New Paper: an examination of the implicit and explicit selection criteria that shape digital archives of historical newspapers

We’ve recently had a paper accepted to Archival Science journal, on work which has emerged from the Oceanic Exchanges project, which has been looking into reuse of mass digitised newspapers archives, as part of our Digging Into Data funded activities. The question is: how has the selection of historical newspapers for digitisation affected the type of text mining based research we can undertake – and how are institutions making decisions about what should be digitised? I’ve provided a link to the author’s accepted text, which we can share under the licensing for this journal:

Tessa Hauswedell, Julianne Nyhan, Melodee Beals, Melissa Terras, and Emily Bell (Forthcoming 2020). Of global reach yet of situated contexts: an examination of the implicit and explicit selection criteria that shape digital archives of historical newspapers Accepted: Archival Science.


A large literature addresses the processes, circumstances and motivations that have given rise to archives. These questions are increasingly being asked of digital archives, too. Here, we examine the complex interplay of institutional, intellectual, economic, technical, practical and social factors that have shaped decisions about the inclusion and exclusion of digitised newspapers in and from online archives. We do so by undertaking and analysing a series of semi-structured interviews conducted with public and private providers of major newspaper digitisation programmes. Our findings contribute to emerging understandings of factors that are rarely foregrounded or highlighted yet fundamentally shape the depth and scope of digital cultural heritage archives and thus the questions that can be asked of them, now and in the future. Moreover, we draw attention to providers’ emphasis on meeting the needs of their end-users and how this is shaping the form and function of digital archives. The end user is not often emphasised in the wider literature on archival studies and we thus draw attention to the potential merit of this vector in future studies of digital archives.

Keywords: digitization; newspaper; selection rationale; cultural heritage; critical heritage

New paper – How Open is OpenGLAM? Identifying Barriers to Commercial and Non-Commercial Reuse of Digitised Art Images

I’m delighted to be a co-author on a new paper recently published in the Journal of Documentation: How Open is OpenGLAM: Identifying barriers to commercial and non-commercial reuse of digitised art images (PDF of accepted manuscript).

This results from Foteini Valeonti’s work on, where she has built a “virtual museum that democratises art”, including (or at least, trying to include!) many openly licensed images of artworks, testing out the limits of open licensing for both commercial and non-commercial applications. Are they really that open? what barriers are in the way?

The full citation is:

Valeonti, F., Terras, M. and Hudson-Smith, A., 2019. How open is OpenGLAM? Identifying barriers to commercial and non-commercial reuse of digitised art images. Journal of Documentation. doi/10.1108.

The authors’ last uploaded version is available to download here. I’ll paste the abstract, below!



In recent years, OpenGLAM and the broader open license movement have been gaining momentum in the cultural heritage sector. The purpose of this paper is to examine OpenGLAM from the perspective of end users, identifying barriers for commercial and non-commercial reuse of openly licensed art images.


Following a review of the literature, the authors scope out how end users can discover institutions participating in OpenGLAM, and use case studies to examine the process they must follow to find, obtain and reuse openly licensed images from three art museums.


Academic literature has so far focussed on examining the risks and benefits of participation from an institutional perspective, with little done to assess OpenGLAM from the end users’ standpoint. The authors reveal that end users have to overcome a series of barriers to find, obtain and reuse open images. The three main barriers relate to image quality, image tracking and the difficulty of distinguishing open images from those that are bound by copyright.
This study focusses solely on the examination of art museums and galleries. Libraries, archives and also other types of OpenGLAM museums (e.g. archaeological) stretch beyond the scope of this paper.

Practical implications

The authors identify practical barriers of commercial and non-commercial reuse of open images, outlining areas of improvement for participant institutions.


The authors contribute to the understudied field of research examining OpenGLAM from the end users’ perspective, outlining recommendations for end users, as well as for museums and galleries.



New Book Chapter – On Virtual Auras: The Cultural Heritage Object in the Age of 3D Digital Reproduction

Still from the Shipping Gallery video, showing the figurehead from HMS North Star. From Hindmarch (2015).
Still from the Science Museum, London’s, Shipping Gallery Lidar scan video, showing the figurehead from HMS North Star. From Hindmarch (2015, p. 145) with acknowledgement to Scanlab.

We’re really pleased to see the release of a new book, The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites, Edited by Hannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, Steven Cooke (2019). Which has a book chapter from me and my colleagues in it! Based on the PhD research of Dr John Hindmarch, which was supervised by myself and Prof Stuart Robson, this chapter asks if digital heritage 3D objects have their own aura…

Hindmarch, J., Terras, M., and Robson, S. (2019). On Virtual Auras: The Cultural Heritage Object in the Age of 3D Digital ReproductionIn: H. Lewi; W Smith; S Cooke; D vom Lehn (eds) (2019). The Routledge international Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites. London: Routledge, pp. 243-256.

Making 3D models for public facing cultural heritage applications currently concentrates on creating digitised models that are as photo realistic as possible. The virtual model should have, if possible, the same informational content as its subject, in order to act as a ‘digital surrogate’. This is a reasonable approach, but due to the nature of the digitisation process and limitations of the technology, it is often very difficult, if not impossible.

However, museum objects themselves are not merely valued for their informational content; they serve purposes other than simply imparting information. In modern museums exhibits often appear as parts of a narrative, embedded within a wider context, and in addition, have physical properties that also retain information about their creation, ownership, use, and provenance. This ability for an object to tell a story is due to more than just the information it presents. Many cultural heritage objects have, to borrow an old term, aura: an affectual power to engender an emotional response in the viewer. Is it possible that a 3D digitised model can inherit some of this aura from the original object? Can a virtual object also have affectual power, and if so, fulfil the role of a museum object without necessarily being a ‘realistic’ representation?

In this chapter we will first examine the role of museums and museum exhibits, particularly as regards to their public-facing remits, and what part aura plays. We will then ask if digitised objects can also have aura, and how they might help to fulfil the museums’ roles. We will see in the case of the Science Museum’s Shipping Gallery scan, that a digitised resource can, potentially, exhibit affectual power, and that this ability depends as much on the presentation and context of the resource as the information contained within it.

Under the licensing for this book, we are allowed to host the author’s last version on our own websites, so you can download a PDF of the full chapter here. Tim Sherratt is also rounding up other author’s last versions here, for other contents of the book!

Academia and Children’s Literature: Books out now!

Picture-Book Professors, book cover Professor in Children's Literature: An Anthology, cover.

In Open Access week, in October 2018, I was very pleased to publish my two books about the relationship of academia to children’s literature. The first, Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature, is published by Cambridge University Press, and contains an analysis of academics as they appear in children’s literature, looking at biases, and what we are teaching children about expertise – but also how these biases map onto the constituency of the real life academy. It is free to view online or download in PDF from CUP,  and freely available for Kindle, over at Amazon. You can buy it in physical form, too, of course, if that is your thing.

Its sibling volume, which expands on and provides many of the early examples in the monograph, The Professor in Children’s Literature: An Anthology, published by Fincham Press (the press of the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, which hosts the National Centre of Research in Children’s Literature), is available for free download in open access, both in EPub and PDF.  Kindle may be coming soon! And, of course, its available in print, should you want to buy it, too.

I’ve been lucky to have quite some coverage of these, so rather than repeat myself here, I thought I would list that coverage:

Melissa Terras at CUP

We had a lovely evening launching the book in Cambridge.

And how did it “do”? At the end of Open Access week 2018, Picture-Book Professors had been downloaded 1460 times:

CUP graph showing downloadsMy first analogue-only monograph only had a total original print run of 300. (That seems a lifetime ago – before open access, before free downloads, where the gold standard in the humanities was to have a short-run monograph from a major university press – I was happy with that, then!). In changed times, I can’t imagine why you would not want to share your work with as wide an audience as possible, and already the reach of this monograph is potentially far wider than my others, which were not published in open access. (I cover the costs of all this, btw, over on the Fincham Press blog).

The Professor in Children’s Literature has been downloaded 589 times since launch:Downloads from Fincham Press The anthology project was always about marrying open access with digitisation, to provide a means of showing your working out in the humanities, akin to the open-science approach to making your data available. I’m very proud of this anthology (although I learned that putting anthologies together is much harder work than it looks!)

I’m going to miss this topic: it was very much the “fun” thing I had ticking along in the background for over five years, chasing a research rabbit down the research rabbit hole for the pure joy of it, alongside the much larger, technical projects I take part in for the day job. It’s been a blast, and I’m incredibly proud of these books! So there we have it. A project that started off on twitter, moved to a Tumblr Blog, and began to consider this seriously in a blog post, has ended up in not one but two related academic books, which I manage to publish on the same day (with a lot of help from friends in the presses: everyone is thanked at length in the acknowledgements section of both books!).

I now need a lie down, before I start my next secret squirrel project in earnest…


New Paper – ‘Making such bargain’: Transcribe Bentham and the quality and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced transcription

We (Tim Causer, Kris Grint, Anna-Maria Sichani, and me!) have recently published an article in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities on the economics of crowdsourcing, reporting on the Transcribe Bentham project, which is formally published here:

Alack, due to our own economic situation, its behind a paywall there. Its also embargoed for two years in our institutional repository (!). But I’ve just been alerted to the fact that the license of this journal allows the author to put the “post-print on the authors personal website immediately”. Others publishing in DSH may also not be aware of this clause in the license!

So here it is, for free download, for you to grab and enjoy in PDF.

I’ll stick the abstract here. It will help people find it!

