Unveiling the V&A Chinese Export Watercolours (CEW) Collection: A Journey of Digitisation and Discovery
By Ian Evans, on 8 September 2023
Jin Gao, Yangming Zhang, Linminqing Wang, Yawen Li, Feichi Li, Shirley Chang, Jiawei Liu
Chinese export watercolours are a type of objects produced in China for export to Europe and the North America during the 18th and 19th Centuries. They were made by Chinese artists catering to the taste of their customers, and these works typically depict Chinese traditional customs, occupations, manufacture and trades, boats, plants and animals, and they blend Chinese and European painting techniques, resulting in a unique mix of artistic styles. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) holds a significant collection of the Chinese export watercolours (Clunas, 1984), and despite its importance in global art history, this collection remains relatively understudied.
This blog, co-authored by students and staff, introduces the phase one of the Chinese Export Watercolours (CEW) project, which is a collaboration between the Chinese Iconography Thesaurus (CIT) project team at the V&A’s Asia Department (V&A, 2016) and the UCL Department of Information Studies, and it is funded by the UCL Fellowship Incubator Awards. The project is led by Dr Hongxing Zhang and Dr Jin Gao, and it has involved Molly Fort, a UCL PhD student, nine UCL students from the MA/MSc in Digital Humanities programme (Yangming Zhang, Linminqing Wang, Yawen Li, Feichi Li, Shirley Chang, Jiawei Liu, Xiaohan Jiang, Liyuan Liu, José Pedro Sousa), as well as Yi-Hsin Lin and Bingjun Liu, the CIT data standard editors at the V&A. With the kind support from UCL Digitisation Suite and UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, the project started in May 2023. It has involved cataloguing, auditing, photography, and digital asset management works of over 2,300 Chinese export watercolours acquired by the V&A in the 1870s to 1930s.
Thanks to the help and guidance by the V&A’s Asia department, the V&A Research Institute (VARI), the Photography and Digitisation, the Collections Care and Access, the Digital Media and Publishing departments at the V&A, phase one of the CEW project has resulted in an updated collection catalogue and digitised images on the V&A Explore the Collections website accessible as teaching and research materials for all, and for phase two, it is carrying out image analysis and archive-based provenance research to trace its history of collecting and investigate the formation of the collection.
Cataloguing and pre-photography
Benefitting from the training offered by the V&A’s curatorial staff in object handling, the initial phase involved basic cataloguing and pre-photography tasks, typically requiring a collaborative effort between two individuals. One person was responsible for measuring the dimensions of albums and paintings using plastic rulers, while another recorded these measurements in a spreadsheet along with additional details such as box notes, inscriptions, and the condition of the paintings. Additionally, prior to photography, the pre-photography staff attached object numbers to small white papers and placed them on each painting to aid colleagues in later stages.
The experience of pre-photography tasks could be described as a mix of enjoyment and precision. The enjoyment stemmed from the chance to closely examine the paintings as they were laid out on the table. This hands-on interaction felt almost like a journey back in time, allowing us to connect with historical figures and get glimpses into their lives. Some paintings evoked laughter, while others challenged our assumptions about what Qing China looked like. However, the process demanded careful attention to detail. For the person measuring, seemingly identical paintings might actually have slight differences in their dimensions. For the cataloguing task, encountering unfamiliar and complex characters in traditional Chinese text was common. Despite these challenges, facing them head-on was essential for improving our digital skills and achieving the precision necessary for museum work.
The photography of these watercolours played an important role in the overall digitisation process, and we would like to express our gratitude to the UCL Digitisation Suite for letting us use their digitisation equipment. We, as students, had received basic digitisation training through the Introduction to Digitisation module as part of the UCL Master programme in Digital Humanities. Benefitting from the further training provided by the V&A Photography and Digitisation department, we learned many practical aspects such as camera setup, lighting adjustments, colour management, and post-processing techniques, which greatly facilitated the project’s initiation. For the specific process, capturing the needed photograph demanded the close coordination of two to three members of our team. One or two of us took charge of positioning the object, adjusting its angle and location on the copy stand, and fine-tuning the camera’s height. Meanwhile, another team member operated a laptop, utilising Capture One — a photography software suite — to remotely manage the camera’s focus and capture settings.
During the initial stages of our project’s pilot test, arriving at consistent camera settings necessitated multiple trials and discussions. While time-intensive, this phase laid a sturdy groundwork. Subsequent shots only required us to adjust the camera height and focus based on the batch’s object sizes. Our primary objective was to capture each artwork with highest resolution, ensuring legibility of labels at the frame edges. Typically, the initial photo in each batch featured a colour checker — a critical tool for colour calibration during post-processing. Following these preliminary steps, we moved on to photograph each artwork individually.
