Thursday, 16 May 2019

Keeping up appearances

This week, 13-19 May 2019, is Mental Health Awareness Week. Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the week is a chance to reflect on our own mental health, break down stigma and help people access support. This year’s theme is Body Image, inviting us to consider the often complex feelings many individuals have about their bodies and how body image can impact mental health. How has body image been shaped by digital technology? Is our society image obsessed? And how will this impact our wellbeing? This article by Alice Bennett, which featured in our recent MOOC on the topic of Digital Wellbeing, considers how the obsession with image in digital technology can affect our mental health.

A woman's face being made-up with an air-brush; the image is being cropped in a graphics program

Image: CC BY 2.0 Vancouver Film School

Everyone wants to looks their best. The creation of self and the effort to capture it in some form of self-portrait is nothing new. But the rise of selfie culture does seem to have taken us further than before. Smartphones give us the ability to take photos anywhere at any time and easily share them online. And in a society where high importance can be placed on looks, the selfie culture can drive obsession with appearance.

Seeing repeated presentation of others can lead us to unhelpful comparisons and can distort our perceptions of body image. This has long been recognised in print advertising, with various magazines and companies promising to do away with air-brushing of models, whilst editorial and advertising standards provide some guidance on the matter. For the most-part though, retouching is standard practice in publishing. We accept that magazines will hire professional photographers to light and shoot models, then edit the photos afterwards. We can appreciate that the images they create are false or exaggerated.

We’re less likely to treat the personal images we encounter online with the same level of scepticism. The adverts in the sidebar may be exaggerations of reality, but your friends’ Facebook posts are surely genuine?

Yet, whilst the photos may be real, there’s inevitable bias to the images and presentation. We may be looking at someone’s life, but we’re seeing only what they choose to share and how they choose to present it. In an interview with The Guardian, beauty blogger Dina Torkia described social media showing “just the best bits of everyone’s day”. Torkia tries to balance the images she shares:

“I also make sure that if I post a photo of myself looking amazing, I also do some Instagram stories of myself with no makeup on, looking terrible. I want my audience to see a realistic representation of me, especially as a lot of them are quite young.”

The ‘perfect’ selfie

A selfie of someone shows a literal snapshot: it’s taken from a certain angle, may have filters applied, and may have been altered. Perhaps we’ve tried to assist what the camera sees: YouTube hosts various tutorials for the perfect selfie makeup: triumphs of contouring that viewed from the right perspective can slim some features whilst emphasising others. In practice, these contouring styles can look odd when seen in person. But then they’re not designed to be seen in person; they’re to be viewed as a photograph from a specific angle. Even the touted “no make-up selfie” will usually be carefully constructed to flatter the subject – how many rejected photos languish on their camera reel? There’s also the careful choice of what else should appear in shot: the intellectual book; the quirky poster…?

Then there’s the photo editing. Some photography tricks are barely tricks at all: cropping for better composition and carefully selecting the angle (no-one posts pictures of themselves from an unflattering angle, and that holiday shot looks much better without those unwanted people on that apparently deserted beach, or that eyesore on the skyline).

Some editing is more obvious - flower crowns and puppy noses are easily spotted additions, but a great deal is more insidious. Digital photo editing was once a specialist skill but can now be done to some level on most phones in apps such as Facetune. Evening out skin tone, removing wisps of hair, altering jaw lines, re-sizing eyes and mouth – all can be done on your phone.

‘Snapchat dysmorphia’

This editing can warp perception of self-image: the adjusted image being seen as correct; the unfiltered, unedited image becoming a source of dissatisfaction. Doctors at Boston University School of Medicine have termed this ‘snapchat dysmorphia’.

This emphasis on the edited self-image is now so widespread that plastic surgeons have reported a new trend in the types of images prospective patients bring in: photographs of celebrities whose features they want to emulate have given way to adjusted photographs of themselves. A 2017 survey by The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that 55% of facial plastic surgeons had met patients motivated to improve their appearance in selfies – a rise of 13% on the previous year, and a trend that only emerged in 2014. People are undergoing elective surgery to look like the edited online image they’ve created. Physical reality is being altered to match an edited online ideal.

So is our future in the uncanny valley, as we transform our physical bodies into digitally edited versions of ourselves? We’re not quite there, but the blurring of the real and edited image seems here to stay. A picture might paint a thousand words, but a lot of them might be made up…

We've help and advice on social media and online safety on our Skills Guides.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Using graphic novels for student learning

By Lucy Atkinson, PhD in Postwar Recovery Studies programme, Politics and Research Fellow in Education.

The rise and popularity of graphic novels cannot be underestimated and offer numerous opportunities for student learning.  