In recent years, important research on crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage sector has been published, dealing with topics such as the quantity of contributions made by volunteers, the motivations of those who participate in such projects, the design and establishment of crowdsourcing initiatives, and their public engagement value. This article addresses a gap in the literature, and seeks to answer two key questions in relation to crowdsourced transcription: (1) whether volunteers’ contributions are of a high enough standard for creating a publicly accessible database, and for use in scholarly research; and (2) if crowdsourced transcription makes economic sense, and if the investment in launching and running such a project can ever pay off. In doing so, this article takes the award-winning crowdsourced transcription initiative, Transcribe Bentham, which began in 2010, as its case study. It examines a large data set, namely, 4,364 checked and approved transcripts submitted by volunteers between 1 October 2012 and 27 June 2014. These data include metrics such as the time taken to check and approve each transcript, and the number of alterations made to the transcript by Transcribe Bentham staff. These data are then used to evaluate the long-term cost-effectiveness of the initiative, and its potential impact upon the ongoing production of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham at UCL. Finally, the article proposes more general points about successfully planning humanities crowdsourcing projects, and provides a framework in which both the quality of their outputs and the efficiencies of their cost structures can be evaluated.

Causer, T., Grint, K., Sichani, A. M., & Terras, M. (2018). ‘Making such bargain’: Transcribe Bentham and the quality and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced transcription. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.

On endings and new beginnings: My new role at the University of Edinburgh!



The start of the new academic semester sees the dust settling on a new adventure for me and my family: in October 2017 I left UCL to join the University of Edinburgh, where I am the new Chair of Digital Cultural Heritage. I’m truly excited to have joined a university that has made such a strong commitment to applying data science into all aspects of academic, civic, and industrial life. As well as leading Digital Scholarship in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I’ll be establishing a new research centre in data science, culture and society (yet to be formally named! we’re still deciding… ) which will bootstrap, enable, support, and promote digital and data-based research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. My post is part of an expansion built around the new Edinburgh Futures Institute: a new university institute which will tackle societal and cultural issues via data science, and offer a raft of innovative teaching programmes. In 2021 the EFI will move into its permanent home at the heart of the University in the refurbished Old Royal Infirmary, in the city centre of Edinburgh, and it is exhilarating to be part of the team helping to scope out the direction and implementation of a new institute, with all the opportunities and challenges it will bring. I’ve posted a picture of the EFI, above: our very own digital arts/humanities/social science Hogwarts! (Image courtesy of Bennetts Associates).

Of course, having been at UCL for over 14 years previously, I’m missing colleagues, friends, and Bloomsbury, but I’m keeping up research projects and links, whilst forging new opportunities north of the border, and beyond. I’m delighted that both UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and UCL Department of Information Studies have made me Honorary Professor. I also know that I leave UCLDH – which I co-founded and directed for many years – in good hands, with Simon Mahony now as UCLDH Director. I have every faith that it will continue to flourish, and am promised a cuppa and a cupcake – as is the UCLDH tradition! – when I’m passing through.

Edinburgh is great so far. As well as the challenges of a new job, and meeting hosts of new colleagues, and the bubbling away of new research ideas and approaches, I’m enjoying the change of scene, and getting my head around a new institution. In the three months I’ve been at Edinburgh I’ve almost stopped counting how many weeks I’ve been in the place, and saying “at UCL we did it like this…” (I had to edit the opening line to “semester” rather than “term” and that’s just the start of the mental remodelling involved). I’m now living near family, I walk to work, I live in a Victorian mansion, and my children are happy, in great schools. I no longer have a punishing commute (you don’t think most people who work in London can afford to live in London do you?). I’ve a new, glorious, European city to explore, which feels like home already, returning to Scottish culture and society (although I grew up relatively near here, I didn’t know Edinburgh that well at all before we moved). I’m aware I’m living the academic dream, which is a lovely feeling to have: I’m both aware of and appreciating my privilege. This is home now. This.

And, as usual, I have much work to do!

An embarrassment of Lectures – Videos, Slides, & Transcripts of my recent keynotes

Between the start of October the end of November 2016 I was asked to do a variety of keynotes and guest talks. I’m cutting down on travel at the moment, especially during teaching terms, but things in London are fair game… although imagine my surprise to find out I had managed to book myself in to talk at five big events in around as many weeks, at the start of the academic year! Gulp. Videos, transcripts, reports, and audio of these have trickled in, so I thought I would collect it all in one handy blogpost for your perusing pleasure.

First up was the Linnean Society Annual Conference on 10th October, which this year had the theme “What Should Be in Your Digital Toolbox” and my talk “If you teach a computer to READ: Transcribe Bentham, Transkribus, and Handwriting Technology Recognition.” For the past six years, the Transcribe Bentham project has been generating high quality crowdsourced transcripts of the writings of the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), held at University College London, and latterly, the British Library. Now with nearly 6 million words transcribed by volunteers, little did we know at the outset that this project would provide an ideal, quality controlled dataset to provide “ground truth” for the development of Handwriting Technology Recognition. This talk demonstrated how our research on the EU framework 7 Transcriptorium, and now H2020 READ projects is working towards a service to improve the searching and analysis of digitised manuscript collections across Europe.

