Posts Tagged ‘british library’

Mechanical Curator on Commons

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

The internet has been very enthralled by the British Library’s recent release of the Mechanical Curator collection: a million public-domain images extracted from digitised books, put online for people to identify and discover. The real delight is that we don’t know what’s in there – the images have been extracted and sorted by a computer, and human eyes may never have looked at them since they were scanned.

Image taken from page 171 of '[Seonee, or, camp life on the Satpura Range ... Illustrated by the author, etc.]'

I wasn’t directly involved with this – it was released after I left – but it was organised by former colleagues of mine, and I’ve worked on some other projects with the underlying Microsoft Books collection. It’s a great project, and all the more so for being a relatively incidental one. I’m really, really delighted to see it out there, and to see the outpouring of interest and support for it.

One of the questions that’s been asked is: why put them on Flickr and not Commons? The BL has done quite a bit of work with Wikimedia, and has used it as the primary way of distributing material in the past – see the Picturing Canada project – and so it might seem a natural home for a large release of public domain material.

The immediate answer is that Commons is a repository for, essentially, discoverable images. It’s structured with a discovery mechanism built around knowing that you need a picture of X, and finding it by search or by category browsing, which makes metadata essential. It’s not designed for serendipitous browsing, and not able to cope easily with large amounts of unsorted and unidentified material. (I think I can imagine the response were the community to discover 5% of the content of Commons was made up of undiscoverable, unlabelled content…) We have started looking at bringing it across, but on a small scale.

Putting a dump on archive.org has much the same problem – a lack of functional discoverability. There’s no way to casually browse material here, and it relies very much on metadata to make it accessible. If the metadata doesn’t exist, it’s useless.

And so: flickr. Flickr, unlike the repositories, is designed for casual discoverability, for browsing screenfuls of images, and for users to easily tag and annotate them – things that the others don’t easily offer. It’s by far the best environment of the three for engagement and discoverability, even if probably less useful for long-term storage.

This brings the question: should Commons be able to handle this use case? There’s a lot of work being done just now on the future of multimedia: will Commons in 2018 be able to handle the sort of large-scale donation that it would choke on in 2013? Should we be working to support discovery and description of unknown material, or should we be focusing on content which already has good metadata?

Letters from the West

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

The British Library has recently released the first tranche of some material it digitised as part of the Europeana 1914-1918 program. Most of this first installment involves papers from the India Office Records, which (for various reasons) ended up being transferred from the FCO to the British Library rather than the National Archives. As the Indian Government was responsible for India’s participation in the war, they include all sorts of unexpected primary sources rather than the more usual printed histories – official reports, intelligence briefings, policy papers, etc.

But the most interesting, by far, are the “Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France”. The system of censorship in force at the time had two goals – the first was the most obvious, to prevent the transmission of negative rumours or sensitive information, either by obscuring the comments or by returning the letters unsent. The second was more subtle; the censors who were reading the letters used them to prepare reports on morale, the reaction of front-line soldiers to news, and the like. Inbound mail was also censored, with much the same effect.

The Indian reports contained a brief summary of themes and comments in the censored mail for the period, along with a selection of translated extracts giving the name of the sender and recipient, and a note of the language they had written in. The originals weren’t kept, and the chances are that very few survive anywhere.

Many letters deal with the fighting, with reports of the war. Others are simply slices of life, reports of the strange world far from home:

I had an opportunity of seeing London. It is an enormous city. It took about an hour and a half for the train to go through the city without stopping. The buildings are high, the streets are very clean. There are many big factories. Many kinds of gardens, fields without any walls, short cows with long hair and short horns are some of the objects that came to my notice. (“a Mahratta Brahmin”, 21/1/15)

No one has any clue as to the language of this place. Even the British soldiers do not understand it. They call milk “doolee” and water “deolo” [du lait, de l’eau]. There is much comeliness in this country. The people dress themselves like the English. Of black men they think a great deal. No one keeps “parda” as we do. The country is a very open one. The ladies shake hands freely. They are not bashful about this. They do as the English do. (“X.Y., a wounded Sikh”, 27/1/15)

We enjoyed the Saloono festival as best as it could be enjoyed by a foreigner in a distant country far from home. Here we managed to get camphor, sandal wood and other necessities of “Hawan” which was done with Vedic mantras in France, which the French people might never have expected. We also get “saimis” here, they are manufactured in Paris as well as in Italy and are sold in small packets. (Ram Seran Das, August 1915)

The French language:
Kya, tum mere sath aoge? = Walé wo wené éwac má?
Tumhara ghar kidhar hai = U é watr mézon?
Main tum ko pyar karta hun = Y ém wu boku. (Jemadar Sohbat Khan, 29/8/15)

When this letter was written we four, viz, Gul Din, Gul Shah, Rakib Shah, and I were sitting under a tree, eating apples and pears and had made a pipe out of an empty shell-case and were smoking, with the pipe standing in front of us. (Jemadar Zar Gir, 57th Rifles, 30/8/15)

In this country rain falls every day. The country is cold and abounds in fruit. (Sowar Sharif Khan, 13/9/15)

As to your request to send you a copy of the Qu’ran, I have already written and told you that I cannot get one here. What is the use of repeating it? If I could get one here, I would send it. You say the Qu’ran can be got in London, but London is 52 miles from here [Brighton] and we do not go there. (Khadim Ali Khan, 17/10/15)

These are the result of skimming two or three volumes; there’s a wealth of social history buried in these papers, and it would really reward some intensive reading.

They’re all listed through the Digitised Manuscripts interface, which is a little tricky to use; for reference, here’s a full index of the digitised papers by date covered: