Technology Integration

Ancient Texts Shine on the Web

The British Library puts some of the world’s oldest, most beautiful, and culturally significant books online.

April 27, 2008

The past has a brilliant future.

One irony of the increasingly widespread digitization of nearly everything is that many iconic treasures in the print collections of major museums, universities, national libraries, and numerous smaller institutions are now available online in high-quality reproductions that anyone can closely examine and virtually handle. New tech is celebrating the old tech it replaces, making the antiquities more accessible than ever to a worldwide audience. In addition to inspiring awe, these digital surrogates of some of the world's great art objects are outstanding learning tools -- for grades K through, well, PhD.

One of the best examples of this promising trend is the British Library's Turning the Pages Web site, launched in 2004. Whether you're teaching art, literature, music, science, history, geography, or some combination of these subjects, the library's interactive online exhibit of antiquarian books -- some merely old and others certifiably ancient -- enables you and your students to explore authentic masterpieces as a group or individually, in the classroom and at home, as if you were actually holding them in your hands.

Each book or manuscript on the Turning the Pages site is accompanied by a short scholarly essay that explains the work's significance and elaborates on its history. There is a virtual magnifier, which resembles one made of conventional glass, that you can slide over the pages to get a closer look at details, and, in some cases, an audio component is also included. For example, Lewis Carroll's original Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which he wrote and illustrated as a gift for his young muse, Alice Liddell, is read aloud in its entirety. And Mozart's Musical Diary features audio clips of the notations (written in the composer's own hand) you can play as you're viewing the page.

"Many books are written to be read out loud," says Clive Izard, the library's head of creative services. "That arguably is true in Alice in Wonderland's case. It's certainly the case with a lot of sacred texts and music. So audio, we think, is really important. It can be a transcript narrative -- a story read aloud -- or music produced by an instrument from the time that the music was created."

In addition to the Carroll and Mozart volumes, Turning the Pages displays the personal notebook of Leonardo da Vinci; the Luttrell Psalter, an illuminated book created in the early 1300s that offers fascinating depictions of medieval life; a sixteenth-century medical anatomy text filled with exquisite engravings; the first atlas of Europe, assembled by Mercator in the 1570s; the dazzling Lindisfarne Gospels, the "pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon art"; and the oldest printed "book" in the world (actually a scroll), the Diamond Sutra, published in China in 868 and discovered in near-pristine condition in 1900.

The Turning the Pages interface has an elegant design, and the site is very easy to use. The books are three dimensional in appearance, and no, the site's title is not just a catchy name: The pages do turn when you "grab" them with your cursor, just as if you were going through a real book.

Giving Museum Visitors What They Want

Turning the Pages got its start in 1995, explains Izard. "Visitors to our exhibition galleries gave us this idea," he says. "Their wish was to see more pages than they could view through the glass case." It took two years for Izard and his team to fully realize the idea by installing a kiosk housing a computer in one of the library's galleries. "We were able to put a few pages of one of our key items on the computer, connected to a touch screen," he says. A key feature was animating the pages. "The illusion of turning the pages was a very immediate one, and quite convincing," Izard recalls. "That was the first step."

But the British Library team soon came up against some limitations. "That approach wasn't going to allow us the level of scalability we needed, based on the number of books and the number of functions we wanted to include in the program," he says. "That's when we brought in the developers."

To expand and enhance the idea, the British Library collaborated with software developer Armadillo Systems, with whom they continue to work as the project adds upgrades to the Web site and improvements to the in-gallery kiosks. "The biggest move up was between the very first version and the next generation, which we still use today in the library," Izard says. "We call that Virtual Book. It's our Rolls-Royce product, a very convincing piece of work. We film the original manuscripts or printed books so we can absolutely emulate each page turn accurately, and we reproduce those page turns identically on the computer."

About a year ago, when Microsoft launched its new operating system, Vista, it became possible for the British Library/Armadillo Systems team to provide the same quality of animation on the Web that visitors to the library see when using the kiosks. "We're about to migrate entirely from what was our first Internet incarnation, but it is nowhere near as convincing as what we can do in Vista," Izard remarks.