Occasionally, we encountered objects that posed challenges in terms of capture. While most artworks have flat surfaces, some exhibited signs of aging, leading to wrinkles in their mounts. Thick albums, when opened to certain pages, would bulge at the centre. To minimise this, we employed a large transparent glass panel, an action that often resembled weightlifting due to its heft. Careful handling was essential to prevent damage to the delicate pith paper. In such instances, an extra pair of hands often came in handy for observing, page-turning, and manual straightening. Reflective materials — like gold pigments or protective plastic films — presented a unique hurdle. We would reposition the artwork to eliminate glare and capture these paintings in segments, later stitching them together during post-production. Likewise, for larger paintings, we applied a similar approach, capturing sections and subsequently merging them.
In essence, the photography phase was one of the essential stages of our digitisation endeavour. Through careful handling and innovative techniques, we aimed to capture each artwork with the highest fidelity, ensuring their lasting preservation in the digital realm.
The raw images underwent post-photography processing utilising Capture One. This phase encompassed the addition tasks of metadata, including creator details, CIS (Common Information Subsystem), copyright information, and related information. Additionally, image rotation and cropping were applied on a case-by-case basis, ensuring the focus remained on the primary subject of the painting and enhancing its aesthetic appeal.
An important juncture in our process was colour calibration, a step that presented numerous challenges. Variations in lighting conditions during photography and variations in camera height could lead to deviations from the original colours. Thus, colour calibration based on the previously captured colour checker was imperative. However, we encountered disparities when using different colour calibration software. Although the same colour checker produced dissimilar ICC files across different software, our extensive comparisons led us to favour the ColourChecker Camera Calibration method. This approach yielded results closest to the original paintings and became our best solution.
Given the variations in Capture One across different computer systems, careful attention was required to standardise subtle options and settings during the collaborative colour calibration process. Any deviation in these settings could lead to significant discrepancies in colour calibration effects. An illustrative example is the Export option ICC Profile, which ideally should be configured to Embed Camera Profile. Selecting Adobe RGB, on the other hand, resulted in heightened vividness and a reddish tint post colour correction.
The post-production stage proved to be a time-intensive endeavour, with an approximate output of around 100 images per day. Upon completion of the initial tasks, the photography team actively participated in the post-photography phase, further streamlining our efforts.
The image quality check
Ensuring access to top-quality images from the CEW project’s painting collection is crucial for visitors. Our process started with checking each object on the V&A website using its system ID and object number. We began by downloading the first JPG image of the object and evaluating its quality following the V&A websites terms and conditions. If it met the quality standards, we noted the review date in the ‘V&A website check’ column in our tracking spreadsheet to make sure all paintings were covered.
Specifically, we encountered a few issues that need addressing. One common problem was inconsistent cropping, where paintings were not adjusted properly, displaying the object number unnecessarily. Another issue was image quality problems like dots or unclear images. We reported these issues to the V&A Collection Management team and Digital Media team for fixing. After that, we double-checked to ensure the corrections were made properly.
Our responsibility for delivering high-quality images and easy access on the V&A website was crucial. It ensures visitors have a smooth experience without any problems while browsing the webpage and viewing images.
The digitisation of the Chinese Export Watercolours collection marks a significant milestone, and it opens up more opportunities to further explore this collection. As we move forward, more project updates will be anticipated.
The annotation via Zooniverse
The digitisation of the Chinese Export Watercolours collection marks a significant milestone, and it opens up more opportunities to further explore this collection.
For example, to facilitate the annotation process, we have used the Zooniverse platform, a citizen science portal managed by the Citizen Science Alliance (Simpson et al., 2014). Zooniverse hosts some of the internet’s largest, most successful crowdsourcing projects, enabling volunteers worldwide to engage in scientific research. The platform provides user-friendly annotation tools that allow participants to mark content and subject matter in drawings, and the CEW project will leverage Zooniverse’s technical support, and project team members will embark on thematic and content labelling for the initial pilot collections.
We will, firstly, employ Zooniverse to thematically annotate the collection, utilising vocabulary derived from the Chinese Iconography Thesaurus (CIT). Given the CIT’s robust descriptive system for Chinese collections, we will be adopting this vocabulary for CEW collection labelling. This approach establishes continuity between our research project and the CIT.