Most significantly the power of the medium has reached the upper echelons of the literary world. Sabrina, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso exploring ideas of grief and loss along side indoctrination, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times and The Guardian both have dedicated webpages for graphic publications. In these forums comics and graphics novels are celebrated, criticised and explored. Distinction between the two forms are often a point of confusion, understanding of which may be a sign of being in or out of relevant communities. Here though, divergence between the forms is not significantly important. What we have is a rich opportunity to embrace the medium, ride on growing popularity and give our students opportunities for personal development.

I’ve always been a fan of TinTin, his adventures to far flung places absorbed me as a child. My interest in the Middle East, on reflection probably influenced to some extent by TinTin, lead to some time living in Jerusalem. Describing the city is a challenge, while you may be able to pin some words to the major sights, daily experiences are often beyond any lexicon. I had no way of explaining my feelings, emotions and complexity of life in the city. Until I read Jerusalem by Guy Delisle, he captured the city and its nuance. He effectively communicates the way in which communities interact, daily wonders and the bazaar which are only every seen in Jerusalem. This book became my main recommendation to all who asked ‘how’s life?’. Where my words failed Delisle’s pictures could respond. This book is now what I call my ‘gateway graphic’. Overwhelmed by the accuracy and nuance of Delisle’s work I fell deep into the world of graphic novels. What a wonderful world it is.

Images from ProQuest's Syndetics Unbound

Graphic material can be easier for those with different learning styles to engage with complex ideas and history (
Portraits of Violence An illustrated History of Radical Thinking, Arab of the Future, Red Rosa). Personal memoirs can take history and political understanding to the very personal reality (Game for Swallows, Poppies of Iraq). Critical realism can be examined with the opportunity to explore different personal experiences and perspectives (Rolling Blackouts, How to understand Israel in 60 days). The potential of such material on students’ professional and personal development is thrilling.

The use of graphic novels/comics in education has been explored in relation to Shakespeare
and in Holocaust work .The use of this graphic methods in social research is a growing field. The opportunity to use graphic novels in our university classrooms are also numerous. I am looking forward to using them in my coming seminars and using them to support student learning. Recent additions to the library collection have been catalogued in relation to their theme, for example Freedom Hospital in Civil Conflict, rather than in Art. This offers opportunity to further explore the potential value and impact of graphic material in students learning.

The developing interest in graphic novels is an opportunity that should not be missed.

Visit the University of York Library collections webpage to check out the graphic novel titles we currently have available.

Monday, 14 January 2019

How we developed the OASIS web application with open collaboration in mind

By Sebastian Palucha, Strategy Technology Leader in Library and Archives

Recently York University Library and Archives celebrated Open Access week. During this time we highlighted York open access research outputs. However, openness has various forms and shapes, as we reflect in this blogpost. Here in the Digital York Technology Team, we support the development of research inspired web applications. In our day to day work we use an open source solution as well as adopting open development processes. What follows are some thoughts about our open development process, and how that has helped us to successfully collaborate with researchers over the development of two iterations of the OASIS web application.

Copyright: University of York

The Open Accessible Summaries in Language Studies (OASIS) initiative is an exciting project, sharing Open Access research papers. It is establishing a culture of systematic production and dissemination of non-technical, open summaries, making research available and accessible not only physically, but also conceptually to people outside academia. This is important because 1) research shows these findings do not reach stakeholders easily; and 2) research shows that academic publications are increasingly more difficult to read and understand for people outside the field. The summaries are one-page descriptions of research articles that have been published in peer-reviewed journals on the Social Science Citation Index. The summaries written in non-technical language provide information about the study’s goals, how it was conducted, and what was found. All  summaries have been approved, and are often (co-)written, by the author(s) of the original journal article.

Before explaining our open development process adopted for the OASIS project, I would like to reflect on our initial meeting with the OASIS academics. At that time I was the new manager of the Technology Team, with little knowledge of the team’s earlier development of the IRIS web application, OASIS older sister, and supported research domain. I was  frustrated with our ability to communicate effectively on technical challenges such as the long-term sustainability of research web applications. I was also challenged by  understanding all the specific research concepts and vocabularies in the research field of language learning and teaching which were required for this project. More importantly, the team were not clear about what researchers were asking us to develop. We had to work to some quickly approaching deadlines, as the first iteration of the application was expected to be presented at a conference 2 months after the start of the project. I felt that we were  sleepwalking to some unsatisfactory outcomes.

