The British Library's online turn-up for the books

The British Library's online turn-up for the books

Summary: With Microsoft's help, the British Library is using Turning the Pages software to make its treasures available to as many people as possible

TOPICS: Tech Industry

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  • The British Library is bringing some of the world's rarest books online, with the intent of giving as wide an audience as possible the most accurate experience of reading the real thing.

    Turning the Pages is a unique piece of software designed to allow readers to look at rare books in a natural way. With Turning the Pages, users can read the books in their original format, almost exactly as they were intended to be read by their original audience.

    So far, the library has been able to digitise and transfer around 20 books into Turning the Pages, although the programme could eventually encompass millions of books. The interface presents the books as if they were physically present on the screen, with controls for moving through the book as though the pages were being turned.

    Another important concept behind the Turning the Pages programme is that books are chosen that will be of great value to the viewing public.

    The example above shows the handwritten dedication page from Alice's Adventures Under Ground, the original title of Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dodgson (also known as Lewis Carroll) wrote the book at the request of the daughter of one of his friends. 

    Photo credit: British Library

  • Another view of Alice's Adventures Under Ground enables the reader to see the book's text as originally envisaged.

    'The Mouse's Tale' is a familiar feature of Alice in Wonderland as we see it today, but, in Alice's Adventures Under Ground, the words written by Dodgson are quite different. These differences between the original and finished versions of a book pique the interest of those who want to know the full story.

    Photo credit: British Library

  • Turning the Pages uses 65-megapixel cameras to digitise the pages, and animates the turning process. Shown is a page from the library's copy of Leonardo da Vinci's codex.

    "The system was developed with Armadillo Systems," explained Stephen Lilgert, head of infrastructure strategy and development at the British Library.

    "It gives you the look and feel of turning the pages. At the launch of Vista, Bill Gates did one of the events here at the library itself. The codex was digitised and made available to people running Vista, and it will work with XP as well. With the Vista version, you can make notes on it," said Lilgert. 

    Versions are available for Adobe Shockwave on the PC and Mac, but a more detailed version is limited to Microsoft's Silverlight platform. No Linux version is available.

    "We are moving the [Adobe] Shockwave version onto Microsoft's Silverlight technology," said Lilgert. "As I understand it, Microsoft has paid the [US] Library of Congress over $1m [£505m] to convert the whole of their website to Silverlight. The Shockwave one is okay, but it is still not the same level of zooming that you get with Silverlight."

    The system currently does not turn the pages smoothly and they frequently "stick". However, it is still possible to get a feel of reading the original book.

    The project has moved on with the close co-operation of Microsoft. "What [Microsoft] got out of it was a whole load of book content as they try to play catch-up with Google," Lilgert told 

    "So they approached us — because we have a very good relationship with Microsoft on a whole host of things — about digitising a whole load of books. So what we got was someone who was going to help us with the funding of a large digitisation project and we were getting more experience on actually digitising the material in the first place," Lilgert said.

    Photo credit: British Library

Topic: Tech Industry


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Silverlight: bah

    Annoying that the tax=payer funded British Library is pushing Microsoft proprietary tech. Mind you they were big supporters of OOXML, so MS obviously have someone on the inside.


    A disgruntled Linux User
  • Where is Linux in the equation?

    It is a good point. Where does Linux feature in the BL's plans?
    The answer is that it doesn't and for a reason and many would say that it is not a good reason.
    The British Library funtions with a combination of public money (yes, we taxpayers do fund much of it) and private donations. The donations come from lots of different people including Microsoft who contribute a shed load of money to the work there.
    So on the one hand, Microsoft cannot tell the BL to do certain things or it will not give it the cash. But it can say, our money will go on this project (but not these others) so if you want the money do projects we like. It is then up to the Library to choose.
    My suggestion for open source and Linux fans is imple. Send the Library some money and tell them you want an open source version of Turning the Pages. That is what I am doing.
    But don't blame the library for not doing a project it does not have the money for. It has many other projects on its plate and not just Turning the Pages.
    In no way is that a perfect solution and I am sure there must be a better one.
    Colin Barker
  • Turning the pages

    I read the North Wales Pioneer, Llandudno edition , E-version, and they use Page Suite, which is Macromedia flash. It works very well. I plan on trying out the BL's site very soon, as I am fascinated by old books.
  • Turning pages.

    Missing a plugin called, applicatio/xdirector, in Mozilla Firefox, on Linux. So, it would appear it is only for windows until Firefox has the plugin. I really think major sites should be cross platform and not OS specific. But, that's not the Microsoft way.