Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tome Team

My knowledge of bio-archeology is pretty much limited to watching Tony Robinson peer at skeletons on Time Team in the company of those wise in the ways of interpreting bones. Kind of like reading the runes, but with added science.

So it was a pleasure to spend time at the bio-archeology department at York University working on a possible project around surfacing a collection of manuscripts which had miraculously had DNA extracted from them in a non-destructive way. This might allow the discovery of which kind of animal the vellum came from, where and when.

I've always loved this kind of meta-data. The book as originally made, complete with text, illumination and binding for so long represented the entire artefact.

But the marginalia and annotations are very often more illuminating than the text itself. Aldred's annotation of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Newton's notes in his copy of Principia Mathematica or Eliot's scribbles on the typescript of The Wasteland.

The fascinating research done by Kathryn Rudy to determine the most read and used parts of a book, which can be determined by the wear and dirt of certain pages also reveals a whole new side to the life of the book. There's a great TED talk by her here.

So the analysis of the page itself propels us to a point where we can find out what animals were used, what time of year they might have been killed and whether the manuscript was consistent in it's use of material. It's likely to pose as many questions as it provides answers.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The North

To Newcastle University to discuss presenting some great local material. Getting out of the train from London, the temperature is definitely several degrees colder. This is "The North" as the signs on the M1 so bluntly put it. Locals might insist they are from the North East, which is quite a different thing.

I was early for the meeting so spent some time walking around Newcastle, and was struck by the range and quality of architecture. Dynamic modern buildings up at the university, moneyed sandstone parades of Victorian shops and towering redbrick warehouses on the steeper roads straggling down to the Tyne.

But it was the incredible Tudor survivors down at the quay that stunned me. Much like the short stretch by Chancery Lane in London, these came as a surprise. But a wonderful one.

Some, like Bessy Surtees House are well-preserved and in use (in this case by English Heritage).

Others were sound but unused. The roofs looked watertight, but the windows were occasionally boarded and the rooms empty. Peering through dusty windowpanes from the street, they looked unmolested and original. So what to do with them?

The quay is a little cut off from the city centre, and on the cold day of my visit, I was the only one down there. The enormous bridges tower above you and you feel somewhat out of place. This dislocation has probably been the reason they're not in use.

But in most cities these buildings were swept away in Victorian redevelopment or post-war reconstruction. So to have them at all is a gift. But it feels like a gift that has been left on the shelf, waiting for someone to realise it's value.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Rochester Revisited

Back to Rochester to start work on the Textus Roffensis, one of the most significant documents in England along with Magna Carta, Domesday and one or two others. To find out why, google it, but it's basically the foundation of our current legal system and includes transcriptions of laws from as early as the 6th century, the document itself being 500 years older.

But the task we're faced with, as with Magna Carta, is how to convey the significance of what is a very opaque book. Page after page of Anglo-Saxon and Latin with nary an illumination to lighten our darkness.

I think the answer is conjuring up people's imagination. To try to immerse them in that Anglo-Saxon world of wild tribalism and post-Roman chaos. The darkness, the violence, the invaders, the pervasive sense of insecurity. The holy men retreating to their fastnesses on the edge of our little island.

And who's to look out for us? To whom are we accountable?

In to the ferment comes a book of law, setting out right and wrong, compensation and civilisation.

Miraculously it has survived almost 1000 years and our job will be to animate it like some bibliophiliac Dr Frankenstein. Helpfully the book will be displayed in the crypt, and, if we can get the space right, the evocation will be simpler.

So much of examining the past is an exercise in imagination, which, if successful, allows us to see our present in new ways. Hopefully we can help.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Turning the Pages Deep Zoom

In response to some conversations at the IIIF conference in Paris earlier this summer, we decided to take a look at producing an enhanced version of Turning the Pages that would have 4 key features:
- HTML5 based
- use an API to call in any repository items rather than use the existing proprietary TTP database
- allow magnification to the native resolution of the source scans (whatever that might be)
- accommodate PNGs, TIFFs, JPGs or JP2s as source files

This project would take the long experience we have of producing compelling page turn experiences with that we developed for the iNQUIRE framework of surfacing deep zoom images, especially those created from a variety of source file formats.

