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The Botish Library: developing a poetry printing machine with Python

20 October 2020

Abstract

In June 2020 the Office for Students announced a campaign to fill 2,500 new places on artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses in universities across the UK. While I’m not planning to retrain in cyber, I was lucky enough to be in the cohort for the trial run of one of these courses: Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Data Science. The course started as a collaborative project between The British Library, The National Archives and Birkbeck University to develop a computing course aimed at professionals working in the cultural heritage sector. The trial run has now ended and the course is set to start in full from January 2021.

The course is designed for graduates who are new to computer science – which was perfect for me, as I had no previous coding knowledge besides some very basic HTML and CSS. It was a very steep learning curve, starting from scratch and ending with developing my own piece of software, but it was great to see how code could be applied to everyday issues to facilitate and automate parts of our workload. The fact that it was targeted at information professionals and that we could use existing datasets to learn from real life examples made it easier to integrate study with work. After a while, I started to look at the everyday tasks in my to-do list and wonder “Can this be solved with Python?”

After a taught module (Demystifying Computing with Python), students had to work on an individual project module and develop a software based on their work (to solve an issue, facilitate a task, re-use and analyse existing resources). I had an idea of the themes I wanted to explore – as Curator of Digital Publications, I’m interested in new media and platforms used to deliver content, and how text and stories are shaped by these tools. When I read about French company Short Édition and the short story vending machine in Canary Wharf I knew I had found my project.

My project is to build a stand-alone printer that prints random poems from a dataset of out-of-copyright texts. A little portable Bot-ish (sic!) Library to showcase the British Library collections and fill the world with more poetry.

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