Presentations from other speakers are online too, and they are well worth a peek.

Next up was the Jisc Historical TextsUK Medical Heritage Live Lab” which I hosted at the Wellcome Library on 26th October. The UK Medical Heritage Library makes newly available 68,000 19th century texts relating to the history of medicine, with more than 20 million pages of books digitised and put freely online. The lab brought together  students and researchers from various disciplines to explore and develop ideas around the use of the rich text and image assets which the collection provides. It was also a chance for researchers to work with Jisc developers, experimenting with the affordances of the interface, working together to understand user needs and desires. It was a great day, and I reported on the findings at the UK Medical Heritage Library symposium, which launched the online resource at the Wellcome Library, on the 27th October, in possibly the fastest turnaround of “do some Digital Humanities user based work and report on it to an audience” for me, ever. The slides covering the result of this hackday are up on slideshare, – no video, but I commented so you should be able to get the gist.

Next up was the British Library Lab’s Annual Symposium on November 7th. My talk was called ‘’Unexpected repurposing: the British Library’s Digital Collections and UCL teaching, research and infrastructure”. I highlighted how we have been using the British Library’s digitised book collection – 60,000 volumes which are now in the public domain – to explore processing of large scale digitised collections, both with researchers and computing science students at UCL. I’m told a video is coming really soon, but in the meantime, the slides are up over at slideshare, and there is also a wonderful “Lecture Report” (PDF) available on this by Conrad Taylor (thanks!) who also recorded the audio of the talk which you can hear here:

Finally, on 16th November I gave the QMUL Annual Digital Humanities Lecture, which I titled “Beyond Digitisation: Reimagining the Image in Digital Humanities”. The digitisation of primary source material is often held up as a means to open up collections, democratising their contents whilst improving access. Yet Digital Humanities has made little use of digitised image collections, beyond wishing to get access to individual items, or the text that can be generated via Optical Character Recognition or transcription of primary sources. Why is this, and what opportunities lie for image processing and computer graphics in the field of Digital Humanities? What barriers are in place that stop scholars being able to utilise and analyse images using advanced processing? Given the importance to text for Digital Humanities, how can we begin to reconceptualise what we can do with large bodies of digital images? I showcased work from projects as diverse as the Great Parchment Book, Transcribe Bentham, and the Deep Imaging Mummy Cases projects, demonstrating how those in the Digital Humanities can contribute to advanced cultural heritage imaging research. No video as yet, but I’m told its coming and I will add it here when it does. Here’s a picture of me in full flow: it is dark, as we turned the lights down to concentrate on the images.

Melissa Terras talking

I enjoy public speaking, and these events were all great – I learn so much from discussing different topics with the varied audience. However, this was quite a lot in October/ November, on top of the start of the academic year, my normal teaching load, marking all last year’s MA and MSc dissertations, PhD supervision, a PhD examination, and preparing for exam boards! I made it difficult for myself in talking on different topics, some of which I had to write speeches from scratch on, too.  It is probably enough public speaking for a few months (and also another reason why I’m going quiet this term – I’m now in a phase of writing, which you can’t do when giving bi-weekly keynotes. Its just a different phase of academic life – these talks and the feedback from them will emerge later in my writing).

And why “An embarrassment”? Well, you don’t think I ever watch videos of me speaking, do you?????

Going on Sabbatical….

Just a quick note to say – I’m shortly heading off on research sabbatical! returning on May 8th 2017! I have a couple of writing projects to finish up, and a major one to start scoping out. I’ll mostly be in my shed, writing, thinking, typing, and avoiding normal day to day teaching and enabling academic duties.

Moving gif of a writer, with pages flying around.
Writey McWriteface.

I get a lot of email, and I’m consciously deciding that I will not be able to reply to all emails sent to me during my absence. We only get one term (approximately 4 month) sabbaticals in my faculty at UCL, and those only come around once every three or four years, so I’m going quiet on responding to what other people want me to do. In addition, my schedule is now fully booked until September 2017 for plenary lectures, guest talks, refereeing, and peer reviewing grant proposals, research papers, and conference abstracts. I am also not available to write references, unless previously agreed. If you have emailed me, or are thinking of emailing me, to ask me to do any of these tasks for you, I thank you for your kind invitation, but I am not accepting any further external enabling duties until September 2017 at the earliest.

I should imagine I’ll be on the Twitter from time to time a lot, but this sabbatical will be a much-needed respite from email and managerial duties (and a hefty and increasingly unpleasant commute), and a space to think, to hatch plans, and to write. Please forgive me if you ask something of me before May 2017, and I am unable to respond. My job, during the next few months, is to concentrate solely on my own research, and I wish you well in yours, too.

