “At the start, we had bigger ambitions. I wanted to do 30 authors for stage one, but in the end we started with 21,” Whitfield comments.
“However, on the website we have created an interface that you can very easily slip content into. We have already added in a couple more. And we have a funder whose passion is Virginia Woolf, so we will be adding her.”
The team running the project is small (although multi-award winning, including a Museums and Heritage Award for innovation). As project manager, Whitfield spends much of her time liaising with the web redevelopment programme and reporting into the web redevelopment board, managing the overall budget, supporting the development team to fundraise, recruiting staff and co-ordinating the project board.
She has a content manager, Anna Lobbenberg, whose time is given exclusively to exploring content – scoping authors and potential contributors, and exploring themes. Lobbenberg is supported by five content developers, or researchers, who are externally funded. This core team receives support from other departments within the library; for example, the imaging services team, web team and copyright team.
Raising the profile
The amount of internal support received has been helped enormously by the high profile that the project now enjoys. When the British Library took the decision to redevelop its entire website, phase one of Discovering Literature became one of a number of pilot projects for the library’s overall web redevelopment programme.
“We have developed an interface that will be rolled out across the British Library website, so whenever anyone wants to create an online exhibition or present highly-curated content, they will use the same infrastructure that we have created. We have played a key role, working with external design agencies, conducting consultations and user testing to make sure the interface works for our users,” says Whitfield.
On top of this, the Discovering Literature project also fits within the chief executive’s vision for the British Library. Roly Keating created the Living Knowledge vision as a plan to take the British Library forward to 2023, its 50th anniversary as the UK’s national library. The vision comprises six key purposes, one of which is learning.
“That assisted in raising our profile internally. The importance of our audience has risen, and we’re lucky that even more curators are aware of our programmes, both onsite and online, and are keen to explore ways we can work together. Sharing their expertise on the website is one way that they can do that.”
The Hidden Gems
From the outset, the ambition was to create a ‘go-to’ literature resource, which would mean extending it beyond British Library content. The library has strengthened relations with existing partners and forged new partnerships with many smaller organisations that were too financially constrained to digitise their own content.
Digitising the content on their behalf and placing it on the website has been mutually beneficial. The strength of these partnerships has allowed, for example, filming on site at the Bront parsonage, which is something the learning team is proud of.
There are many highlights to look out for on the site, including manuscripts of Jane Eyre, the preface to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Austen’s Persuasion, an early draft of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats.
There are also papers of Jane Austen, including her notes detailing other people’s opinions of her work, such as one peer describing Pride and Prejudice as “downright nonsense”.
Whitfield’s personal highlights are not necessarily the big hitters, but the items that will resonate and that have been discovered relatively recently. She explains: “There was a moment during the London riots when we were researching Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, a poem about the Peterloo Massacre. Inside a book – folded up and stuck in – we found a little map showing the Peterloo Massacre and soldiers blocking the streets in what is effectively a 19th-century example of kettling. Finding links to the present day is exciting, as that is when young people will make a connection.”
The site was launched in May 2014 and feedback so far has been impressive. Aside from being described as “immensely fantastic” by Stephen Fry, and “an important cultural resource that can be enjoyed by all ages” by The Observer, the figures speak for themselves.
Before the Discovering Literature project was launched, the Learning website had just under two million unique visitors annually. That figure has risen to just over four million. The target for Discovering Literature itself was to reach half a million visits in the first year. It received 800,000 in the first year and took just under 15 months to get one million visits, a figure that is continuing to grow.
There has also been an increase in dwell time. A dwell time of two minutes and over is generally considered to be very good. The British Library’s has always been higher than average at around four minutes. Now it is well over seven.
Having launched with the Romantic and Victorian authors, the intention is to continue adding to the resource until it covers English literature all the way from Beowulf up to the present day.
The most inspiring aspect of the project is that, aside from funding, there are no limitations as to scope and creativity. Whitfield and her team have free rein to unearth collection items and package them together in a way that will excite and enthuse their target audience.
“We are creating new map and timeline interfaces so that people can explore the collections chronologically or geographically,” says Whitfield.
“When researching Oliver Twist, we found Dickens was transparent about places that inspired his work,” she adds. “We can pinpoint the area that inspired the location where Fagin lived with his boys. Consider a young person in the heart of the city, imagining Dickensian London and how people lived at the time, and looking at engravings of that neighbourhood. It starts to bring it to life when you can map it to your location.”
The team came up with the idea, which was then tested on students to confirm its potential (as has been the case with all aspects of the project).
It has been built on a mobile-first premise, given that the target audience is most likely to use mobiles to access content.
Although the Discovering Literature project is clearly fulfilling its aims, it’s worth asking whether those aims were compromised from the start, in that the premise for the whole project was based around achieving the next best thing for people who can’t make it to the library to see the exhibits themselves. Whitfield disagrees, saying that it is the contextualising of the items that makes the key difference.
“There is an assumption, particularly in art galleries, that objects should speak for themselves, but some can be impenetrable. Austen’s juvenilia, in which she parodies the monarchy, are very funny, but if you are 16, it is hard to imagine why – and that goes back to context. That’s why we have played a unique role in Discovering Literature. Rather than being the next best thing, it is, in its own way, better,” she concludes.