Tuesday, 5 January 2021

A year in open research at York

Open research enables all aspects of the research cycle to be shared freely for others to reuse. Ben Catt talks about the rise of open research practice during the Covid-19 pandemic, and recent initiatives for open research at York. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Could COVID improve access?: Accessibility, remote working and pandemic

UK Disability History Month runs from 18th November to 20th December each year. Alice Bennett reflects on the digital shift forced by the pandemic in the light of this year's theme "Access: How far have we come? How far have we to go?"

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many social changes but one of the greatest has been the digital shift, as more people than ever study and work remotely. This shift online has not been limited to work but also extended to leisure, with live streamed concerts and stand up performances and increased online content from galleries and theatres, much of it free.

A rather opulent theatre... a bit of a fancier ambience than watching from home

The price of attendance and potential difficulty in travelling to venues is a barrier to attending events and activities for many people, but disproportionately impacts disabled people. The recent availability of so many performances and activities online not only helps to overcome the potential barrier of cost, but also the frequent inaccessibility of venues and transport. It also helps overcome other potential barriers - for example, being able to watch from home opens up live streamed performances to those with chronic pain or fatigue that prevents travel, it enables a good view for those unable to stand gigs, and provides a relaxed and controllable home atmosphere to those who find theatre venues stressful. Recorded National Theatre productions, films released early on platforms such as Amazon and streamed concerts all provide opportunities for a far wider audience to engage with these performances.

During lockdown, getting outside became far more difficult for everyone, although between issues of cost and accessibility of travel, and the accessibility of sites themselves, has meant natural beauty spots can be difficult to access for a great many. Wildlife webcams are not new, but received new attention in lockdown, as a way to facilitate lockdown nature watching - for example the webcams of the UK Wildlife Trusts, which let you stream footage of the natural world (including puffins, shown right, photo of from the UK Wildlife Trusts). Whilst these can benefit anyone in lockdown or otherwise unable to make the trip, the improvement and promotion of these remote means of accessing the natural world are again of particular importance or opening up opportunities for engagement with disabled audiences.

A puffin stands on a rock, contemplating whether or not to watch the Wildlife Trusts webcam

On a more local level, activities such as exercise classes, coffee mornings, music lessons and book clubs are no longer safe to hold in person. Many of these have gone digital, providing what they can online, both in terms of content and maintaining social contact for their users. Again this opens up possibilities for new audiences, for those previously unable to attend.

The shift online has not universally improved accessibility. The move to provide physical services virtually has highlighted the digital divide - the gap between those with reliable high speed internet provision and the technology to use digital tools effectively and those without reliable technology and internet access. Those unfamiliar with digital tools may be similarly excluded. Therefore although the greater online provision has enabled engagement for many more than previously, it has not enabled access for all.

Besides online provision of leisure activities, the pandemic has seen a great many people work remotely, often for the first time. Whilst this has meant the need to adjust to new ways of working, being able to work or study remotely opens opportunities to those with disabilities, removing potential barriers such as inaccessible buildings and difficulty commuting. Whilst this has eased lockdown for many, the sudden proliferation of online resources and working from home wherever possible has not been without comment and some resentment from the disability community. Why is the new accessibility being criticised? Well, the accessibility is not - but rather that it took a pandemic to make it happen.

Someone sat at a computer, lit only by their monitor and a rather distracting sunset through the window.

Many disabled people have had requests to work or study remotely (whether the remote aspect would be full or part time) refused, with individuals having been told that remote working would not be possible for that job or that course. Now, many of those same jobs and courses which could not be managed remotely have been shifted online. As these accommodations are made, there has been understandable anger from those previously denied them.

This topic has come up in the BBC Ouch! Corona pandemic podcast, a spin off from the Ouch! Disability reporting. In the first podcast of the series, broadcast on 29th March 2020, journalist and blogger Natasha Lipman commented:

“It's been very interesting seeing a lot of disabled people online talking about this, saying how people have lost their jobs or had to drop out of university or schools or not be able to get a job in the first place, and then within the space of a week or two remote working, flexible working. Online lectures have suddenly become a thing. So I think it's been something that a lot of people have been finding difficult.

What I've been saying for years is that there are an awful lot of jobs that can be done with more flexibility, and this doesn't just benefit disabled people, it can have huge benefits to a lot of people, but then of course in this situation there are a lot of people who don't have that luxury of being able to say okay, I'm going to keep working but work from home.”