Going through these one by one:

It's clear we had to build on the work done in TTP 3.0 and make this a web app that will run on any platform and be easy to reskin and customise, so HTML5/Javascript and CSS were the way to go.

Previous versions of TTP have provided a great user experience but been connected to a proprietary MS SQL Server database populated by the TTP CMS. This made it really easy to use, but hard to scale. The objective for TTP_DZ is for digital libraries to be able to just call up a URI (for example for a folder of images) and TTP would dynamically create the books on the fly. Rather like the Open Archive Book Reader works. This approach would allow us to scale to millions of books in an automated fashion.

One of the issues with rare books and manuscripts is the need to see as much resolution as possible. Traditionally we've used as high a resolution JPG or PNG as we can get away with, which has been good enough for the general public, but scholars want more. So we want to be able to provide the great TTP user experience, plus be able to zoom in to native resolution scans, all in a seamless way. No clunky image swapping or downloading of new page images.

Many of our clients are transitioning to using JP2s as their repository and delivery files format. We wanted to be able to accommodate this and serve up deep zoom pages derived from JP2s.

This project is a work in progress and the first build is now live here:

This version hits a couple of our goals: it's HTML5 and it uses Deep Zoom versions of pages as required (i.e. beyond a certain zoom threshold). At the moment it's hard-wired in to the page images so the next thing we'll be working on is the abstraction from that model. It's also just using the standard TTP 3.0 interface  for now - we may add some more scholarly features as we progress.

As a prototype, we welcome all feedback, so tell us what you'd like to see and we'll add it to the list...

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Sounds of Lindisfarne

We've been working a lot recently on the Lindisfarne Gospels, making website, kiosk, Kindle and iBook versions. Which isn't to say we're satiated. The intricacy of the cross-carpet pages,  the startling immediacy of the title pages for the Gospels, the interlinear annotations to the Latin text all make this a book of endless fascination.

But we were still surprised and delighted that Chris Watson has released a CD called "In St Cuthbert's Time" which is "a sound installation that reflects the acoustic landscape of that island during the time that the Lindisfarne Gospels were being considered, written and illustrated."

It was produced with Durham University's Institute of Advanced Study, and sounds like a remarkable project. As well as an installation it's available as a CD.

What books like the Lindisfarne Gospels have the capacity to do is to transport us back to the time of their creation. The evidence of their handling, the techniques of production, the annotations and the wear all speak volubly of the sacred time and space in which the work was made. To spend time in the company of the book is to let the 21st century fall away.

This evocation is sometimes hard to conjure up and I hope that Chris Watson's work will help the process. Very often we spend our time in pursuit of the facts about a book or trying to decode the meaning of the text. We don't allow ourselves to be transported back to it's world and our capacity for speculation, wonder and serendipitous connection is diminished.

I tracked it down on Caught By the River by the way, one of my favourite websites.

The iBook of the Gospels is also available here.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Lost Library of Glastonbury

I've always had  a fascination with lost knowledge. There's an expanding corpus of knowledge in any given area, but is that everything that's ever been known about the subject? The hidden libraries of Timbuctou and the discovery of manuscripts at St Catherines Monastery are particularly gripping examples of these.

But, if we can fillet the unhelpful grail mythology from the tale, so is the lost library of Glastonbury.

So far as we can tell, the monastery was founded before 601. William of Malmesbury, probably the foremost historian of the 12th century, visited the abbey in the early part of the century and saw a charter of that date demonstrating a grant by a king of Damnonia at the request of Abbot Worgret of the isle of Yneswytrin to the monastery there. 

The Life of St Boniface, written by his disciple Willibald, mentions the abbey in the mid 8th century, and it also gets a mention in the 10th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle. We know St Dunstan was Abbott in the middle of the century and there is mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. After that William of Malmesbury picks up the tale some time after 1200 and we move through the 13th and 14th century towards the bibliographic apocalypse of the reformation. 

