Walks, talks and imaginary cities – the British Library’s digital collections

The British Library has a fantastic track record when it comes to mobilising its digitised content.

The British Library (BL) collaborates with researchers, librarians, artists, educators and – of course – individual members of the public and encourages them not only to engage with its digitised collections but also to re-use and repurpose them to create new works and experiences.

The digitised city

The perfect example of this is the current exhibition Imaginary Cities created by Michael Takeo Magruder. He is a visual artist and researcher who works with technology and information systems to create his artworks. Imaginary Cities features four technology-based art installations. These installations began with four 19th-century maps of London, Paris, New York and Chicago, chosen by the artist from a collection of 50,000 maps. This collection was created by a crowdsourced map tagging challenge of the British Library’s One Million Images from Scanned Books collection, available on the British Library’s Flickr Commons account.  Each of these four city maps has been artistically manipulated by technology, data and information systems. New images are generated by algorithms and presented using a range of new and traditional artistic techniques. The artworks are displayed alongside the original maps and other source materials and show that the BL is not simply a repository of knowledge, but a storehouse of creative potential that is constantly generating new avenues for culture.

Walking, talking

Other examples of creative use and reuse of digitised content were explored at a British Library event called Exploring with Sound Walks. A sound walk is a walk with a focus on listening to the environment. A sound walk can be enhanced using technology, music, sound recordings or recorded spoken word. People are using and creating soundscapes in a fascinating range of ways, including using data feeds to create  personalised individual experiences. The event included presentations of location-specific storytelling, such as BL PhD student Alastair Horne (@pressfuturist), who described his cemetery-based storytelling project. There were also talks from technology companies; cgeomap and Placecloud, which provide tools and software for people to create their own artistic, literary and informative sound walks.

The world of sound walking will be celebrated on Sound Walk Sunday (Sunday 1st September). In fact, there’ll be a whole week-long festival of audio, geo-located, immersive performances, listening walks and sound walks.

The creative use of BL digitised content

The British Library has an extensive sound archive of 6.5 million sound recordings, which come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound: music, drama and literature, oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds. Rights issues for recorded sound are complex. However, the BL is providing an increasing number of wildlife and environmental sounds free of charge, under Creative Commons licenses, such as these recordings on Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Wildlife_Sounds_in_the_British_Library and on Europeana: https://pro.europeana.eu/data/british-library-sound-recordings. Here you can find recordings of blackbirds, nightingales, toads, owls, swans and warblers, among many other creatures.

The sound wave patterns of audio recordings have been captured in embroidery by textile artist Cat Frampton. Game makers have used wildlife recordings to enhance the atmosphere of the gaming experience.

The truth is that people are doing the most astonishing and creative things with digitised content and the British Library has curated collections made available as Creative Commons and Public Domain that can be reworked and reinvented.

With thanks to Stella Wisdom for hosting the Exploring with Sound Walks event and for assisting with this article.