In the second episode of the podcast (broadcast on 1st April 2020), this was also a subject for comment from Ellis Palmer, a producer on BBC NewsHour on the World Service:

“I actually think this crisis could throw up a really, really interesting thing for a lot of disabled people, which is we had to fight a lot of the time to get reasonable adjustments, but now a lot of non-disabled people are finding they need reasonable adjustments, laptops or whatever, to be able to work from home. And now they're realising kind of the wisdom of our fight. Hopefully there will be more of an acceptance of remote working, just spending a day in the office a week. So, I actually think the future of work post COVID-19 could be potentially advantageous for disabled people economically speaking.”

The situation is common across economically developed countries. The disability activist Imani Barbarin describes seeing a company publicizing their working from home provision during the pandemic - a company which has previously told her that working from home would be impossible. Her article outlining her anger at the situation appeared on 31st March 2020 in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

So will COVID change this? At this point, we don't know. It is too soon to predict the long term social impact of this pandemic. Enabling more widespread remote working could improve diversity, particularly opening up possibilities for work and study for those living with chronic illness or disability. With lockdowns creating enforced experiments on the possibilities of remote working, studying and wider engagement, COVID may have proved that more online access is possible than previously thought. It is tragic that it has taken a pandemic to push progress in accessibility, but hopefully, a more flexible and accessible culture or work, study and leisure activities can be a lasting legacy, long after COVID has gone.

If you found this article interesting, there's more like it in our free online Digital Wellbeing course.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

NVivo Cantando!

NVivo is a popular software package for qualitative data analysis. Stephanie Jesper takes a topical look at it ahead of our NVivo Digital Wednesdays session next month.

An empty NVivo all ready to be filled

This week would've been the week of the Eurovision Song Contest: one of my favourite weeks of the year. But a certain global pandemic got in the way. So instead I'm spending the week playing with NVivo. It's not the same. Still, I'm keen to make my NVivo play as interesting as possible in every way that I can... maybe I could liven it up with a little Eurovision-related qualitative data analysis?

The 2020 contest may have been cancelled, but what's another year I could play with? My number one Eurovision Song Contest is 1977 (there were some really wild dances that year), but it's probably better to choose a contest with a more famous winner. And I believe pretty-much everybody knows the winner from 1974 so let's go with that...

NVivo is a qualitative data analysis tool. Most data analysis is quantitative: it's about counting numbers. And spreadsheets are really good at that. You can throw in a load of numerical data and get really quite sophisticated analysis at the touch of a button. But a lot of data we get is in the form of text; of words. And that sort of thing is a bit harder to automatically analyse in a meaningful way. NVivo is a tool to facilitate that analysis.


The first thing NVivo needs is some data. You can import all kinds of everything into NVivo: the spreadsheets you've collated, the bibliographic data you've amassed, the voice recordings you made when you were conducting interviews... all kinds of other materials you might want to analyse like emails, tweets, transcripts, video... or in our case song lyrics.

I've sourced the lyrics to all the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest entries (translated into English where necessary) and I've imported them into NVivo. Now what?

Frustratingly, it's not just as simple as saying "Hey, NVivo, my love: shine a light on these texts. I wanna know all the juicy details". NVivo isn't that clever. It's not an artificial intelligence tool. It's more like a glorified highlighter pen that can add up. You're going to have to do a lot of the hard work.

But that's no reason to go running scared from NVivo. Helpfully it's been built to look like a Microsoft Office application, so that makes it a bit easier than it could be to navigate. And down the left-hand side of NVivo's navigation pane are three important subsections: Files, Codes, and Cases. The first of these is relatively straightforward: we've just imported a load of files. But what are these codes and cases?

Cases and classifications

It's important to stress that NVivo's a pretty open environment and you can use these fields how you like, but there are some standard principles. We'll start with cases. Let's say you've done several interviews with different people. Each person might be considered a "case". You might've interviewed them twice so there'd be two files associated with them (or maybe even more), but they're the one case.

Files and cases also have associated "classifications". These are your metadata. File classifications may be things about the file itself: what type of file it is, when it was recorded, etc. Case classifications are the demographics of your case: maybe you interviewed some great operatic diva from the stage, some jazz heroes from the local club, and some rock'n'roll kids from satellite TV: here's where you'd put all the useful background information about them. In my case I'm putting in here the information about the songs: artist, country, score, placing, etc.:

I've linked my files to my cases, and added case classifications

These classifications are useful because they offer an extra layer of potential analysis with which to toy (do the songs sung in English perform better than the songs sung in other languages, for instance?).