For Ada Lovelace Day: Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody and fictional equalities

For the past few years I’ve been working on a jolly-turned-serious side project, the representations of Academia in illustrated children’s fiction. I’ve written before on the fact that most fictional academics in picture books are male, mad and muddleheaded, but for Ada Lovelace Day 2016, the international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, I want to introduce the first female academic I have found so far in a text marketed towards children. For those who haven’t come across her before, please welcome the marvellous Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, from the Dan Dare comic strip in the weekly Eagle magazine, a seminal UK comic launched in 1950 which attracted a huge readership.

Professor Peabody is a wonder. Appearing as regular side-kick to Dan Dare (the Pilot of the Future!) and Space Fleet’s permanent Special Advisor to the Exploration and Research Department from the first volume of Dan Dare, Issue 5, in 1950, she is presented as a fully fledged competent academic with a cast-iron backstory. It is important to note here how few women were working in places of Higher Education at the time of writing – 1950 – although the comic is set in the mid 1980s. The story is that the Earth is running out of food, and Dan Dare and his team are being sent to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food production. Here comes the Professor….

Professor Peabody is presented to the men. The are surprised she is a woman
Professor Peabody’s first appearance in the Eagle comic, as she joins Dan Dare’s team (Vol. 1 No 5 1950). Reproduced with kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Limited. All rights reserved.

From her entrance, Professor Peabody is bad-ass. I’m limited in the comic cells I can show you here (given the copyright and permissions aspect), but let me give you some examples. Sir Hubert – the guy on the phone – takes Peabody in his ship to “keep an eye on her” and “make sure she doesn’t get in the way” – refusing to respect her training or qualifications:

Sir Hubert: “Miss Peabody! I insist that you come away from those controls immediately! THATS AN ORDER!”

Professor Peabody: “I’m sorry Sir Hubert, but you’re not as young as you used to be – and we may need steady nerves on this job”. Professor Peabody steals the ship…  (Eagle Vol 1, No. 5, 1950).

Resourceful and confident, she often takes the lead when the men sit around and do very little. When they crash land on Venus, the crew are starving:

Dan Dare: “Right now I’m thinking of a big juicy steak, fried onions and potatoes”. He sits, head in hands.

Digby: “I’d settle for a fish and sixpennyworth with plenty of salt and vinegar!”. He is lying down.

Professor Peabody: Off gathering vegetation… “If you men opened your eyes and stopped dreaming you’d find plenty to eat… Look! fruit and nuts for the taking!” She shows them the bountiful vista.

Dan Dare: “But is it safe to eat?”

Professor Peabody: “Perfectly safe, according to the Peabody Pocket Tester, a little thing I designed when I was picked for the job”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 26, 1950).

The men all run off and start gorging themselves.

Over and over again she does the math, saving the day, figuring out the twists in the plot, knowing when to use equipment, knowing the science, knowing the best course of action. She does this in the face of extreme refusal to believe that she is capable of doing anything: the team repeatedly call her Miss, or The Girl, and mansplain and manterrupt: “Easy old girl! These chaps know what they are doing!” (Eagle Vol 1, No. 13, 1950). She is treated differently because of her gender: “This is monstrous! in the name of humanity – you can’t sent a girl down a mine!” (Eagle Vol 2, No. 3, 1951). There is routine discrimination and even (remember this is a children’s comic!) a touch of harassment – she is regularly telling men to behave. She is shown to struggle with showing her emotions, crying when they are all told they will be killed by the Mekon “This is no way to behave, Jocelyn Peabody, Professor of Geology, Botany and Agriculture, Space Pilot Class 3 and…. B-But… I- I’m Frightened!”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 40, 1951) – but her character is all the more well rounded and realistic for doing so. Over the course of their adventures she maintains her leadership position in the team, even eventually winning over even the most misogynist of Space Fleet: Sir Hubert, he on the telephone in the panels above, cries himself when he hears she has been left for dead after an emergency evacuation where she couldn’t possibly have survived… “Hank is absolutely A.1 at Lloyds… and so is the girl. She stood by me on a sinking rocket in the Venus flamebelt, with the silicon mass creeping up on us, and never batted an eyelid! I’d ride a V. 2. Rocket to save that girl, if it was a straight problem of rescuing her, but it isnt…” (he sobs). (Eagle Vol 2, No. 47, 1952). Peabody is, quite frankly, amazing.