Through annotating this sample collection, we will gain a deeper comprehension of the painted subjects within this digitised CEW collection. Consequently, we will create CEW annotations grounded in the CIT vocabulary but tailored to a more specific focus. Thematic classification not only enriches our understanding but also opens avenues for future in-depth research. For instance, we may be able to explore potential preferences for subject matters across different periods, shedding light on the regions of China that held Western clients’ greatest interest during this time. Moreover, we can investigate variations in style, colour, and subject matter within paintings of the same theme across different periods based on our labels.
This annotation process serves as the initial stride in our research team’s endeavour to delve deeper into the collection beyond digitisation. We look forward to uncovering fascinating discoveries from the CEW collection.
Further image analysis
The next phase of research consists of classification and image analysis, which employs digital humanities and machine learning methodologies. Initially, we harnessed deep learning models that had been trained to extract image features, coupled with clustering algorithms, to autonomously classify the entire set of 2,308 images. After some adjustments, our algorithm can now broadly differentiate key image categories, such as figures, flora and fauna, and scenes. Specifically, the distinct framework of the five major subject categories led to nuanced algorithmic variations for each (see Figure 12 and Figure 13). Nevertheless, the presence of colour disparities, textual elements, and frame decorations poses challenges, hindering precise subject classification, particularly in images with subtle distinctions. At this juncture, manual intervention becomes imperative to rectify the categories of these images and subdivide them into finer sub-categories. The official nomenclature for these categories will undergo further refinement in subsequent publications.
In our latest work-in-progress report, we have successfully identified a minimum of five major subject categories and 23 sub-themes within the Chinese export watercolours collection at the V&A Museum (as Figure 14).
Topography and Architecture 地貌与建筑（91）
- Topographical views 地貌 (7)
- Interior scenes 室内场景 (52)
- Gardens 园林 (30)
- Shopfronts 店面 (2)
Manner and Customs 风俗习惯（304）
- Religious, Historical and Legendary characters 宗教、历史和传奇人物 (147)
- Pageants, processions, ceremonies, etc. 盛典、游行、仪式等 (49)
- Court of Justice 法庭 (3)
- Punishments and Tortures 刑罚 (48)
- Playing Boys 童戏 (48)
Occupations and Trades 阶层与行业（1076）
- Silk, Tea, Porcelain manufacture 丝绸、茶叶和瓷器制造 (118)
- Scenes of Daily Life 百业 (695)
- Dignitaries 权贵显要 (179)
- Warriors 武将士兵 (37)
- Women Playing Music奏乐 (47)
Flora and Fauna 动植物（438）
- Plant 植物 (312)
- Baskets of flowers 篮花 (22)
- Birds and flowers 花鸟 (36)
- Flowers and Insects 草虫 (56)
- Animals 动物
- Fish 鱼 (12)
Miscellaneous 其它 (338)
- Ships 船舶 (159)
- Furniture, shop signs, and Tools and utensils 各类器具 (179)
* Covers (18)
To engage in advanced image analysis, a profound comprehension of digitised images is a fundamental prerequisite, and it is rooted in the earlier stages of pre-photography, photography, and post-production, complemented by careful observation and documentation. Distinct image categories necessitate unique analytical approaches. Taking the sitting position of women and shouldering position of men as examples, images centred on human subjects primarily draw attention to facial features and the image wireframe of body poses (see Figure 15 and Figure 16).
In a given set, numerous images may portray individuals in diverse situations, but some are with similar facial features and body poses. Similarly, there may be instances where different individuals wear remarkably similar clothing but in varying colours. The initial step in such analysis involves segmenting the image into recognisable sections, and by utilising feature extraction techniques, intrinsic characteristics and outlines are derived from these segments (Barthel et al., 2019). Subsequently, these images are collectively compared, and by employing such methodologies to analyse image similarity, it significantly enhances the efficiency of subsequent research and data analysis.
Another category deserving attention pertains to Ships 船舶 (159) sub-category. In this context, the emphasis on similarity analysis primarily revolves around colour assessment and the evaluation of the overall image outline (see Figure 17). For these types of images, there is often no need to segment and compare individual components. Instead, a comprehensive approach is adopted, focusing on the overall similarity of the entire image. Additionally, there are various image analysis algorithms employed for assessing inter-image similarities, with subtle adjustments made based on the specific features of the images in question, all geared toward ensuring data analysis accuracy (Bengamra et al., 2023).
In addition, the category of Birds and flowers 花鸟 (36) presents an interesting case, especially when considering the consistent presence of both elements within the paintings (See Figure 18). The recurring motif of pairing birds with flowers carries multifaceted cultural and social meanings deeply rooted in Chinese artistic heritage, drawing on the association of flora and fauna with auspicious meanings and scholarly virtues that dates back centuries, and it also reflects on the CIT terminology (i.e., CIT0284614 花鳥 Birds and Flowers). The correlation between birds and flowers in the CEW collection opens up a fascinating avenue for further in-depth image analysis and cultural interpretation.