Indeed, Microsoft approached the British Library and offered to help with Turning the Pages. With access to the software behemoth's computing power and technical support, the team produced the latest version. The library also will introduce a version for Macintosh users in mid-2008 as well as several versions to accommodate differing Internet-connection speeds. The necessary software is easy and fast to download directly from the site. There are even alternative versions that display static images and require no plug-in.

Texts for Students Teaching Themselves

"Turning the Pages is a useful tool for self-education as well as coordinated education with a teacher," Izard says. He is enthusiastic about using the site in a classroom setting, but he also emphasizes the value of letting students explore the books solo, which allows them to bring their own meaning and interpretations to the discovery of these masterpieces.

"One of the points of Turning the Pages is that students are not being spoken to," he says. "They're going and finding something they're comfortable using and feel drawn into, and they can then engage with it. When I go into the gallery and I see a fourteen-year-old looking through a religious work from the 1500s or Leonardo's sketchbook -- without anybody there -- just reading it, looking at it, and being absorbed, I think, 'That's the purpose and the strength of Turning the Pages.'" And the same phenomenon Izard has witnessed at the British Library can now happen just as easily by accessing the library's Web site, anywhere in the world.

Opportunities abound for integrating Turning the Pages books into classroom lessons in ways that can be both enriching and entertaining. One rarity, guaranteed to enliven any literature class, is Jane Austen's satire The History of England from the Reign of Henry the Fourth to the Death of Charles the First -- By a Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant Historian. The author handwrote the book when she was fifteen years of age, and her older sister, Cassandra, illustrated it. The presentation includes terrific audio by a woman with a perfect Kate Winslet-like voice.

At the other end of the scholarly spectrum, teachers can employ Turning the Pages to bring historical texts into the science curriculum. Andreas Vesalius's stunning De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a lavishly illustrated book of human anatomy published in the sixteenth century, features page after page of meticulously rendered images of the skeleton, muscles, nervous system, and organs, all printed from hand-engraved woodblocks, which the accompanying text explains "were carefully packed and laboriously transported across the Alps to Switzerland."

Not surprisingly, the success of Turning the Pages, in terms of visual and conceptual impact as well as ease of use, has led to other notable institutions adopting the technology for displaying items from their collections online. Some of them are linked from the Turning the Pages site, such as the Royal Society's page, which offers a portfolio of the work of its founder, leading seventeenth-century scientist Robert Hooke, and the Wellcome Collection, which features the sixteenth-century Persian illuminated manuscript Nujum al-'Ulum (Stars of Sciences), an exotically illustrated astrological text from the Deccan sultanates of central and southern India.

The British Library is actively encouraging other institutions to bring old and noteworthy publications to the Web. Its 2007 Hidden Treasures competition identified five of the most important manuscripts held in public libraries; they're now available on the Turning the Pages site. The five winners were the Dorset Federation of Women's Institutes War Records (1939-45), the Textus Roffensis (1123-24), the Arbuthnott Missal (1491), Staunton's Embassy to China: Proof Plates (1797), and the Diaries of William Searell of Beddgelert (1844-46).

"I'm not entirely convinced that the printed book is going to disappear forever and be overtaken by the digital version," Izard says. "I think that we ought to make everything that we have in our libraries available to as many people as we possibly can, and, by doing so, perhaps the beauty of those books will exist and continue and influence whatever comes next."

Developing curriculum is not a primary focus for Izard and his team, but the library's learning department has its own home page, an excellent resource for teachers who wish to incorporate Turning the Pages books in their lessons. Izard notes that the learning team "included the Turning the Pages volumes within a set of structured learning tools" to complement a recent exhibition of sacred texts from the library's collection.

In true Web 2.0 spirit, Izard sees the Web site becoming more participatory in the future, with individuals at varying levels of scholarship contributing their findings, ideas, and observations in an archived online discussion. "You'll be able to work with other people who can be located anywhere and share your ideas with them," he says. "You will be able to contribute at whatever level is comfortable -- as a layman, an interested bibliophile, or a researcher. Apart from making your own notes, which would be useful for study, you'll be able to publish those notes and share them."

Does he have a personal favorite among the books Turning the Pages features? Izard thinks for a moment before saying, "Probably Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, simply because it's a scientific text that links science and art and because he was a genius on so many levels. I think it's just magnificent."

Douglas Cruickshank is the former editor of

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