How do I love thee, British Library? Let me count the ways. (I know it’s a cheap move paraphrasing these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning but it’s a compromise since it can take me years to come up with the perfect poetic line by which time this news will be ancient history.)
The British Library has announced an iPad application (app) which will make over 60,000 19th century titles from their collection available through Apple’s iTunes store later this summer. At this point, there are approximately 1000 titles available in the app they are calling the 19th Century Historical Collection. Neal Ungerleider on the Fast Company website writes in his June 15, 2011 article,
The British Library is launching a new library-in-an-iPad application that gives tablet users access to tens of thousands of 19th-century books in their original form. The app, called the 19th Century Historical Collection, is taking a notably different tack to putting classic literature online than rivals such as the Kindle platform: Antiquarian books viewed through the British Library application will come in their original form–complete with illustrations, typefaces, pull-out maps and even the occasional paper wear.
This project follows from the British Library’s previous mobile app project, Treasures. Here’s a video about that one,
Getting back to the most recent project the 19th Century Historical Collection (from the British Library June 7, 2011 news release),
The British Library 19th Century Historical Collection App forms a treasure trove of classics and lesser known titles in fields ranging from travel writing and natural history to fiction and philosophy. The app represents the latest landmark in the British Library’s progress towards its long-term vision of making more of its historic collections available to many more users through innovative technology. [emphasis mine]
I’m happy to see that the staff at the British Library remain open to ideas and experimentation. As I noted in my July 29, 2010 posting (Love letter to the British Library) about copyright, I’ve been having an affair with the British Library since 2000. Here’s an excerpt from that posting which relates directly to these latest initiatives,
Dame Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive Officer for the British Library had this to say in her introduction to the [British Library’s] paper [Driving UK Research — Is copyright a help or a hindrance?],
There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material.
Let’s not wake up in five years’ time and realise we have unwittingly lost a fundamental building block for innovation, education and research in the UK. Who is protecting the public interest in the digital world? We need to redefine copyright in the digital age and find a balance to benefit creators, educators, researchers, the creative industries – and the knowledge economy. (p. 3)
In this case, the action matches what’s been said. Bravo!
ETA June 21, 2011: The British Library has recently made a deal with Google to digitize 250,000 texts. All of the books are in the public domain. You can read more about the project/deal in Kit Eaton’s June 20, 2011 article for Fast Company, Pulp, Non-Fiction: On The British Library’s Book-Digitizing Deal With Google. From the article,
Google’s got several other high-profile deals with other libraries, but the British Library deal is significant because the BL is the second biggest library in the world, after the Library of Congress (if you’re counting books, rather than periodicals). There are 14 million books among 150 million texts in a variety of formats and three million are added every year–because the BL is a legal deposit library, so it gets a copy of all books produced in the U.K. and Ireland, including many books from overseas that are published in Britain.
The Library’s chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley has commented on the new deal, highlighting the original mission of the Library to make knowledge accessible to everyone–the Google deal is “building on this proud tradition.” Since anyone with a browser can now access the material for free from anywhere in the world, the deal sets an important precedent that may be expanded in the future.
Making 60,000 texts immediately readable on your iPad is one thing, and adding another 250,000 is another. The British Library is sending a big signal out about historic texts, and it could subtly change how you think about books. For one thing, student’s essays are going to be peppered with even more esoteric quotes from obscure publications as they ill-advisedly Google their way through writing term papers. It also boosts Google’s standing in the “free” books stakes compared to competitors like Amazon, and it does imply that in the future even more of the 150 million texts in the British Library may make it online.