In general, the analytical techniques utilised in the CEW project provide invaluable insights, forming a solid foundation not only for the ongoing study of the CEW project but also for other subsequent research in the future. These findings deepen our understandings of the subject matter and also open up new endeavours for exploration and discovery. As we move forward, more project updates will be anticipated.
Barthel, K.U., Hezel, N., Schall, K., Jung, K., 2019. Real-Time Visual Navigation in Huge Image Sets Using Similarity Graphs, in: Proceedings of the 27th ACM International Conference on Multimedia. Presented at the MM ’19: The 27th ACM International Conference on Multimedia, ACM, Nice France, pp. 2202–2204. https://doi.org/10.1145/3343031.3350599
Bengamra, S., Mzoughi, O., Bigand, A., Zagrouba, E., 2023. A comprehensive survey on object detection in Visual Art: taxonomy and challenge. Multimed Tools Appl. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11042-023-15968-9
Clunas, C., 1984. Chinese export watercolours, Far Eastern series. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Simpson, R., Page, K.R., De Roure, D., 2014. Zooniverse: observing the world’s largest citizen science platform, in: Proceedings of the 23rd International Conference on World Wide Web. Presented at the WWW ’14: 23rd International World Wide Web Conference, ACM, Seoul Korea, pp. 1049–1054. https://doi.org/10.1145/2567948.2579215
V&A, 2016. Chinese Iconography Thesaurus (CIT) · V&A [WWW Document]. Victoria and Albert Museum. URL https://www.vam.ac.uk/research/projects/chinese-iconography-thesaurus-cit (accessed 9.1.23).
By Ian Evans, on 23 June 2023
It’s been another successful year for our amazing cohort of LIS students- congratulations to each and every one of our students who have all contributed in so many ways to our thriving academic and social environment this year. We look forward to seeing where your career takes you!
To begin with, congratulations to all our prize winners -it is very exciting to see students’ hard work and thought being rewarded by the broader profession. Heading the list of awards this year is Catherine Drewry (MA, 2022), who was awarded the Sherif Prize for her dissertation work assessing the capacity of the Coronavirus Infectious Disease Ontology (CIDO) ontology as a gold standard for modelling biomedical information. Catherine presented her work at the Sherif annual meeting and is the fifth UCL student in the last six years to be awarded this prize. Congratulations also go to Andrew Frampton (MA, 2022), whose MA dissertation was awarded the E.T. Bryant award for a valuable contribution to music librarianship. The list continues with Matthew Bland (current student), who was awarded a BIALL Professional Studies Bursary; Brooke Cambie (MA, 2022), who was awarded the BIALL Conference Bursary; Lucy Dodge (current student) who was awarded the Rowena Macrae Gibson bursary to attend the LILAC conference, Douglas Knight (current student), who was awarded a Music Trust Bursary to attend the IAML conference, Louise Savage (current student), who was awarded a bursary for the Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference, and Naoise Standing (current student), who was awarded not one but three bursaries, including the Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference bursary, the Academic Libraries North Conference bursary, AND the UK e-Information Group residential bursary for the CILIP Conference. WOW! Lastly, well done to Frankie Marsh (MA, 2020), who was awarded the Journal of Information Literacy’s inaugural Ross Todd Award for Best Research Paper for her dissertation research in April 2023.
Secondly, well done to students who have published their dissertation research in various professional journals this year. Alex Hewitt (MA, 2022) published his dissertation research into affect, emotion, and information literacy in the Special Critical information Literacy Issue of the Journal of Information Literacy (2023), while Ella Burrows (MA, 2022) had her dissertation work examining digital literacy, activism and Instagram published in the regular issue of the Journal of Information Literacy (Vol.17, No.1). This year also saw the publication of Madeleine Ahern’s (MA, 2021) dissertation research into managing works of art in non-art libraries in Collection Management.
Students have further been presenting dissertation and coursework at various conferences, including the CILIP Annual Meeting 2022, where Imogen Loucas (MA, 2022) presented on sustainability and libraries, and the LILAC conference where Naomi Smith (MA, 2022) and Kristabelle Williams Pearce (MA, 2018) were invited keynote speakers, and Andy Lacey (MA, 2022) presented on his dissertation research examining the information literacy practices of the homeless. Students have also presented at the Critical Approaches to Libraries conference, including Jess Jordan (MA, 2021), who presented on best practices for decolonisation in academic libraries, Kris Massengale (MA, 2021), who presented on IFLA LRM, queer theory and Marxism, and Naomi Smith (MA, 2022), who presented her dissertation research on critical approaches to library technology policies. Brooke Cambie (MA, 2022) presented her dissertation research into sexual harassment in public libraries at a CILIP Scotland event to celebrate WINspiration, Feminism and Libraries, while Huzefa Ghadiali (MA, 2022) presented his information literacy dissertation research at the BOBCATSS conference in Oslo. August also sees presentations from Andrew Frampton (MA, 2022) and Meg Webb (MA, 2022) at the IAML conference in Cambridge.
