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The Elastic System – Data in a Cultural Institution

September 11, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.

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The King’s Library at the British Library in 1851. Now the King’s Library tower is the only permanently publicly exhibited collection at the BL. Source: suzanne-historybritishlibrary.blogspot.co.uk

While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright,  showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.

The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.

The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:

“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.

The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”

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You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).

The online version will be launched in the near future.

Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.

We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.

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A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.

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