In retrospect, those frustrations in our early meetings helped us to realise our different underlying goals. On the one side, the Digital York Technology Team was preoccupied with the long-term maintenance of research web application such as OASIS. These issues are not seen by our users as they are deeply hidden beneath the application web interfaces. However, if not addressed early in the development process, the availability and long-term presence of open digital content could  be endangered. On the other side, the OASIS researchers were expecting the development process of the OASIS app to be swift, due to  repurposing source code from the IRIS web application. Sadly this was not a viable option.

Once we all realised that we are not able to deliver all the required features on time, we had to develop an efficient process that would allow us to prioritise developed work as well as to support quality of the end product. The development of this process was in parallel to our strategic decision on what our underlying digital library technology will be based on. Fortunately, the Digital York Technology Team is a partner for the vibrant Samvera community that develops open source solutions for digital libraries. We made a decision to use the Hyrax open source product for the OASIS web application. The list of full Hyrax characteristics is available at However, we had to carefully explain to researchers how the Hyrax functionality could be incorporated into the OASIS web application overall vision.

In our development processes we adopted open agile development practices. The OASIS source code is hosted on the GitHub (GH) service which allows for collaborative software development. We encouraged our research colleagues to use GH issues functionality to facilitate our detailed discussion on the specification and implementation of OASIS required features. During the first development sprint e.g. a short 6-week development effort guided by researchers, we prioritised our work in milestones. We introduced the demo site where all early implemented features could be tested by researchers and accepted once the required quality was achieved. We introduced labels to clearly state the importance and type of an issue as well as its status in the development process.

Based on our first sprint we have learned how important is to provide clear time estimates e.g. how long it will take to develop some required features. However inaccurate these estimates are, it helps to focus future development work based on the research priorities within the available developer resource time. During our second implementation sprint we matured the process and we introduced a GH project board which allowed us to see all required work in a single space and indicate status and action required (for example quality assurance testing) per workpiece. As we are preparing for the third and final sprint our communication was fully trusted and based on understanding mid-term goals (for example opening the OASIS service for the broader international research deposit as facilitated by research journal publishers). We are also learning the true cost of sustaining research web application development. This knowledge will help to cost similar work in future research grant applications.

The success of this work would not have been possible without the exceptional support and patient from OASIS researchers Emma Marsden, Rowena Kasprowich, Inge Alferink, Sophie Thompson and Volha Arhipenka as well as the Digital York Technology Team, particularly Yankui (Frank) Feng the OASIS lead developer.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Celebrating the Centenary of women’s suffrage

Centenary of women’s suffrage
2018 marks 100 years since women first got the vote and 14th December 1918 was the first time they could use their vote in an election.

Ilka Heale (Library Metadata Specialist) discovers some resources in the Library’s electronic collections.

CC BY 2.0
1918 was a momentous year for women. On 6th February Parliament passed a law which allowed some women and all men to vote for the first time.

The Representation of the People Act extended the voting age for men to over the age of 21. More importantly women aged 30 and over, who met minimum property qualifications, were eligible to vote. In other words women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate.

To find out more about the history of women’s suffrage, read this ebook by suffragist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett. However, it wasn’t until 14th December 1918 when the new electorate voted in their first election.

The 1918 General election was called immediately after the end of the First World War. Polling took place on 14th December 1918 but the vote counting did not start until after Christmas, to allow time to include the ballots cast by soldiers serving overseas.

Will There Be Women M.P.s? (1917)
In November 1918, the Government passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act which allowed women to be elected to Parliament. It was only one page long and stated “A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a member of the Commons House of Parliament.”.

Image in the public domain. Wikipedia

Seventeen women stood in the 1918 general election. One was elected - Irish republican Countess Constance Markievicz, but as a member of Sinn Féin did not take her seat at Westminster. 

Read more about this remarkable woman in The rebel countess : the life and times of Constance Markievicz by Anne Marreco.

It wasn’t until December 1919 that Nancy Astor was successfully elected as the MP for Plymouth Sutton, becoming the first woman to sit in the House of Commons.

Electoral equality was finally realised in 1928. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave the vote to women at age 21 regardless of any property qualification.

The Library has many ebooks and other online resources in it’s collections about the female suffrage movement. Below is a small selection but search YorSearch, the Library catalogue for others.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Paul Wittgenstein and left-handed piano works.

Paul Wittgenstein at the piano
Paul Wittgenstein at the piano, Bernard Fleishcher Moving Images. 
Given the theme of "Disability and music" for this year's UK Disability History month, Paul Wittegenstein is a figure whose life and work calls out to be remembered.

An Austrian by birth, Wittgenstein studied music in Vienna but was conscripted into the army in 1914. The same year, wounded by a Russian bullet, Paul Wittgenstein’s right arm was amputated and he recuperated as a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp. Despite the loss of his arm, Wittgenstein was determined to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Even whilst a prisoner of war, Wittgenstein designed techniques to help him practice and develop as a pianist. Recovering from his amputation in a prison hospital, Wittgenstein practiced on a keyboard drawn in charcoal on a crate. Later he would practice for up to seven hours at a time to develop his virtuoso skills. 

