British Library

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?

The Library Marketing Toolkit is OUT NOW! Here's what's in it

The book I spent 2011 writing is finally out! Facet Publishing have printed and released the Library Marketing Toolkit and the pre-orders have been sent. There are details of what the book contains, and who writes its 27 case studies, on, but as you'll know if you've read this blog before I really like slide-presentations as a way of getting info across in a non-boring way; with that in mind, here's what you can expect from the book. Chapters, themes covered, case studies, etc.

Still too early for full reviews, but some pre-prints were sent out and have been getting some good feedback:

‘Ned Potter's  book will help any library succeed in creating a community that is aware and engaged in its library. He has written an easy to follow tool kit targeted at the specific marketing needs of librarians that is sure to become a favourite resource for anyone involved in marketing a library. There are case studies from libraries around the world that will inspire you no matter whether your library is large or small. You'll love this book!’ - NANCY DOWD, AUTHOR OF 'BITE-SIZED MARKETING'

[The Toolkit] is brilliant and  a great addition to the library professional discourse.’ – ANDY WOODWORTH

'The Library Marketing Toolkit is packed full of useful, informative and above all practical information about the best ways of getting your message across, and it should be on the shelf of every librarian and information professional who needs to promote the idea of the library and its value in a modern day society.' – PHIL BRADLEY, CILIP PRESIDENT

You can click here to buy in the US, via, or if you're in Canada you can click to buy via or finally in the UK you can click here to order via Amazon UK - or just get it straight from the publisher.

It's finally done!

- Ned

why the new BL e-books announcement is important

It seems to me an obvious but oddly under-invested-in truththat the nicer something is to engage with, the greater the number of people who will engage with it. e-Books have suffered perennially from under-engagement - in the academic library, we've scratched our heads as e-journal usage stats go off the chart, but people continue to reserve physical books and wait for them to come back from loan, rather than consult the e-book online. e-Books haven't traditionally been that nice to engage with. They often lack some of the utility of e-journals and simply don't work as well, plus they suffer from the way we take in information these days. e-Journals are perfect for power-browsing for certain targeted pieces of information, but books still seem like a greater undertaking that doesn't suit on-screen reading. Plus, e-books suffer from comparisons withthe real paper thing: people 'love the smell / feel / look' of books, and can be left cold by the somewhat impersonal e-book, with it's dark size 12 Arial font on a plain white screen.

We're only 5 weeks into 2010 and already some barriers to e-book usability, engageability, seem to be dropping like dominoes - the very barriers which prevent a full-scale embracing of the format. Preceded by the Kindle and Nook, which invested in the format and unshackled the reader from the computer screen, the iPad has launched with its iBook store. There have been an enormous number of articles comparing the relative merits of the platforms and I don't want to rehash them here: suffice to say, the Kindle is better for long bouts of reading (having electronic ink as opposed to a back-lit screen) but really the iPad is sexier in every other way. It costs much the same as a Kindle, you can enjoy the touch-screen page turning experience, and, in any case, you can download the Kindle app for it... e-Books have become more pleasant to engage with at a stroke. They look nicer (full colour, for a start), they are now tactile to a certain extent, and the iBook store looks really tidy. Little things, like the attractive looking virtual 'shelf' with colour renditions of your purchased books on, make a big difference. If Apple has proved anything, it is that they can take existing concepts and make them so much more engaging that they suddenly seem vital to own - remember, there were loads of MP3 players around before the iPodcame along and changed the method of engagement, creating a Hoover-with-vacuum-cleaners-like synonymity (is that a word?) with the medium.

Lots of people have argued that the iPad doesn't do all that it should do, that it is a let-down, the lack of multi-tasking limits it and so on. But this is the first iteration. It'll get better. Most people who've used one say they struggle to convey just how nice the things are to hold and to interact with, so once we've had a go we'll all want one. And by the time the all-improved second or third generation versions come out, they'll be irresistible - or if they are resistible, it's because an iPad inspired rival does the same job even better. So what if it doesn't have a camera? It will do eventually, and in the meantime it'll change the way we engage with content. Either way, it's all good news for e-books.

People are often polarised about new technology - either it's 'THE FUTURE IS HERE RIGHT NOW' or it's 'this will never catch on'. In reality, it is often a mixture of both. The iPad won't completely revolutionise the world, but it's the latest significant step in an ongoing process of change. I think it's probably a very significant step, because Apple traditionally find ways to make people engage withthe same old content in new and exciting ways that somehow render the old ones a little too dull to bother with.

So, how does this all relate to the BL's e-books announcement? The British Library have announced they are shortly to offer free e-books, of out-0f-copyright works, staring in the Spring. You can read more about it here. The way in which they are digitising is significant, for a number of reasons. The difference between the BL's new e-book scheme and many existing digitisation projects is that the BL is physically digitising its own original 18th and 19thcentury texts. So rather than a version of Pride & Prejudice that looks not entirely unlike this blog post does, it'll be scanned from the original copy, with all that implies - original typeface, original illustrations, perhaps even yellower paper... As mentioned above, I think a lot of people have a problem with e-books because they are nothing like the physical experience of reading a proper book. It's not a problem to anyone born this century - they'll happily read anything in on a screen because it is convenient, just in the same way that we accept the fact that MP3 is a rubbish file-format and doesn't sound as good as vinyl, because that too is convenient - but for the rest of us the legacy of the printed word is very powerful. So the BL's digitisation of the whole object, rather than just the contents of the object - their decision to reproduce the original book, rather than just gives us the words - is yet another step towards engaging the e-book sceptics. 2 months ago, your e-book choice consisted largely of reading Austen (or whatever) on a slightly dated looking big white device with keys on it, and no colour on the screen, and just the words of the original migrated to the new format. As of the Spring, you'll be able to read facsimiles of the original first edition in full colour on a device which costs much the same as the ugly white thing, looks and feels fantastic, and allows you to listen to music, surf the net, edit Word docs and watch TV when you're finished! That's a big change in a small amount of time - e-books have gone from rather grey and utilitarian to attractive and tactile. And I think that'll make a big change to the way people engage with them. Which is great!

This ties in with some of the issues we're thinking about with the LIFE-SHARE Project I'm working on. With digital preservation, it may not be enough to just preserve the content of something - when migrating format, we need to preserve everything about the object so it really can be a surrogate copy; the contents pages and appendices and printing notes and the type-set and the blank pages before and after the main body of the text, all that stuff. In years to come, I think people will thank the BL for faithfully reproducing the old books, and giving readers who like the new technology a more authentic reading experience...

- thewikiman