Peabody comes out of nowhere. The first female to appear in my corpus of academics in illustrated children’s fiction – a full hundred years after the first man – she is central to the Dan Dare comic strip. The writers of the comic knew how rare she was, and it was a conscious decision to include a woman who was equal to the men in this fictionalised future. Dan Dare’s creator and artist, Frank Hampson, said of Peabody when interviewed in 1974:

I didn’t want to produce a strip without a female. In a way I struck a blow for Women’s Lib! She was shown as a very clever, attractive young lady. It also paved the way for a few arguments between her and [the men] in the first story – a nice human touch… she was just a very normal, efficient, competent girl. (Quoted in Vince 1994, p. 27)

Women in science fiction are rare. In 1975, Leading science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin described the genre’s sexist and hierarchical structure:

From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets – with 80 trillion miles between them – conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent Imperium of Earth towards self-development – the White Man’s Burden all over again. The Rotary Club of Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it… It is a perfect baboon patriarchy, with the Alpha Male on top, being respectfully groomed, from time to time, by his inferiors (LeGuin 1975, p. 209-10).

Peabody was physically modelled on one of the comic artists who drew her – Greta Tomlinson, now Greta Edwards. Intellectually, though, she is based on a complex, full drawn, and impossible (at the time of writing) backstory.

Close up of Professor Peabody's backstory
Professor Peabody’s backstory. (Vol. 1 No 5 1950). Reproduced with kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Limited. All rights reserved.

Born in Gloucestershire,  she attended school in Southampton, graduating from Bedford College, University of London, before undertaking her doctorate at Magdalen College, Oxford University. By the time of the first Dan Dare strip, she is the youngest and first female lecturer at Oxford. Now, Bedford College offered higher education for women between 1849 and 1985, becoming part of the University of London and then eventually merging with Royal Holloway, so it is perfectly feasible that Peabody could have studied chemistry there in both the real 1950s and fictional 1980s of the comic strip’s creation and imagination. However, Magdelen College, Oxford did not admit female students until 1979, so at the time of writing (1950) Peabody could not have gone there: the writers challenge barriers and expectations. I checked with the Magdalen College archivist, who told me the first woman at Magdalen to undertake a doctorate there

was probably Kate Lessells, an ornithologist who was also our first female Fellow: she became Magdalen’s first female Fellow by Examination (a postgraduate role equivalent to JRF) in 1979. She got her D.Phil in 1982, having written and defended her thesis on factors affecting family size in Canada geese.

I find this fascinating – a comic written in the 1950s reasonably accurately predicts a timeframe in the future (late 1970s and early 1980s) where women’s engagement and equality of opportunity should be a possibility. (It should be noted, of course, that although Magdalen was the last all-male place at Oxford, many women had rich and successful research careers there since they could become full members of the University in 1920. At both faculty and college levels, there were many notable female researchers at Oxford throughout the 20th Century).

The battles that Peabody regularly faces – backwards in high heels, people –  echo many of the issues we experience as women in academia, or women in science, today. I also find it somewhat disconcerting that a comic character from the 1950s is, on my worst of days, the most accurate portrayal of my working life as a woman in the academy, working with technology, in 2016.

Peabody is a trailblazer. The circulation of the Eagle, at its highest in the 1950s, was around one million copies sold per week (giving an expected readership of double or triple that). The potential influence of her character in showing a brave, skilled, women of intellectual heft, should not be underestimated. However, she is an outlier: I have not found another illustrated female academic in children’s literature who is so fully drawn, so considered, so concretely placed to challenge, again and again, the perception of women’s place in science and technology, representing a hopeful but hard won equality in the academy.

I have to confess I’m a little bit in love with Professor Peabody:  Ada Lovelace Day is the perfect opportunity to introduce others to her, too.


Le Guin, (1975). American SF and the Other. Science Fiction Studies, Vol 2. Part 3, November 1975.

Vince, A. (1994). The Frank Hampson Interview. Cambridge, UK. Astral Publications in association with the Eagle Society. Quoted in Jones, D., and Watkins, T. (2000), A necessary fantasy?: the heroic figure in children’s popular culture, Routledge.

P. S. Let’s save the arguments over whether comics are children’s literature for another day…

From airbrush to filters to AI…The Robots Enter the Photographic Archive

I. Manual Airbrushing

At the end of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film The Shining (sorry! spoilers!) a photograph is revealed to show Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, at the centre of attention at a 1921 party, which, Kubrick later said, suggests Torrance is a reincarnation of an earlier hotel caretaker. The photograph was not a simple staged photo of the extras that appear in the film, instead it was an adapted version of:

a photograph taken in 1921 which we found in a picture library. I originally planned to use extras, but it proved impossible to make them look as good as the people in the photograph. So I very carefully photographed Jack, matching the angle and the lighting of the 1921 photograph, and shooting him from different distances too, so that his face would be larger and smaller on the negative. This allowed the choice of an image size which when enlarged would match the grain structure in the original photograph. The photograph of Jack’s face was then airbrushed in to the main photograph, and I think the result looked perfect. Every face around Jack is an archetype of the period. (Kubrick interviewed by Michel Ciment between 1975 and 1987, transcribed here).