We'd be right to guess, therefore, that, by the reformation the abbey would have collected a significant library in it's 900 year history, despite the predations of the Danes and William the Conqueror, as well as regular fires, thefts and losses. This is born out by a survey of the abbey library made by John Glastonbury in 1247, as catalogued by the precentor William Britton. In the survey there are over 400 volumes, some, no doubt, with multiple manuscripts bound together. There are the writings of the early church fathers like Augustine, Gregory and Athanasius, but also some intriguing curiosities. 

What was "the second part from the psalms (old)"? If it was deemed old in 1247, how old was it? And what were "two English books, old and useless". Saxon, most likely, but what were they? And of the classics from Plato, Seneca, Orosius and others, were they just faithful copies of texts that have come down to us today, or did they hold now lost writings? Not to mention the transcriptions, transliterations, marginalia and appendices that these books must have had. Many were undoubtedly Saxon, but some may well have been earlier. If the abbey was founded in the middle of the 6th century (say), the Romans had only left these shores 100 years previously. How many of the books had come from their empire?

After this enticing survey in 1247, we know that, as the abbey grew rich along with the church, other manuscripts flowed into the great library at Glastonbury. Our next chronicler is John Leland, who, before he became a de facto antiquarian to Henry VIII, visited the monastery library for his own benefit in 1533, before the dissolution. A renowned (if slightly mad) bibliomane, the doors of the library were opened to him and his response was electric "Scarcely had I crossed the threshold when the sole contemplation of these ancient books filled me with I know not what—a sort of religious fear or stupor, and made me pause. Then, having saluted the genius of the place, I most curiously examined for some days all the shelves". 

Maybe Leland knew the end of the abbey was in sight. The bishop, Whyting, was harrassed by Thomas Cromwell from about 1535, and was now an old man. He had graduated in 1483, so, by now must have been over 70. Through the late summer and autumn of 1539 Abbott Whyting and the 
brothers were further harried by Cromwell, who had seen to it that, by this time, Glastonbury was the last abbey standing in Somerset. By October, Cromwells men were ransacking the abbey. 11,000 ounces of gilt plate, 6,000 ounces of silver, cash of over £1,100 and even furniture were hauled back to the king.

Whyting was given a show trial and executed on the tor that stands outside the town. He was hung, drawn and quartered and the parts of his body displayed in Bridgwater, Ilchester, Wells and Bath.

And what of the books? Leland had estimated there to be over 4,000 volumes at the time of his visit. The greatest library in England and a treasure house of the rarest and most important books.

Well, the stories that have come down to us are tragic. Bindings were ripped from the books, and the jewels and gilt prised off as treasure. The folios inside burnt. We hear of thousands of pages blowing away in the wind, gathered to be used as toilet paper or to scour out candlesticks.

But we know of 40 or so that survived, rescued from the flames by Archbishop Matthew Parker and Sir Robert Cotton. The former now known as the Parker Collection, and the later forming the basis of what became the British Library.

These are books like Prognosticon futuri saeculi by Aldhelm, now at the BL:

Or here is a fragment of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle of 890, now at the Parker Collection:

So while much as been lost, at least some remains. And maybe there's more to be found.

A couple of years ago I worked on the lost minutes of the early days of the Royal Society. Kept by Robert Hooke, they'd been mislaid sometime just after 1700. In 2006, during a house clearance, a tattered manuscript was found in a cupboard in a house in Sussex. It was the lost minutes -  a record of the intellectual sparring between Hooke, Boyle, Newton and others. Amongst other things it identified the fact that Hooke had invented the balance spring as a doodle on the back of a page, an invention hitherto credited to Christian Huygens.

You never know what remains to be found. Lost knowledge doesn't always stay lost.

If you want to pursue this fascinating area of study I looked at The Victoria County History of Somerset (vol 2), the Somerset Extensive Urban Survey and much enjoyed Michael Wood's account in In Search of England. Had I more time, I'd have tried to turn up James P. Carley's  "John Leland and the contents of English pre-dissolution libraries" which seems to be a recent definitive work on the subject. William of Malmesbury you should find at the Internet Archive.

You'll also have to forgive my sketchy scholarship. As a technologist rather than an academic, I'd like to think this might be forgiven on account of my amateur status.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Leaving the field

A little while ago I wrote about how difficult it is for small app developers to make it, in competition with the huge marketing spend of big app houses.