Lastly, UCL students have also been giving back to the profession through committee work. Andy Lacey (MA, 2022) has been appointed as the Public Library representative for the Information Literacy group, while current student Lucy Dodge has joined the ARLIS Cataloguing and Classification committee. Current student Ellen Woolf helped to launch the ECLAIR Early Career Library and Information Resource Community where she also holds the Digital Coordinator role.
By Ian Evans, on 23 June 2022
Congratulations to current and recently graduated LIS students who have been contributing to our field in so many ways this year! It is testament to their passion, curiosity, and drive that we can celebrate so many fantastic achievements.
Firstly, congratulations to our prize winners, including Amelia Brookins (MA, 2021), who was awarded the 2021 Sherif Prize for her dissertation work examining costume rental houses through the lens of knowledge organisation. Her research revealed “how costume houses reflect the information organisation processes of supporting users, classification and cataloguing in databases” and was presented at the 2022 Sherif AGM. Congratulations also to current student, Sae Matsuno, who was awarded an ARLIS award for research into the use of volunteers in specialist libraries, a project that builds on her INST0021 Managing Information Organisations coursework. Current students Hozefa Ramgadwala, Huzefa Ghadiali and Naomi Hart were also selected to receive an ARLIS conference bursary.
We are additionally pleased to celebrate publications from current and recently graduated students this year, which speaks to the quality of their work as well as the importance of their ideas. It’s also great to see how this work contributes to the advancement of knowledge in a range of sectors and professional contexts. In the field of cataloguing and metadata, Abi Chapman (MA, 2020), who was awarded the 2021 Sherif Prize, published her dissertation research on video game cataloguing in the Journal of Library Metadata, while Gaby Reyes’ (MA, 2020) work on social tagging appeared as a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Emerging Trends and Technologies in Librarianship. Most recently, Frankie Marsh (MA, 2020) and Eve Lacey (MA, 2017) co-authored a chapter on critical decolonising work at the University of Cambridge in the recent Facet title, Narrative Expansions, while Frankie also found time to publish her dissertation research on the decolonisation of information literacy in the June 2022 issue of the Journal of Information Literacy. Congratulations also to Hozefa Ramgadwala, a current student, who published a book review in the same issue of the Journal of Information Literacy.
LIS students have also been active at professional conferences and events, including Sae Matsuno, a current student, who presented at the ARLIS Taking the Plunge professional event and Huzefa Ghadiali, another current student, who spoke about the historical bibliography of an English translated Qur’an at the first Al-Mahdi Institute Graduate Islamic Studies Conference. Sae Matsuno also co-organised and presented the initial stages of her dissertation research at the recent UCL-sponsored Unlocking narratives: The roots of decolonising work in UK libraries and archives online event. We were additionally privileged enough to hear from two recent graduates at the 2021 UNESCO Media and Information Literacy week event; Maud Cooper (MA, 2021) presented on emerging artist information literacy practices while Antony Njuguna (MA, 2021) spoke about teaching strategies for international student information literacy instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, current students Melanie Brown, Alice Bertolini, Arfa Choudhury and Beth Saward presented the digital libraries they created as part of their coursework for INST0024: Using Technology in Information Organisations during the first inaugural online event, Celebrating Students’ Achievement and Work on ED&I: A View from UCL-DIS Digital Collections.
Lastly, LIS students have been contributing to committees and groups: David Smith (MA, 2021) and Frankie Marsh (MA, 2020) have been appointed as inaugural members of the New Professionals Committee on the Information Literacy Group. It is also great to see Jake Hearn (MA, 2019) featured in the CILIP Information Professional Magazine.
Chapman, A. (2022). Trials of Metadata: Emerging Schemas for Videogame Cataloguing. Journal of Library Metadata, 21(3-4), 63-103.
Lacey, E., Skinner, J., Panozzo Zénere, C., Greenberg, C., & Marsh, F. (2021). Cataloguing, classification, and critical librarianship at Cambridge University. In Crilly, J. & Everitt, R. (eds). Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries. Facet Publishing.
Marsh, F. (2022). Unsettling information literacy: Exploring critical approaches with academic researchers for decolonising the university. Journal of Information Literacy 16(1), 4-29.
