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Lost visions

Printed book cover

Researchers are working to make thousands of neglected images dating back to the 18th century available for the public to search online and find out more about how they have shaped our culture.

‘Lost Visions: retrieving the visual element of printed books from the nineteenth century’ is one of 21 research projects, funded in 2014 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to address the challenges of working with Big Data and making the information more accessible and easier to interpret by a lay audience.


Many verbal texts are now stored and delivered by machine, and already search techniques are facilitating research into the meaning, provenance and reception of these texts. However, the illustrations in these texts are frequently omitted and, when included, are often of low quality and without the metadata which are needed for understanding them. There is a risk that tomorrow's readers will be almost unaware of illustration, despite the fact that research over the past century has shown that illustrated texts have qualities, meanings and strategies which are very different from those of un-illustrated texts, and even strikingly different from those of the same verbal texts stripped of their images.

Led by Professor Julia Thomas, School of English, Communication and Philosophy, and in collaboration with experts at Cardiff’s School of Computer Sciences and Informatics, the project is working on more than a million illustrations from books in the British Library's collection.

Research approach

The project uses computational methods to identify the visual characteristics of these non-verbal objects, allowing any one object to be assigned multiple characteristics. The available metadata has been incorporated to include full bibliographical details of the book, the exact location and size of the image, and, where possible, a caption or title, and an artist. In addition, tools for identifying the re-use of images will be developed. A crowd-sourcing method was trialled to provide the foundations for future research to describe the content of a small selection of images.

ARCCA supported the technical requirements and provided advice for the successful bid into Arts and Humanities Research Council, and have organised the transfer and copying of the data from the British Library. Providing the computing infrastructure necessary for work on a large dataset, ARCCA’s virtual infrastructure has been used to establish a web-based front-end interface to access the databases and undertake the search queries. A searchable database of images with additional metadata is now available to public and academic users.