Wittgenstein’s determination to pursue a musical career despite his disability may have reflected his
Geza Zichy, seated, in formal dress
Geza Zichy, photograph from the Budapest Archives.
experience being taught musical theory in Vienna by Josef Labor. Labor was a successful organist, composer and tutor despite his blindness. Wittgenstein may also have drawn inspiration from Count Geza Zichy. Zichy was an aristocratic Hungarian who also lost his right arm, although not as a soldier but in a hunting accident as a teenager. Zichy went on to enjoy a successful career as a concert pianist, as well as variously working as a lawyer, acting as the Intendant of the Royal Hungarian Opera and the president of the Hungarian National Conservatory and producing musical compositions, several operas, an autobiography and two volumes of verse
He studied with the composer Franz Liszt with whom he became close friends and the two later gave concerts together. Zichy’s own compositions are not well-known, but amongst them he produced various piano compositions for the left hand alone, as well as arranging compositions by well-known composers as a piano piece for the left hand.

Zichy offered a model of a successful concert pianist and one who created a repertoire for himself after the loss of his arm. Rather than primarily writing pieces for himself to perform, Wittgenstein not only adapted existing compositions to be played with one hand, but also commissioned works by a range of composers. Like Zichy, Wittgenstein came from a wealthy background and commissioned work from composers including Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel, with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand probably the best known.

Whilst Wittgenstein performed some works widely, he received other commissioned compositions less gladly. Paul Hindemuth wrote a left handed concerto for Wittgenstein in 1923, but Wittgenstein did not understand the composition and filed it away unplayed. It was uncovered decades later in a house that belonged to Wittgenstein’s widow and finally premiered by Leon Fleisher in 2004.

Although Wittgenstein’s commissions and reputation created a new repertoire of work for pianists with only left hand, this did not automatically improve the selection of left handed works available. Wittgenstein retained sole right to perform the compositions he commissioned during his lifetime - even those which he chose not to perform. Like the unplayed work by Hindemuth, a 1931 concerto by Prokofiev remained unperformed by Wittgenstein. The pianist Siegfried Rapp had lost his right arm in the Second World War and in 1950 wrote to Wittgenstein for permission to perform the Prokofiev concerto. Wittgenstein denied him access to the work in no uncertain terms:
  “...those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that's only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.”

Rapp eventually managed to obtain a score of the concerto from Prokofiev’s widow and premiered the concerto in 1956, to the annoyance of Wittgenstein. Despite his long career as a concert pianist, Paul Wittgenstein made few recordings. Those that exist were made towards the end of his career and are generally agreed to record him past his musical peak. As such Wittgenstein’s most significant musical legacy was to have commissioned and inspired so many works for left hand alone but he was reluctant to share these with those who could benefit most.

Wittgenstein lived a remarkable life. Surviving the loss of his arm and incarceration in a Russian prison camp during the First World War, he nevertheless pursued a career as a concert pianist. His family were of Jewish descent and during the 1930s and 1940s, became targets for Nazi persecution. Wittgenstein’s wife Hilde, herself partially sighted, was not from a Jewish family, leading to accusations of “racial defilement” and prompting Wittgenstein’s departure for the USA, followed later by his wife and children. Of his 4 brothers, 3 committed suicide. His surviving and youngest brother Ludvig followed a career in philosophy, studying with Bertrand Russell, going on to become one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s life is an amazing story of survival and determination.

You can also explore further with related resources in the library, including those listed below:

Spotify Playlist:

Whilst Wittgenstein is the best known of the one handed pianists who performed through the 19th and 20th century, he was by no means the only one. There were and still are numerous composers and performers working in the music industry who have experienced the loss of one or more limbs. Check out our playlist to hear a selection of their work, as well as Rapp’s performance of Prokofiev and Wittgenstein playing the renowned Ravel composition written for him:

Music scores:

  • Parergon zur Sinfonia domestica: fur Klavier (linke Hand) und Orchester, op. 73 [electronic resource] : For piano (lefthand) and orchestra. LM 14 STRAU/R 55.61 
  • Concerto pour la main gauche : pour piano et orchestre LM 14 RAV 55.61
  • Diversions : for piano (left hand) and orchestra, opus 21 LM 14 BRIT 55.61

Audio CDs:

  • Rattle conducts Britten CD/LM/1770 (features Diversions, opus 21)
  • Orchestral works, Ravel, CD/LM/2810 (features concerto for the left hand)