Details of this process are provided in the 1985 “Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual“, which I recently purchased for a penny, there not being much demand for airbrushing these days.

Scan of book page showing retouching in the final photo used in the Shining
Airbrush like a Pro. In: Owen and Sutcliffe (1985) The Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual, North Light Books, p. 102.

Photographs have never been neutral. How they are taken, framed, chosen, discarded and processed informs and literally colours our view of history, but the medium has always been tweaked and retouched to show a different sort of reality, one that we require, or other’s think we may prefer. In the case of the Shining, the manual retouching of a historic photograph provides a twist, an uncanny ambiguity to the whole movie. But since their invention, photographs have routinely been improved, manipulated, and adjusted through a variety of processes to improve their appearance, or change their content. As I said in “Digital Images for the Information Professional” back in 2008:

The defacing or erasing of historical personages, documents, artefacts, and architecture is well attested: if you control the image, you control the ideology, and the information passed on to the viewer… photographic images are very easy to manipulate, raising issues of trust, verification, and ethics when using them for proof, research, or evidence of any kind.

As well as the manual manipulation and retouching of photographs to just make people look better, which became common in the late Victorian era and found its heyday in making Hollywood starlets picture perfect, these photographic manipulation techniques were used to more chilling purposes in the USSR in the 1930s, where

The physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by the obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence. Photographs for publication were retouched and restructured with airbrush and scalpel to make once famous personalities vanish… So much falsification took place… that is it possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs… Faking photographs was probably considered one of the more enjoyable tasks of the art department of publishing houses during those times. It was certainly much subtler than the “slash-and-burn” approach of the censors. For example, with a sharp scalpel, an incision could be made along the leading edge of the image of the person or object adjacent to the one who had to be removed. With the help of some glue, the first could simply be stuck down on top of the second. Likewise, two or more photographs could be cannibalized into one using the same method.  Alternatively an airbrush (an ink-jet gun powered by a cylinder of compressed air) could be used to spray clouds of ink or paint onto the unfortunate victim in the picture. The hazy edges achieved by the spray made the elimination of the subject less noticeable than crude knife-work… Skillful photographic retouching for reproduction depended, like any crafty before the advent of computer technology, on the skill of the person carrying out the task and the time she or he had to complete it. (David King, 1997, The Commissar Vanishes, Henry Holt and Company, New York, pages 9-13).

Airbrushing reigned – for good or ill – in photographic manipulation for nearly 100 years. As our 1985 manual explains

The airbrush has been in existence since 1893. During that time it has been repeatedly been denounced as a novelty, phase, or fad. It is an inarguable truth that today more airbrushes are being sold than ever before, and that owners of airbrushes are producing work in an every-increasing number of different styles. The artists themselves are guaranteeing a tremendous future for the tool, by a natural evolution of images that defy categorization… the outlook has never been more healthy. (Owen and Sutcliffe (1985) The Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual, North Light Books, p. 130).

An artistic manual process that required skill and training: could computers ever compare?

Few commercial activities has escaped the scare-mongering that has accompanied the rise to prominence of the computer: that, sooner, or later, the computer will take over from human ability. Airbrushing is no exception. This nation can be instantly dispelled by the fact that, despite the extraordinary advances in computer technology, no electronic process has yet been developed to fulfill satisfactorily the function of human creativity. Nor is any such development on the horizon. (ibid).

Our manual was published in 1985, and was so popular a second edition was printed in 1988. In September of that year, Adobe Systems Incorporated acquired the distribution rights to a little piece of software called Photoshop, which was released commercially in 1990. Although dedicated high-end computer systems for photo retouching had existed before this point, Photoshop (and other graphic design computer programs) democratized and expanded the use of digital retouching methods. A kick-starter funded film to be released later this year, Graphic Means, will trace this change from manual to computational methods within the design sector: we now live in a world where the manual cutting, splicing, and airbrushing seems a distant history.

II. Photoshop and filters

Fast forward twenty five years. And so everything is now digital, right? Everyone has access to digital photography retouching tools, and even “machine learning” photo changing apps! Digital photographic retouching is now all pervasive, both within the advertising industry (who often get it wrong) and by individuals, who can use a range of apps to correct, adjust, and improve, selfies for sharing on social media environments. Can’t do it yourself? The skill set is now so common, you can have someone on Fiverr retouch your photographs for you for minimal cost (and some people even make social commentary art work out of it). The days of manual tweaking of photographs are over! Except. The tools currently available for photographic adjustment still require levels of skill and expertise to use. The range of filters and tools are dazzling, but they still require a human operator to do the retouching, and to drive the machine, to do bespoke, one-off adjustments (such as would be required in a digital retouching of our Shining pic). Even the fancy filters du jour which are sold as machine learning, such as Prisma, are very blunt tools, and require some level of selection, input, operation, and request from an app user. The filters may be more and more advanced, but they a) have limited, fixed variables b) still require a level of human intervention and b) automated filter processes only tweak the appearance, not the semantic content of the photograph. Zomg! I’ve been Prisma-ed! Machine learning, dontchaknow!

