Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting Up Close and Personal with the British Library's Rare Historical Documents

Today I received an email announcing the release of "Treasures", a new smartphone app that showcases over 100 of the British Library’s greatest collection items.  The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries.  The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation. It includes: books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages.

Through the app users will experience an up close and personal experience with some of the Library’s most unique items, such as the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the world’s oldest bible Codex Sinaiticus, Nelson’s Battle Plan, written before his victory at Trafalgar, Galileo’s letters and Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.  Expert commentary is provided on many of the items and users can watch, for example, videos of explorer Ben Fogle talking about Scott’s Diary and Linguist David Crystal discussing the 1,000 year old poem Beowulf.

Literary highlights include Charles Dickens’s handwritten draft of Nicholas Nickleby and Jane Austen’s teenage writings, while key historical documents include 2000-year-old Oracle Bones from China and an original Magna Carta of 1215. The section devoted to music includes manuscript scores from some of the best-known classical composers, such as Handel, Purcell, Mozart and Schubert, alongside hand-written lyrics by The Beatles.

Christian texts include the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Gutenberg Bible. Other faiths are represented by the Golden Haggadah, Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, and Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian manuscripts. The scientific documents explore fields such as astronomy, botany, zoology and medicine.  They include manuscripts, notebooks and letters that reveal some of the key scientific developments of all time, including Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, and Copernicus’s and Galileo’s findings on the structure of the cosmos.

I downloaded the iPhone version and was soon examining images of original maps like the Psalter World Map commissioned by Henry III in the 1230s:
and the Anglo Saxon map of 1025-1050 CE:

The app includes over 250 high definition images like these that can be easily zoomed in with standard iPhone "pinch and stretch" techniques.  

I also viewed an original page from an 1100-year-old copy of Beowulf then viewed a video, one of over 40 in the application, of linguist David Crystal explaining the background of the legend and then reading the pageof Beowulf included in the app in Old English, the language used by Anglo-Saxons of the period.  I'm so glad he explained each phrase because I couldn't understand a word!  I tweeted about the video using the integrated Twitter/Facebook interface.
The following image of Elizabeth 1 from a guild book of the Barber Surgeons in York was included with a copy of a speech in the Virgin Queen's own hand.

As someone who grew up along the coast, I am always fascinated by drawings of fish and sea creatures so particularly enjoyed the images from naturalist John Ray's Book of Fishes:

Arthurian legends continue to fascinate through the centuries and it was a real treat to see one of the earliest  illustrations of Sir Gwain and the Green Knight from a medieval copy:
I must admit I've never been much of a fan of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" (I hope you're not too shocked!) but I did find this illustration of Alice from the first edition very endearing.

Frances Brindle, British Library Director, Strategic Marketing & Communications commented: “Access to our collections through mobile technologies is an exciting initiative for the Library.  We are delighted to be able to make our unique collection items available to a wider audience via this interactive app in such a dynamic format.  The Library is committed to increasing access to its collections and broadening the reach of our services and this app demonstrates our commitment to engaging with the mobile community.”

Treasures will be available for download globally on iPhone and iPod Touch, in the iTunes App Store and in the Android Marketplace for $3.99.  The HD version is available for download globally for iPad for a price of $5.99.  More information can be found at

The Library is also offering an introductory price of $1.99 for iPhone, iPod Touch and Android smartphones, and $3.99 for iPad until January 24, 2011. 

In addition to sections on Literature, History, Science, Maps, Illustrated Manuscripts, and Music there is also a chapter about current exhibitions that will be updated periodically.  I do hope additional modules for other objects in the collections will become available as well.  As more museums embrace this type of mobile technology I hope that developers will incorporate a function that enables you to link between objects in other museums' collections.  This may mean that participating museums may need to standardize on a particular platform like the one developed by Toura for this application or at least develop a standard schema and xml-driven import export functionality.

I would also like to see an annotation utility added to the application and the ability to email or Tweet a highlighted portion of text and image integrated into the application.  I was able to capture screen shots from the application using the screen capture function built into iPhones using OS 2.0 or newer.  This function, activated by holding down the Home button then pressing the Sleep/Reset button on the top right edge of your iPhone for a second or two, automatically sends the screen image to your iPhone's Camera Roll application.  From there you can email it or access it through your computer via USB but it would be so much more convenient to access an image and mail it directly from the application.

Since I received a Barnes and Noble Android-based color Nook e-reader from my daughter for Christmas, I would also like to see this app available for e-readers besides the iPad, especially since the number of e-reader users is increasingly rapidly.

Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition    The Great Naturalists   Fair and Varied Forms: Visual Textuality in Medieval Illustrated Manuscripts  Hereford World Map: Medieval World Maps and their Context (British Library - British Library Studies in the History of the Book)
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