Reyes, G. P. (2022). Social Tagging and Secondary School Libraries: Insights from the AO3 Framework. In Handbook of Research on Emerging Trends and Technologies in Librarianship (pp. 201-231). IGI Global.
By Ian Evans, on 8 December 2020
An open access article by Dr. Julianne Nyhan and Dr. Kim Sloan in Oxford University Press’, Journal of the History of Collections
Abstract: Focusing on Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogue of ‘Miscellanies’, now in the British Museum, this paper asks firstly how Sloane described objects and secondly whether the original contents of the cabinets can be reconstructed from his catalogue. Drawing on a sustained, digitally augmented analysis – the first of its kind – of Sloane’s catalogues, we respond to these questions and offer an initial analysis of the contents of the cabinets that held the miscellaneous objects at Sloane’s manor house in Chelsea. Knowledge of how and why Sloane catalogued this part of his collection has hitherto remained underdeveloped. We argue that his focus on preservation and documentation in his cataloguing did not preclude a research role, but rather was founded on immersive participation. Our work was undertaken as part of a Leverhulme Trust funded research project, Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues of his Collections (2016–19), a collaboration between the British Museum and University College London.
Permalink (free access).
Global Media and information Literacy Week and a new DIS research group: Forum of Information Literacy (FOIL) by Dr. Alison Hicks
By Ian Evans, on 20 October 2020
UCL Staff and Students will be celebrating Global Media and Information Literacy week this year by co-hosting two free online events designed to explore and celebrate the contributions of the Department of Information Studies to information literacy research and practice. Running from 24th-31st October, Global Media and Information Literacy Week is an opportunity to think more closely about the role that information plays within human social interactions, and more particularly, within academic, workplace and everyday contexts. Events will be held online on the 28th and 29th October and are free.
These events are carried out under the auspices of FOIL, the Forum on Information Literacy, which is a new information literacy research group that has been cofounded at UCL, Department of Information Studies. FOIL represents a space for academic researchers who are active in the field of information literacy research in the UK, to discuss and challenge ideas, and to engage in critical reflection on theory, practice and praxis-oriented research. Its goals include establishing and nurturing a research environment in which information literacy researchers in UK Universities will discuss theoretical and methodological issues related to information literacy, and advancing a research agenda and programme of works that addresses the theoretical and methodological issues of information literacy in academic and applied contexts. Other members of FOIL include academics at the University of Sheffield, the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University.
On the 28th October, DIS staff members Professor Annemaree Lloyd, Dr Charlie Inskip and Dr Alison Hicks will be participating in an event entitled “Information Literacy in the United Kingdom: past and future” alongside colleagues from the University of Sheffield, Strathclyde University, University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. This event will address the questions: (1) What has been the UK narrative about information literacy? and (2) What will be the UK narrative about information literacy?
On the 29th September, recent DIS graduate Tsveta Rafaylova will be presenting on her recently completed MA research on workplace information literacy within a professional tax services firm. Tsveta’s dissertation was supervised by Dr Alison Hicks and focused on exploring the role that information literacy played in helping a professional services firm pivot to home working during the COVID-19 lockdown. Tsveta will be joining MA graduates from the University of Sheffield and the University of Manchester in this panel designed to showcase MA research.
By Ian Evans, on 16 July 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to radically refine people’s information experiences. The study, Risk and Resilience in Redefined Information Environments, which is being carried out by Professor Annemaree Lloyd and Dr Alison Hicks at UCL’s Department of Information Science, investigates how information literacy practices and literacies of information help people to mitigate risk and develop resilience during a time of upheaval.
The ongoing health crisis has produced complex and multi-layered information environments that span a range of new information sources including scientific, medical, mental health and government advice. This information is further tailored, repackaged and communicated by multiple actors across multiple information channels, including social media, peer review and governmental websites. New ways of interacting with others (in work, education or everyday situations), which are being encouraged as a result of government social distancing policies, further impact how information is shared and disseminated within a community.
The multiplicity, complexity and range of information environments created in response to the pandemic is problematic and has the potential to create social, economic, health and educational risks. New challenges also emerge, including confusion about where to find information when traditional methods and strategies, or established information landscapes are disrupted, or when there is a need to become informed about an unfamiliar topic. Risk may also be created when people are forced to develop rapid new ways of determining the veracity and trustworthiness of rumours and hearsay that they find through websites, social media channels and amongst friends and family. These information problems may further cause people to cut themselves off from or avoid information as a way to manage overload or mediate stress, anxiety and mental health issues. In effect, these ongoing uncertainties can have implications in terms of people’s capacity to understand crisis information environments and build information practices that scaffold informed decision making and broader questions of resilience.