Picture of Melissa Terras filtered via Prisma and made to look like art.
My picture, put through various Prisma filters.

So much, so fun. But exchanging (rather than just filtering) someone’s face in a historic photograph, a la the Shining, still requires someone sitting down and working on making the photographic content look realistic, even though the tools have changed from the manual, to the digital. Surely, this will always be the case, right? Despite the extraordinary advances in computer technology, no electronic process has yet been developed to fulfill satisfactorily the function of human creativity. Nor is any such development on the horizon. I seem to have heard that somewhere before…

III. Enter the Robots

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a symposium at the Royal Society’s country estate, the topic of which was Imaging in Graphics, Vision and Beyond. The aim of the seminar was to bring together researchers in disciplines spanning computer graphics, computer vision, cultural heritage, remote sensing and bio-photonics to discuss interdisciplinary approaches and scope out new research areas. I was there along with UCL’s Tim Weyrich given our work on the Great Parchment Book. It was a great two days, and not just for the academic craic (my room was THE OLD LIBRARY! it was glorious).

The paper that made me sit up most and go… here come the awesome robots… was from Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering who co-leads the UW Graphics and Imaging Laboratory at the University of Washington. Ira demonstrated a personalised image search engine designed to show you different potential views of people. Give it an input of a picture of a face, and a text query to find photos, and it outputs results of pictures that automatically include the person submitted embedded into the photographs. Let me give you an example (Ira has given me permission to share these). First she takes the input picture:

Headshot of Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman
Headshot of Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, the lead on the Dreambit system.

The search term used is “1930s”, and bingo: Ira as film star, seamlessly integrated automatically into the historical photographic record.

Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman appears seamlessly integrated into the past… its one way to time travel!

The new system, called Dreambit, analyzes the input photo and searches for a subset of photographs available online that match it for shape, pose, and expression, automatically synthesizing them based on their team’s previous work on facial processing and three-dimensional reconstruction, modeling people from massive unconstrained photo collections. You can keep your Prisma: here is machine learning at its cutting edge best. More details about how the system works are available from the recent SIGGRAPH 2016 paper where it was launched (hefty 45MB download), and you can sign up for Free Beta Access for when Dreambit is launched, hopefully later in the year, here.

The potential market applications for this are huge (it has been described as a system for trying out different hair styles, but one can also imagine using this for creating bespoke gifts, especially greetings cards: who needs a generic sepia historical humour card when you can slot a pic of a you and a loved one into the picture, for larks?). But what interests me is what this means for institutions and collections creating digitised historical photographic archives, and where, conceptually, this is taking us in understanding how historic photographs can be used, reused, and re-appropriated in the digital realm. You would not have to go to a picture library now and manually tweak and burn and dodge a physical print of a photograph to include it in a film: we’ll soon be able to have computer systems available to do that seamlessly for us.

IV. We need to talk about What This Means for Digitisation of the Photographic Record

I’m not sure I’ve really conceptualised what this means for historic photographic archives in the online era yet. There are clearly copyright and licensing issues at play, which is ever a concern in the library and archive community, but beyond that: what does this mean for those in the sector? We’ve barely got out head around how historic photographs lose their metadata or any sense of accreditation or even factual accuracy when they go off into the internet wilds on their own, or how historical photograph content can be monetised in ways institutions never envisaged, never mind what happens when the content starts getting tweaked and rewritten, automatically, swiftly, robotically, changing its very content as well as its context. Are we ready for the robots entering the digitisation landscape? What fun can we have with this – as well as what worries does it bring? (I can imagine various public engagement apps, where Dreambit is applied to particular photographic collections: is this best done with an institution’s permission, or will it happen anyway in the internet wilds, if collections don’t play along?) There are also ethical issues at play about the reuse and appropriation of historical and cultural content: what can we do to educate both other researchers and the general public about the ramifications of these technologies, as applied to the historical photographic record?

We’ve come a long way from the physical photographic processes needed to put someone else into the picture. Now we need to think about how we can use this emergent technology to work alongside and with our digitised content, to retain any kind of control over institutional digital collections. I’ll be really interested in what discussions this provokes – and what the worries, and benefits of the technology, can be viewed to be. It would be wise to start thinking of how we can use collections in this content-changing world, rather than build false barriers to access that we may not be able to maintain.

I find Dreambit’s potential amazing. I’ve asked Ira if she could put my picture into the one used at the end of the Shining. I’m sure it will now only take the click of a button.

Update: 22nd August 2016: Ira put me in the picture…

Pictures of a woman inserted into different tiara pictures
The many tiaras of Professor Terras.
Me, victorianised. OR WAS I ACTUALLY THERE, HMMMM??????