9 reasons to love the British Library's Mechanical Curator


At heart this is a post about discoverability, access, and bringing things to the surface that might otherwise not be seen. The Mechanical Curator of the title is one way of the ways the BL has done this with their digitised images, but only one of many - the point is we all have collections which WOULD engage people if they knew about it, so why not invest some time in getting the message out there in innovative ways?

I ran some workshops for the British Library at the end of last year, aimed at social media 'improvers' (people already using it as part of their professional role, who want to get more engagement and measure their impact etc), during which I talked about Tumblr. I showed various examples and confessed my favourite Tumblr of all was from the BL themselves, the Mechanical Curator.

The Mechanical Curator is Tumblr blog which regularly (and automatically) posts images from 1,000,000+ the BL have scanned from out-of-copyright books from previous centuries. It has been programmed with some Artificial Intelligence - or as far as I can see, more like Artificial Whimsy - and becomes taken with certain shapes, symmetries, and themes, and posts these more often and in clusters. After its set up and tweaking, there's no human intervention - it just gets on with it.

Click the pic to open The Mechanical Curator Tumblr in a new window. Go and explore it! I'll happily wait.

Click the pic to open The Mechanical Curator Tumblr in a new window. Go and explore it! I'll happily wait.

I loved the Mechanical Curator before, but I love it even more now, because I got (my childhood friend!) Ben O'Steen, who is Technical Lead at BL Labs, to come along and talk to the group about the project, as he designed the whole thing. And he gave such an interesting talk about it, and I learned so many new things, that I felt compelled to write this post about how great the whole thing is. Not just in itself, but in what it represents about the new ethos of library sharing, which could be the very thing which ensures our continued relevance.

So here we go, 9 reasons why I love the Mechanical Curator and the project around it:

  1. It's the perfect use for a Tumblr. It's not a regular blog which just used Tumblr because it's fashionable, it's a short, snappy alternative to the BL's more traditional blogging output (which happens via Typepad)
  2. It helps people engage with the BL even if they wouldn't usually. On a micro-level, people stumble across the weird little Tumblr and its weird little images, and then they can either leave it at that OR follow the links to the BL catalogue for each pic, and engage with the Library through other channels. That's what social media should do for us; exist on its on terms, and as a gateway to other library content. On a macro-level this whole project gets people interested in British Library materials - people who would never visit or even really know about the BL normally - and then allows them to learn more about the organisation if they wish to
  3. It takes something vast and makes it accessible one piece at a time. Tumblr is very visual and, like Pinterest, when it first came along I wondered what the point was when we already had Flickr. In this case, all the images the Mechanical Curator brings to the surfaces are on Flickr anyhow. But a digital repository or a Flickr account provide such a MASS of materials, it can be hard to find a way in and make sense of it all. The Tumblr takes one image at a time and gets it out another way, broken down into smaller chunks, which helps people find it, access it, and then explore further
  4. It's just the kind of thing you want your national library to be doing. They've taken 1 million images and said: here you go, you can do anything with them, whoever you are. That's fantastic. Not only that but they've done so in a properly interesting and accessible way, with an emphasis on actually REACHING people with the materials, not just making them available in a vacuum
  5. Forget librarians as gatekeepers... When I first entered librarianship I was very excited about the fact that while in the past librarians were gatekeepers of knowledge and information, now the gates were open and we were the sherpas who helped people find what they needed. This takes that anaology one step further and, in effect, brings all the content out from behind the gates and just puts it on the street, asking people to help themselves. I love that. We will get nowhere by trying to guard what we have, we need to give of ourselves as much as we can
  6. The BL is now immersed in pop-culture. My favourite Buzzfeed article of all time just happens to be this one: 44 Medieval Beasts That Cannot Even Handle It Right Now. All 44 are illustrated from the BL's images, put out by the Manuscripts Team
  7. The level of engagement is incredible. Sometimes you do all the right things to bring people in, but nobody comes. Not this time. Over the first 11 months, the images were viewed on Flickr 212 million times! I try not to put too much stock in views alone, but 20 million hits every month is hard to ignore. Not just that but every single one of the images have been viewed at least once, all but a handful 5 times or more. So despite the collosal scale and bredth of the collection, people are engaging with all of it
  8. People aren't just viewing the images, they're DOING things with the images. People are doing really creative things with the images: using them in art installations, free colouring-in books for children, as patterns on handbags... I love how this video from Joe Bell brings the images to life
  9. Including a huge movement to crowd-source some contextual information. Here's the wikipedia page (not set up by Ben or the BL) aimed at tagging all the maps found in the images with contextual and geographic information. As you can see, there are NONE left still to do: all 29,304 of the maps have been tagged.

It's not just maps - the community have tagged all sorts of things, providing the BL with groups and categories on its flickr page. Crowd-sourcing is great way of engaging a community and giving them ownership of something!

Finally, for some more context, here's one of Ben's presentations about the Mechanical Curator.

SO Can WE ALL do something like this?

As you can tell, I really think this project is ace. It's a template for what libraries can do with their collections - and although there's a tremendous amount of resource behind what the BL has done, we can all learn from it and apply some of their methodology.

Perhaps we can't all make a tumblr with Artificial intelligence, but we might know someone who can take Ben's code, freely available on Github, and apply it to another project. But to get distracted by the AI is to miss the point - the Mechanical Curator's greatest asset, for me, is taking something unmanagably vast and giving people another way to access it. So if your library has digitised materials which are out of copyright, don't just have them sat in a digital library! Get them out for people to happen across, via Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram.

If you have collections which you own, or which are out of copyright, can you put them into the public domain and encourage people to take them and remix them?