The Risk and Resilience study is a two-phase study that is being carried at UCL’s Department of Information Studies. The study is currently being conducted with participants across the UK and aims to develop a detailed understanding of the risks that people face during the pandemic, including in everyday, workplace and caring contexts; the information sources and information literacy practices that are used to mitigate risk; and the barriers and challenges that enable or constrain the development of resilient information practices.
The findings of this study will enable information researchers to develop clearer insight and understanding of how people develop knowledge of and mitigate risk, construct information landscapes and develop resilience strategies during times of crisis and upheaval. It will establish foundational knowledge about people’s information practices from which to develop future responses for information, civil contingency, emergency services, welfare and public health professions.
If you are interested in participating in this study or would like further information about the study, please contact Professor Annemaree Lloyd firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr Alison Hicks email@example.com
By Ian Evans, on 6 April 2020
iConference 2020, which took place in March 23-27 2020, had been planned as a standard international conference to be hosted in Sweden. However, due to the coronavirus, rather than delegates flying into Sweden or alternatively cancelling, it was successfully moved online. The coronavirus pandemic brings challenges but also innovative ways of communicating and reconsidering academic discourse and practices. The iConference organizers responded quickly to this situation and the Conference was transitioned to an all-virtual form in less than two weeks.
Our PhD student, Cindy Fu, engaged in the programme, as a speaker with her supervisor Dr Elizabeth Lomas (Associate Professor in Information Governance), in a session for interaction and engagement, which was held by Zoom. A conference organiser was online at all times to ensure the technology was working. Cindy and Elizabeth’s session focused on, “putting information behaviour on the cognitive map: exploring information seeking behaviours of academic researchers”. It was aimed at engaging participants with a mapping technique called cognitive mapping, and exploring their information seeking behaviour in the research context, Cindy has used cognitive mapping within her PhD research to consider UCL student information seeking behaviours. She has supplemented the mapping with log analysis and interviews. This particular iConference session was set up as a workshop with activities, which did require some additional thinking and planning with the move online. 25 people logged on. Cindy took the lead in the session, presenting on the development of cognitive mapping in terms of its origin, development, approaches and examples of how it has been applied in research. In this workshop, participants were then set a mapping exercise, which gave them a chance to interact and actively think about this approach. They were required to provide a map, which could include, text or drawings of their information seeking behaviour as an academic researcher. Every two minutes, Cindy called out to change the colour of the pen being used. This enabled the progression of a participant’s thoughts to be visualized. Participants then uploaded and discussed their maps and the value and limitations of this approach. Below is an example of Cindy’s own map (figure 1).
Figure 1: An example of Cindy’s map of her information seeking behavior for research.
Having shared maps, participants could put up a virtual hand up to speak or type comments into the chat function which Elizabeth then monitored and read out. A number of the participants discussed how they might apply this approach within their own research. The workshop format proved to be just as viable online as a normal face-to-face session. The distinction was that participants could choose to be less visible in their participation if they wished. There have been follow up questions since the session and for those that are interested Cindy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is happy to be emailed and to share her slides.
Dr Alison Hicks, Lecturer in the Department of Information Science, also contributed to the 2020 virtual iconference programme. Together with a colleague from the University of Copenhagen, she successfully led a workshop, Transition in user-centred information studies – the what, why and how?, which focused on exploring the concept of transition and its potential impact on human-centred information research. Lively discussion followed on from short presentations that explored the ways in which transition has been examined within Library and Information Science research, as over 30 people logged in to collaborate and interact with participants from around the globe. Alison also presented a paper that was co-authored with UCL colleague, Professor Annemaree Lloyd. Their short paper, Peeling back the layers: Deconstructing information literacy discourse in higher education, employed a discourse analysis method to explore the outward and inward-facing narratives of information literacy that are present within key professional texts. This paper forms part of a larger research programme that aims to critically interrogate the epistemological premises and discourses of information literacy within higher education. Overall, Alison found that the online presentation format was very successful; she enjoyed seeing who was present at her session as well as the
opportunity to ask questions orally and through the chat text box. While the time zone restrictions meant that she was not able to attend all the sessions that she wanted to, overall, she found that thanks to the impressive efforts of the hosts, the programme was stimulating, accessible and well-thought through.
This was a unique experience and one that may be considered for conference formats post-coronavirus.
By Ian Evans, on 25 March 2020
Congratulations to recently graduated LIS Students!
Two recently graduated Library and Information Studies students received good news this week!