Today it was sad to see that Agant has let go all of it's staff, citing that the app development environment is just too risky.

I feel sorry for the company and the founder, and he proposed a number of solutions for making his apps more appealing, including time-limited trials which make perfect sense.

But a number of things come back to me:
- you're never going to change Apple. They have a stranglehold on the paid-for apps market.
- you need friends in high places to succeed. Apple would be a good friend to have. Failing that someone with deep marketing pockets
- outstanding quality will succeed partly because it attracts friends. Touchpress, for example, do well and turn out apps with high production values (and budgets)
- originality will attract eyeballs. If your app is pretty much like a dozen other apps in the store (at least to the consumer) then how are you going to differentiate yourself. Seth Godin wrote about this last week. If you're doing something new, you'll generate a buzz and sales will follow.

None of which is a comment on Agant's efforts. I've not used their apps.

But any independent developer should pay careful attention what the market is telling us.

Remember - during the goldrush most prospectors didn't make a dime, and the real winners were the guys who sold shovels and the corporations who came in and swept up the land rights. Little guys never lasted long.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Skeuomorphism hits the headlines

Most gratifyingly, the subject of skeuomorphism has become a hot topic in the last weeks as Apple have refreshed iOS and done away with the green baize of Game Center, the ripped paper of Calendar and the stitched leather of Notes.

Having written an essay for this for Tate a while ago, which I also posted here, the BBC tracked me down and Sam Judah interviewed me the other day. His piece is now live on the BBC website.

I think there's still a debate to be had here. Hideous forced metaphors, especially in productivity apps have no role for me. Cut to the chase please, I have work to do.

But in other contexts, such as gallery interactives, or apps designed for a more leisurely experience, then surely there is space for an alternative view.

As I said in the interview:"Is there no room for ornamentation, for playfulness, for beauty? Are we all going to live in a minimalist world and walk around wearing grey polo necks?"

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Interoperability gets serious

The other week I was in Paris for a conference on interoperability. It was the working group of the IIIF, the brainchild of a consortium of libraries including the British Library, Bibliotheque Nationale, National Library of Norway, Los Alamos and Stanford.

The efforts being made in this area are immense, and, since I've been involved in this field, something of a holy grail. As research slowly becomes digital, the concept of information being locked in discreet digital silos becomes more and more absurd. Ingest of just metadata into a vast database (Europeana) or strict adherence to standards before ingest of metadata and image into another vast database (Biodiversity Heritage Library) do surely not, in the end, point the way forward.

And yet, what to do? Decisions over digitisation and metadata standards that were taken decades ago affect us now and prevent effective cross-collection search and collaboration.

IIIF is designed to address that problem by developing metadata and image APIs as well as a comprehensive image markup model called Shared Canvas.

It was fascinating to be involved in the emergence of something so potentially game-changing. The unsung heroes of interoperability will be those who sweat the details over the schema and the API. My job is then to build software that exploits this liberating commonality and frees the repositories up for researchers. They make me look good.

So thank you to Tom Cramer for inviting me and I look forward to seeing how this pans out.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Changing views

Our office, as I may have mentioned before, is on the street that Charles Dickens grew up on. We're at number 106, he was at number 22.

Walking past the other day, I stood outside his front door and took this photo.

I thought, initially that Dickens would have been horrified, seeing the cranes, the lorries, the builders and the noise and dust. They're building a Crossrail station.

But then I recalled that he grew up in this street during one of the biggest phases of population growth London has ever seen.

When he was born, in 1812, London was already the largest city in the world, an unimaginable heaving mass of just over a million people crammed into a decaying, often medieval, housing stock.

By the time he died in 1870, the population was 3.3m, swathes of old rabbit warren housing had been swept away, and the seep into the suburbs had well and truly begun.

So he'd have lived with change, noise, disturbance and an uncomfortable sense of things not being what they were.

Our changes are now digital as much as physical, and the world around us is changing as fast it did for Dickens.

A new landscape is being created.

It's just, when you walk down my road, you can't see it.

ps. This weekend, 9th June, the house got finally a blue plaque. Thanks to Spitalfields Life for running a story on that.

