GW4: Remediating the Archive Hackday

Workshop, Cardiff University, Monday 24th April 2017

Following on from the success of the December 2016 workshop, ‘Remediating the Archive’, on 24th April the GW4 Alliance collaborated with JISC to run a ‘Hackday’. The day focused, in the morning session, on exploring JISC’s Historical Texts, a digital archive comprising over 400,000 texts from the 15th to 19th centuries. The archive is an astounding resource which, according to the JISC promotional material, ‘brings together four significant collections for the first time’ in the form of Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), British Library 19th Century collection and the UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL) collection. In the afternoon session we explored how using Wikimedia can help the general public to engage with academic research by testing various different platforms provided by the Wikimedia Foundation.

What is so valuable about these ‘hackdays’ (or, ‘Labs’, as Peter Findlay and his team at JISC prefer to call them) is that they provide a space where participants can concentrate fully on experimenting with and exploring a resource in depth. Given the heavy workload of most academics, these ‘labs’ give researchers the luxury of engaging with resources in a meaningful way which in their day-to-day work they may be unable to due to pressures on their time. These deep dives into a resource or activity, then, not only allow a user to become very familiar with the way the resource works, but also means that they can then pass on such insights to colleagues or students. Another hugely valuable aspect of these days is that, in my experience at least, you can discuss the resources and any challenges you faced using them or ideas in how they can be improved with the people who have been central to the projects creation. They (and, again, Peter Findlay is a perfect example of this) are often just as keen to learn from your experience of using the resource as you are in using it.

After some introductory and contextual remarks by Cardiff University’s Antony Mandal, the UKMHL Advisory Group member Keir Waddington, JISC’s Peter Findlay and Bristol University’s Leah Tether, the morning session, led by JISC’s Owen Stephens, got underway. JISC’s Historical Texts (, requires a subscription, but the UKMHL (  is an open access resource which contains ‘the image and full text of over 66,000 19th Century European medical publications’. What I find so compelling about the UKMHL (because of my own work on visual culture) is how it foregrounds the visual and provides the user with different ways of visually representing the material contained within the archive. For example, the UKMHL homepage asks the user to ‘Start with a visualisation’ and provides users with the options of a ‘dendogram’, ‘sunburst’, ‘Ngram’ ‘timeline’ ‘wall of images’ or ‘Hospital Map’.

Written down, this might sound overwhelming, but I cannot emphasise enough just what a beautifully designed interface the UKMHL uses. It is user-friendly and very attractive. My favourite ‘visualisation’ (perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know me), is the ‘wall of images’. By clicking on this button the archive will load up thirty random images per page for the user to explore at their leisure. By hovering the mouse over an illustration, the image will then flip giving the user bibliographical details about where the image has come from and providing them with the option of viewing the page itself. It is highly intuitive and loading times are very quick. The reason why this is my favourite visualisation tool on the site is because I like to be surprised in my research – I like and get excited by serendipitous discoveries. This is why UKMHL is such a brilliantly designed resource: it provides different visualisations for different research needs, giving researchers the necessary tools to enable them to find and make sense of the vast quantity of material contained within it.

Owen was a terrific workshop leader and helped us to better understand how to use this brilliant resource as well as providing us with an understanding of how the resource was created in the first place. Martin Poulter, who works for Oxford University and was once the Bodleian Wikimedian in residence, was equally as engaging and interesting as Owen, when he led the afternoon session on using Wikimedia. We began by collaborating, as a group, to produce a complete transcript of The Thurston speech on the progress of Medicine 1880. The text, appropriately enough, was taken from the UMHL. Each person was given a page to edit and ‘validate’, the term WikiSource uses to confirm that a page of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) text is suitable for publication on the platform. The exercise revealed that WikiSource is a very valuable system for knowledge dissemination and that by understanding how WikiSource works, from a contributors perspective, we can use it to make our own research (and publications related to that research) public in an accessible, yet scholarly rigorous way.

The most surprising aspect for me about this session was the ease with which we can view the stats and quality rating for any article on Wikipedia. In fact, I surprised myself with my own (hitherto) lack of curiousity and interest with how Wikipedia actually functions. Underneath everyone single Wikipedia page lies a vast network of stats and analytics: you can see the entire history of the page – how many times it has been viewed, who has made the edits, the quality of the article and much more, simply by clicking the ‘Talk’ tab which appears on every page. The Hackday coincided with the World Snooker Championships, so I, naturally, went exploring around on the Snooker Page. I was surprised to learn that: ‘Snooker was a good articles nominee, but did not meet the good article criteria at the time.’ Below this comment were various suggestions that would improve the article. What this shows is the rigorous standards Wikipedia has in place to make sure users understand the quality of an article. About a decade ago, Wikipedia was the (undeserved in my opinion), butt of many jokes about scholarly standards and misinformation. In the current climate of ‘fake news’, Wikipedia is a shining light in the dark.

The ‘GW4: Remediating the Archive Hackday’ was a fascinating event. By bringing together Wikimedians, designers, programmers, researchers and academics into conversation with each other, the day was rich with discussion and interesting ideas. What is important to take away from such events, however, is that they should not be isolated one-off occasions, but that these conversations should be taking place consistently across all disciplines and organisations. The world is becoming more and more atomised, what UKHML and Wikipedia prove is that by working together, perhaps, we can make the world a better place.

– Michael John Goodman




GW4 Archives: Exploring UK Medical Heritage Library and Historical Texts as Data

Monday, 24 April 2017
By Peter Findlay
(This post originally appeared on the JISC Content and Digitsation website)

In recent years hack-days have been all the rage and have proved a good vehicle for interactions between people who normally might not work together. In academia there has been a trend towards running so-called ‘labs’. The word implies experimentation; hack-day tends to imply coding (it can be experimental!), whereas ‘lab’ suggests that it can be about experimental thinking, without necessarily needing to lead to the production of code. Code can still be an output of course, but that is not the main point of running a lab. It’s much more about the ideas.
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Workshop Report

Cardiff University, 9 December 2016

According to AS Byatt in her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession (1990), ‘Literary critics make the best detectives’. Why is this case? Perhaps it’s because literary critics are used to not just looking at a single text and extracting meaning from it: they also work with multiple texts and, following clues and leads, create links between them. They ‘join up the dots’ in these texts to make a critical case for or against something. If the literary critic is a detective then the evidence room, as Byatt would no doubt concur, is the archive itself. In Possession, Byatt romanticizes the archive so that the physical site of the archive, the evidence room, in conjunction with the documents the archive may contain, creates the powerful impression of being the source of all historical authenticity. This Romantic ideal of the archive suggests to us that it is only by delving deep down in to a special collections section of a research library, for example, can we ever have an ‘authentic’ experience with the past. Of course, we can never directly experience the past ‘authentically’ in this way (or any other) but it demonstrates just how powerful this sense of the archive has over our imagination.

The GW4: Remediating the Archive workshop, by bringing into dialogue special collections librarians, researchers and digital specialists, asked the questions: What happens when such archives are remediated (transformed into a different medium, in this case the digital)? What is gained and lost in this process? How can we improve such remediated archives? How can we better engage the public with these new resources? By fostering discussion among the delegates through highlighting special collections and archival holdings across the GW4 and providing an overview of recent and ongoing digitization projects based in the alliance, the day, through a series of talks and workshops explored the opportunities and challenges faced institutionally and by individual scholars working on such digital projects. Continue reading