Verity Attwell (MA 2018) has had an article based on her MA dissertation accepted for publication in School Libraries Worldwide, “In all areas, I cater to the majority”: An investigation of LGBT+ provision in school libraries from the librarian’s perspective.” Verity is a school librarian at Fettes College, Edinburgh and her dissertation focused on LGBTQ+ representation in school library collections and activities.
Ellen Haggar (MA 2018) has had an article based on her MA dissertation accepted for publication in the Journal of Documentation, “Fighting Fake News: Exploring George Orwell’s Relationship to Information Literacy.” Ellen is a Research and Outreach Librarian at Institution of Mechanical Engineers and her dissertation focused on analysing Orwell’s wartime diaries through the lens of information literacy.
Congratulations to Verity and Ellen.
A note on the ‘institution of a School for the training of Librarians’ at University College London by Professor Elizabeth Shepherd
By Ian Evans, on 24 September 2019
In November 1917, the President of the Library Association, Sir John MacAlister, wrote to the Provost of UCL ‘to enquire whether it would be possible to institute at University College a School of Librarianship…to be established in co-operation with the Library Association’. The London School of Economics had offered a course in librarianship in co-operation with the Library Association (LA) between 1902 and 1915, but that had lapsed during the War. The arrangement had been that the LA paid the fees of the lecturers whom they also recommended, while the LSE provided teaching space and other expenses, however, initial healthy numbers dwindled to 3 or 6 students by 1915. After some further discussions, a proposal was sent to the Professorial Board, which set up a Committee to confer with the Library Association. The Committee reported positively on the proposal on 22 March 2018, having reassured itself that the LSE did not propose to resume its earlier course. The Director of the LSE concluded that ‘the number of new recruits to librarianship…was so small as to preclude any hope of making an institution of the kind successful’.
Recommendations went to the College Committee, ‘that it is desirable to institute a School for Librarianship at University College, provided that the necessary Endowment Fund is forthcoming’. The Library Association had been in communication with the Carnegie Trustees seeking an annual grant to support the School which was ‘receiving their sympathetic consideration’. A Joint Sub-Committee between UCL and the LA was invited to prepare a scheme for submission to the UCL Committee. The ambition was to have ‘something founded upon the lines that will enable it to develop into a University School of librarianship comparable with the great Schools of Librarianship in the United States’.
The proposal was to establish a staff comprising a Director, a Secretary, and Teaching Staff in four core areas of study, ie Bibliography, Classification, Cataloguing, Library History, Organisation and Routine. Special courses would also be provided in Literary History, Palaeography and the Study of Archives, and Indexing. The LA proposed to transfer its extensive library of ‘Technical Library Literature’ to UCL. The Carnegie Trust agreed to fund the School for five years initially at the rate of £1500 per annum. The scheme was approved by the University of London Senate and the plan was to start teaching in October 1919.
In June 1919, UCL College Committee approved a statement of the duties and terms of appointment of the Director of the School of Librarianship and agreed to appoint Dr E A Baker, Secretary to the Education Committee of the LA and on the Joint Committee. A row then erupted between the University Senate and the LA, after the LA Council passed a resolution disapproving of Baker’s appointment and insisting that the Directorship be advertised. It seems that some members of the LA had hoped to start a school at a northern university and were seeking to derail the UCL proposal. However, after reconsideration and lawyers’ letters, the University and UCL prevailed and Dr Baker’s appointment was confirmed in August 1919. Sir Frederick Kenyon was invited to deliver the address at the opening of the School of Librarianship in October 1919.
In its first decade, 387 full time and 289 part time students completed courses, some sponsored by local education authorities such as London County Council which sponsored 50 places for London librarians. The School expanded to occupy most of the Henry Morley Building at UCL. The Carnegie Trust renewed its grant for a second five year period. In 1930, UCL started to fund raise for a capital investment of £50,000 to secure the School’s future.
UCL Special Collections, Records Office UCLCA/CC: UCL Minutes of College Committee, 17/10/1917 to 2/07/1918, Meeting 5/03/1918; Meeting 30/04/1918; Meeting 3/06/1919.
University of London Library: University Correspondence Central File, 1918-1919 CF 1/19/208, including letters from Carnegie Trust.
University of London Library: UL 3/7, miscellaneous papers on the School of Librarianship, 1901-1930.
By Ian Evans, on 14 November 2018
Congratulations to Simons Cloudesley and Justine Humphreys, students on the MA in LIS programme, whose work with the Refugee Echo Library this summer has been recognised in the CILIP Information Professional Magazine. Simon and Justine’s travel was funded by the Dean’s Strategic Fund at UCL. To learn more about their work in Greece, please follow the link to the article: