Digital collections, scholarship and the Lab at KB National Library of the Netherlands

    The KB National Library of the Netherlands currently hosts more than 100 million pages of digitised texts (books, newspapers, magazines and more) on its search platform Delpher. These collections not only stem from the KB, but from more than 100 partners within the Netherlands. Everything is freely available on Delpher through keyword search, but due to negotiations with the right holders (organisations), we are also able to provide the entire collection in bulk for research purposes. This blog describes how the KB organised the community building around the use of the digital collection as data.

    Digital Humanities Team

    When we started advertising the availability of our collections for research, we quickly saw that collaboration was key within digital humanities (or scholarship). Not only with the researchers using our collections, but also within our own organisation. The Collections department is responsible for collection building and the delivery of the data through Data Services. The Research department housed several projects using the digital collections, such as named entity recognition in the digitised newspapers and the KB Research Lab. We teamed up and formed an internal digital humanities team with 3 people; the Data Services Coordinator (currently Curator of Digital Collections) from the Collections department, and a Digital Scholarship Advisor and Research Software Engineer from the Research department.

    KB on tour

    Once we established our team, we saw that many of the projects we were doing with researchers started because someone in our network knew us and heard us talk about our data. We wanted to expand this network and share what we had and what we were doing in a more coordinated effort. We therefore developed a flyer and poster and submitted an abstract to several digital humanities(-related) conferences. We also contacted university libraries and research groups and asked if we could present ourselves and our work. Together, we travelled the country and built our network.

    Connecting, learning and building

    As we continued to build our network, more and more projects started using our digital collections. However, we noticed that it was quite difficult for us to stay connected to the groups working with our data during their research when we were not officially part of their project. We also wanted to learn more about the new techniques they were using that might enrich or improve the access to our collections. Having had a fellowship programme for several years within the Collections department focused on the physical collection, we opted to redesign this and focus on digital collections and new techniques. Simultaneously in the Research department, the similar programme KB Researcher-in-residence was set up where early career researchers are invited to join the Research department for 6 months with a project they propose.

    Collaboration through programmes

    The two official collaborative programmes, the KB Fellowship and the KB Researcher-in-residence, meant we had three projects per year where we had the opportunity to work closely together with a researcher on a project that answered a humanities research question, but also had a research component that was relevant for us at the library. All researchers were asked to work in the library for at least one day a week and we freed up a research software engineer to collaboratively develop or – ideally – adapt any software needed in the projects. In these projects, we learned about topic modelling, computer vision techniques, word embeddings, network analysis, linked data and much more.

    Building our hub

    The more intense collaborations created knowledge and ambassadors for our library, but there were still many other groups that were working with our collections and some of them were doing similar work. With our collections as the central point – and mostly the newspapers – we decided to bring the researchers together and ask them to present their work to not only us, but also their colleagues. After the successful co-organisation of the first DHBenelux conference in 2014, we saw the benefits of an event for networking and knowledge sharing. We therefore organised two conferences, one in 2015 and one in 2017, in the KB titled “Newspapers as Big Data”. These events gave us the occasion to share more about how we build our collections, what our OCR process looks like and what is legally possible with the data, but also provided us with another networking opportunity.

    Sharing outcomes

    Since starting our efforts in 2014, we managed to create a network of researchers around our data, our work and the opportunities we had to offer as library. However, everything we worked on was published on the research server of the library and our Github-account, which meant it was slightly hidden. We did have a website connected to the KB Lab, but this website was very out of date and not in line with the KB’s online identity. After the work we had done to position our collections as a hub in research, we needed a platform that matched our intentions. Together with an external partner we built a new website on which we can publish data, tools, demos, news and blogs, facilitating sharing of results. All projects that we work on, or that are shared with us are gathered at lab.kb.nl, making it a portfolio of work that we have done, but also a source of inspiration on what is possible with digital collections.

    Building towards the future

    We are happy to say that the goal we set ourselves is achieved. Researchers (in the Netherlands) know about the library, our collection and our team. They know how to find us, for short research projects, but also larger funded projects. We became part of the digital humanities communities in the Netherlands, our data is used in research and we have learned a lot through collaboration. We will continue our efforts in this respect but have also set new goals for ourselves as a team. The coming years we will be working on transparency around our digital collections and its processes and are also aiming to broaden our network to other sciences and research groups.

    Lotte Wilms, Digital Scholarship advisor, manages the KB Research Lab, DH in libraries advocate and always open for new initiatives. I hold a BA degree in English Language and Culture and an MA degree in Medieval Studies from Utrecht University and am currently a PhD student at Maastricht University. My research is focused on the role of academic libraries in the digital humanities.

    Since working for the KB from 2008 onwards, I have held a number of positions, mostly related to digitisation and the reuse of digitised material. You could have met me while working for IMPACT, Europeana Newspapers or the projects that digitised our parliamentary papers or old printed books. Since 2013 I am active in the field of Digital Humanities and promoting this Lab and what we do as part of this setup all over the world.

    My personal interests lie in community building and organisational issues around libraries and DH. How can we use our Lab to build a strong network of DH researchers using the material from the KB? And how should we set up our library organisations to support DH scholars and facilitate research?

    I am the co-chair for the LIBER working group Digital Humanities and a board member of the IMPACT Centre of Competence.