Monday, 13 May 2013

To the Fens

The middle if nowhere depends, of course, on where you start from.

Early maps (like the Mappa Mundi) had Jerusalem at the centre of the map. Having built an empire we decided that England should be at the centre of our maps.

It's argued, with some reason, that there has been an unintended but clear divide building between London and the rest of the country. London has wealth, power, a rampant property market and a disproportionate number of our cultural institutions. We tend to think it's always been like this.

But that's not quite true.

In Saxon times the capital of England was briefly Winchester, and in the 14th century King's Lynn was the most important port in England. Times changed and sea levels fell, and Kings Lynn found itself a backwater as Liverpool and London took precedence.

But great buildings of that time remain, and Oxburgh Hall is one, now in the care of the National Trust.

I was there to look at a selection of wallpapers the family had kept since the early 18th century. Most of  us keep the odd length of wallpaper or spare bathroom tile in our attic, but this looked more deliberate. More a case of keeping a record rather than being able to re-paper a damaged section.

Old families often think in this way. The regard for the future is as keen as that for the present. They are aware, all the time, of their custodianship of a house rather than ownership, their sense of obligation to unborn descendants.

In a little room, with the spring sunshine streaming in, we gathered round a small table and looked at the scraps and fragments and wondered at the mistress of the house carefully boxing up these remnants after the decorators had left. For the future. As it transpires, and how impossible for her to conceive this, for us.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Impoverished by the Marketing Dollar

Something that's become very apparent in our choice-saturated and confusing technology space is the ability of marketing to push products to the top of the heap that might not deserve to be there. Having made it to the top of the heap, the confused consumer will never look down the charts for something more intelligent, appropriate or economical. In picking a top ten product, he trusts what he perceives to be the wisdom of crowds, but what may well be just the might of the marketing dollar.
A couple of studies have highlighted this to me recently. The Kindle Fire has 33% of the Android tablet market according to Localytics, with the Nexus 7 grabbing only 7%. This despite the Fire being described as an Amazon cash register - most things you do on it funnel you towards Amazon and the siren call of one-click checkout. Nexus 7 is faster, cheaper and open, but the Amazon marketing dollar has prevailed.
The other saddening statistic was that half of all app development revenue goes to just 25 developers. It's the normal suspects: Disney; Electronic Arts; Zynga; Rovio. The days of a great indie app making it seem over.
The great, the original, the worthwhile and the quirky are being drowned out by gigantic marketing budgets and the paralysis consumers face when presented with 14 seemingly similar tablets or 131,727 games to choose from (as of this weekend).
Maybe this is the way markets work - innovators prove to be one-hit wonders or get bought out, the big boys move in and a suddenly it's (big) business as usual. But as a developer and publisher I increasingly feel we can't compete and are relying on the goodwill of Apple or a lucky break. Neither of which are a good basis on which to build a business.

With the seemingly inevitable demise of Barnes and Noble in the e-reader and maybe even book space drawing closer, I read  this analysis in the New York Times:

“In many ways it is a great product,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester, said of the Nook tablet. “It was a failure of brand, not product.
“The Barnes & Noble brand is just very small,” she added. “It has done a great job at engaging its existing customers but failed to expand their footprint beyond that.”

Further evidence that a great product can't compete in a confusing market without a ton of marketing.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Listening to what matters

A while ago on this blog I wrote about the joy of doing work that mattered, with a nod to Tim O'Reilly for the inspiration. It was near the beginning of 2009 and felt like a New Years resolution.

At the beginning of this year, I need another resolution, similar but crucially different.

Listen to what matters.

In the intervening years, the background noise of chatter, comment, opinion, advice and alarm has grown beyond my expectations. 120m Facebook users then, a billion now. Twitter had registered less than a billion tweets ever, now it's 16bn a month.

It's hard to filter out noise and only ingest information that will be helpful. If you're pushing out into new areas of work, how can you tell the experts from those who just talk the talk and have a lot of followers? How much time should you spend finding and processing all this information?

My 2013 resolution then is to listen to what matters and ignore the rest. I'm going through my social and web feeds, bookmarks and Flipboard settings, and purging the marginal voices, letting those who remain be heard more clearly.

And trusting my judgement.