Codes and nodes

And then there's the codes. These are where most of the action happens in a tool like NVivo. And it's action that is very much on you. There are ways to automatically code in NVivo but you'll miss a lot if you do that. Or get a lot of stuff you don't need. NVivo isn't some magic fairytale tool. You're going to have to go through all your files and manually code them up. This involves making your mind up about what approach to take. Is there a pre-existing set of themes or categories you could apply, or are you just going to work from the bottom up, tagging things as you see them? Which method works best in your eyes?

Here I've tagged up the winning song from 1974: Abba's "Waterloo":

Tagging up Waterloo: coding strips show where certain nodes are being applied

I'm working very much bottom-up: I've noticed certain themes and I've created a "node" for each one, e.g. "Love", "War", etc. I've even nested some nodes beneath others ("War", I've decided, is a subset of "Society"). Again, how you do this is up to you.

Another decision I've had to make is whether I mark up the refrain: does a repeated chorus count as a repetition of imagery, or does it just skew my analysis? Also, does a "la la la" count as musical imagery worthy of coding? You'll be faced with a lot of questions like this. You might want to save several copies of your project as you go, in case you change your mind about anything.

...and in case NVivo crashes. Which it did for me as I was coding up. That's why I have a file called "esc74 (Recovered).nvp". "Why me?" I despaired. I didn't realise how much this crash would rock me. I was about to cry at the frustration of having to do all that coding again, only teardrops were thankfully spared when NVivo persuaded my file to rise like a phoenix. I let out a little "hallelujah" such was my euphoria.

Exploring the data

Coding took a while. And I didn't do a particularly good job of it. Still, once it was done I could start on the analysis. There's a whole arcade of tools to play with in NVivo...

A wordcloud from Eurovision 1974: 'love' is the biggest word. 'sing

A simple thing that didn't need any coding up was this wordcloud. The words "sing", "one", and "lala" fly on the wings of "love", with "Waterloo" also quite obvious in the mix.

But now we've coded up we can look at other things too. Here's the nodes for "love" and "war" plotted against the "language" case:

Love versus War: 'love' is the dominant theme in all languages except Serbo-Croatian

You probably have to play with the analysis tools a bit to get something really telling from the data, and think about things you want to explore in more detail. But you can get counts and cross-tabulations on all your codes and cases, and one of those combinations might be the revelation you're looking for. Personally, I'm rather fond of this particular visualisation:

What comes before and after the word 'Waterloo' in the song 'Waterloo'?

I've only scratched at the surface of what's possible with the help of NVivo. If you're interested in finding out more, there's our Research data Skills Guide, but we're also doing an "Intro to NVivo" demo on Zoom as part of our Digital Wednesdays research theme this term. That takes place at 2pm on Wednesday 3rd June, and is open to all members of the University. In lieu of this year's Eurovision Song Contest, it may be the best gig taking place this year! Failing that, you could always shove this text into NVivo and see if you can code up all the winning songs I smuggled into it. There's 30 to find...

Monday, 4 May 2020

Looking after your digital wellbeing in lockdown

Ahead of our latest free online course on Digital Wellbeing which starts on 11th May, one of the course facilitators, Alice Bennett takes a look at the challenge of maintaining our digital wellbeing under lockdown...

Wiping down a computer keyboard

If you are a fan of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – you might know that some of us here in the Library and IT have been involved in creating a few of them, one of which is on digital wellbeing. We update it each time we run it, to make sure it covers current issues but when we were preparing to run it again this year, something big happened: a pandemic.

Does this affect your teaching if your teaching was always going to be online? Well, it certainly does if your course is about digital wellbeing! With life in lockdown, working from home and studying remotely have become the new routine for the majority, social media and video calling are the primary means of staying connected and whether streaming or gaming, the digital dominates entertainment too.

Looking over our previous course materials, there was suddenly a very big, very virus-y hole. We talked about tech in the workplace – workplaces that are now closed. We discussed how not to annoy colleagues with emails but made no mention of videoconferencing. We talked about unhelpful comparisons on social media, but hadn’t mentioned comparing lockdown sourdough loaves. Everything was still current, but also somehow very out of date. This course has a global audience and we try to talk about trends rather than specifics, but this was a global event. We had to acknowledge the elephant that had suddenly waltzed into the room.

