Crowdsourced Experimentation with the British Library’s Collections

Published Aug-17-15

A machine that brings back Victorian jokes from the dead is just one of the exciting and innovative uses of the British’s Library’s digital collections.

The British Library, United Kingdom

The Story:

Crowdsourced Experimentation with the British Library’s Collections In large and small public and private bodies all over the world, reams of data are created on a continual basis, used and then stored away in digital archives, sometimes never seeing the light of day again.

Crowdsourcing contests and other public initiatives enable companies and public bodies to tap into the intellectual smarts of new knowledge sources to re-purpose this data in imaginative ways. This is helping to create a mountain of new opportunities. Among them are new services, jobs and businesses and novel ways of analyzing information.

Breathing New Life into Digital Collections

The British Library Labs competition is an open innovation contest to find innovative ways of using the library’s digital collections. The august institution’s ever expanding repository of digital content encompasses images, sound recordings, data sets, music, maps and much more. These collections are vast. For example, there are more than one million images that have been scanned from books on the library’s Flickr page.

The contest has run for several years, and each one typically selects two winners. They are awarded prize money and given the opportunity to work in residence with the Labs and Library team to further develop their ideas.

The solutions can be based on one or more of the library’s collections, and if software is used for their development, it must be open source software that is royalty free.

Among the open innovation contest’s previous winners are:

The Victorian Meme Machine by Bob Nicholson - a digital project to bring Victorian gags into the present day and make them funny again. As humor often dates very quickly, many of the period's popular jokes (and their punchlines) have been lost.

However, the formerly funny material exists within the British Library’s digital collections and the meme machine retrieves these by automatic and manual methods, combining them in a database. The digital project analyses the jokes and pairs them with an image. Pairings can be regenerated until an appropriate or unintentionally hilarious match is found. A joke is then superimposed on the image, thereby creating the meme which is then released on social media. These are tracked to see if any go viral.

Political Meetings Mapper by Dr Katrina Navickas - the development of a tool to extract notices of historical political meetings from the 1830s and 1840s and layer them on historical maps in the British Library’s collections. It combines parts of the collections in new ways with the aim of discovering new spatial patterns of where politics happened at this time. This may help researchers to answer questions of how and why the events happened.

Endless Possibilities

Crowdsourcing and open data projects present an exciting range of opportunities and their potential is without limit.

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