But what about overload? The pandemic is dominating our lives, so we can’t ignore it, but we didn’t want it to dominate this course. We couldn’t talk about digital wellbeing without mentioning something which pushed so much more of daily life online and has so heavily impacted wellbeing. On the other hand, continually staring the pandemic and its every digital ramification in the face was not the answer. Studying online is not necessarily escapism, but for most it is not about endlessly probing the worst of life’s problems either.

And we don’t know the whole story yet. We can talk about digital trends and habits, we can look at how lockdown has changed our behaviours, we can consider how we are using digital technology to combat the virus – but long term, we still don’t know what impact this will have on our digital world and our relationship with it. It may change habits, or people may revert to pre pandemic behaviours – we won’t know for some time what legacy we have been left.

So with this latest run of the course we have tried to strike a balance. We discuss the big digital issues and the immediate ones. If, like me, you have participated in more video conferences in the past few weeks than in the entirety of your life before 2020, we have tips on video calls and working from home, as well as discussing the risk of being always on when working remotely. With so many of us spending more time online during lockdown – whether through choice or necessity – understanding the way we interact with digital technology is even more important. There are risks and unresolved problems with our relationships with the digital world, but similarly there are amazing possibilities. So join us to consider the pitfalls and potentials of digital technology and the impact on our wellbeing, at a time when negotiating our wellbeing and an increasingly online life are especially important.

A girl opens a magical book

The new run of our Digital Wellbeing course starts on Monday 11th May.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

A Fifteenth-Century Medical Handbook in York Minster Library (YML, XVI. E. 32). Part 4 - a blog by Dr Rebeca Cubas-Peña

Part IV: Reception

In the same manner that modern students take notes in the margins of their study books or come across other students’ annotations in library books, earlier readers marked and adapted the texts they read as a method of assimilating and internalising new and useful material. Through these notes, readers show an engagement and interaction with the texts which represent a natural process of reading. This engagement is manifested not only in the form of annotations but also in the number of devices that readers have added to their books in order to facilitate their navigation and understanding.

Numerous post-medieval owners of the York medieval manuscript engaged with the volume. It is worth mentioning that if it were not for these additions modern readers would think that the manuscript was barely read, since except for a few dog-ears is in excellent condition. Knowing the disposition of a medical book might have been indeed helpful, if not necessary, to a medical practitioner. Given the practicality of such subject matter, the fact that herbals or treatises on simples were copied in alphabetical order, that the headings of the recipes were copied both in the body of the text and the margins, or that several collections of recipes followed the so-called ‘head-to-toe’ principle would have been convenient to the practitioner in need of specific information to heal a patient, especially if in haste.

An incomplete table of contents concerning a collection of recipes written by a sixteenth-century reader (fols. 81v-82r)

Marginal annotations

The margins of the York medical manuscript reveals the presence of annotators who, by adding tables of contents, headings, recipes or comments, have contributed notably to give the manuscript its present form. The majority of these annotations, which were mostly written in the sixteenth century and aimed at facilitating the location of specific information, were written to find relevant recipes fast. How did they do that? By copying the heading of the remedies next to the recipes they refer to. For instance, folios number 104v and 105r show the following marginal titles (in original Middle English here) next to their corresponding remedy: ‘to do a wey here’ to remove hair; ‘for þe quarteyne’ to treat the quartan fever, i.e. an intermittent fever with attacks every third day; ‘for þe blody flyxʒe’ (called the ‘blody menysoun’ in the text) to help with the menstrual flow; ‘for bleynys in þe face’ to remove pimples or sores on the face; ‘for þe goute’ to relieve the strong pain suffered by arthritis in the bones of the haunch (called the ‘goute sciatik’ in the text); and ‘for þe morymalle’ to treat a bad sore (mormal), in this case in the leg. [1]

Post-medieval recipe titles in the margins (fols. 104v-105r)
Some of these indexing notes are of significant interest because they mention individuals who are related to the readers of the manuscript. Thus, there is a very interesting note which points to a remedy that seemed to be good for the stone or calculus that an old man called Johannes Busshy had.
A marginal note (‘for þe ston þat olde Johannes busshy hath’, fol. 157v)
This same annotator, who was probably a medical practitioner and an early owner of the manuscript, also annotated a recipe for a long-time headache which is easily found due to a marginal manicule and a bottom-page note that reads: ‘a medicine for my wife´s headache proved true’. These annotations would have helped the reader to spot successful remedies without difficulty, whilst underlining their efficiency for future readers and owners.
A marginal note concerning a recipe which is also marked by a manicule (fol. 92r)
Other annotations were added to transcribe, translate or explain Middle English terms. A very prolific sixteenth-century annotator drew two carets at the beginning of a word that alludes to the herbe paralisis, a plant that earned this title due to its effectiveness in healing gout, paralysis and rheumatism. The annotator wrote a marginal explanatory note which indicated that paralisis was the cowslip or primrose.

An annotator explains that ‘paralisis is þe cowslope or primerose’ (fol. 87r)
There is a more consistent and modern annotator who marked the margins of the manuscript with notes and drawings written in pencil. At first, I suspected that these annotations may have been written by Elizabeth Brunskill, a former York Minster librarian who did a comprehensive study of the volume that includes a full transcript of the manuscript, a list of contents, and relevant bibliographical material, among other things. [2]
Elizabeth Brunskill´s transcription of a table of contents in the York medical manuscript (Add. MSS 198, fol. 79a)
She also developed an analysis of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, the source text of the third Booklet of the York medical manuscript. Brunskill compared the booklet to Margaret Ogden’s celebrated edition of the treatise and wrote some notes on the margins of her transcript. [3] Due to this exhaustive analysis of the volume and the modernity of the script, I assumed that she was responsible for the pencil annotations in the manuscript. However, it is highly unlikely that anyone took notes on the book once it entered the library.

What seems more obvious is that whoever wrote these pencil annotations intended to gloss and transcribe words whose spelling or meaning were not easily understood. The annotator transcribed the Middle English word ‘loue ache’ as ‘lovage’, a plant in the parsley family ― normally Levisticum officinale ― used in medicine and cooking. This person also transcribed and translated the word ‘cropen’, which as glossed means ‘crept’ and appears in the heading of a recipe for a worm that is bred or crept into a man´s body.

An annotator glossing the word ‘lovage’ in pencil (fol. 54r)
Cropen glossed as ‘+cropen i.e. crept’ in the margins (fol. 80r)
Marginal drawings and bookmarks

Alongside these marginal notes, the York medical manuscript contains several finding aids in the form of manicules, drawings of circles and crosses, illustrations and bookmarks. The annotations already discussed include a manicule and a black cross, but there are other extraordinary examples worth mentioning. For instance, there is a drawing of a tongue next to a recipe for the man who has lost his speech, or a drawing of a heart that was drawn in the middle of the word ‘palsy’ and points at oil for palsy, cold gout and other cold causes.

A marginal drawing of a tongue (fol. 22r)
A drawing of a heart next to a recipe for ‘Oyle mad for palesye for cold goutys & for oþir colde causys’ (fol. 156r)
My personal favourite, however, (which I need to include for obvious reasons!) is the dead bovine which someone drew next to a charm against the plague, or death, among cattle. This excellent illustration, which depicts the animal expiring, shows the bovine on its back breathing its last breath (look how it comes out of its mouth!) with an overhanging cloud. 

A drawing of a dead bovine next to a charm against the plague (fol. 166r)
Marginal notes and illustrations are not the only finding devices in the York medical manuscript: the edges of some leaves contain bookmarkers. Unlike modern bookmarks, which consist of external elements placed amongst the pages of a book, medieval bookmarkers were made by modifying the original appearance of the folios of the manuscript. Finger-tabs, for example, were made by cutting the fore-edge of the leaf and passing the tab through the slit.
A finger-tab (fol. 65)
There is also a thread to the fore-edge in the sixth booklet of the manuscript which might have had originally a piece of fabric or other material hanging out the page and is probably marking the opening of the Prophecies of Esdras: a text that predicted the future based on the day of the week in which Christmas day fell.
A string to mark the folio (fol. 119r)
Together with the medieval and post-medieval annotations and finding aids that have been preserved in the margins of the York medical manuscript, these bookmarks bear testimony to how the manuscript was vastly read and annotated after its production; demonstrating that the volume has been both valued and useful through the centuries.

[1] The dictionaries used to translate the medical and herbal terms have been the Middle English Dictionary https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary and J. Norri, Dictionary of Medical Vocabulary in English , 1375-1550: Body Parts, Sicknesses, Instruments, and Medicinal Preparations (Oxon, New York: Routledge, 2016).
[2] Her notes are in loose paper in York, York Minster Library, Add. MSS 198.
[3] M. S. Ogden, ed., The ‘Liber De Diversis Medicinis’ in the Thornton Manuscript. MS. Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2 (London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969).