Another Oliver Twist: British Library Builds 60,000-Book iPad App

An ambitious new project by the British Library will place a huge number of 19th-century books—including original illustrations, page layouts, and design—on Apple's tablet for leisure reading.

British Library image

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.

Currently, the application gives access to over a thousand 19th-century books—primary travelogues and illustrated works of fiction that showcase the British Library's graphics-and-design approach to putting books on tablet computers. Later this summer, the amount of books available through the application will rise to approximately 60,000. Users will be required to pay an undisclosed amount for full access to the ebook collection and a full list of literature has not been disclosed; however, the British Library has stated that it will include early editions of Frankenstein and Oliver Twist.

The British Library chose to partner with an American firm for the project, which was a surprising move for what is essentially the national library of the United Kingdom. According to Mitchell Davis of South Carolina-based Bibliolabs, “the iPad allows for a level of intimacy with these antiquarian books that evokes a sense of engagement and curiosity that is not possible in a browser based experience.”

The “sense of engagement and curiosity” that Davis emphasized in his statement is, essentially, what is special about the British Library's massive e-books effort. Rather than porting the books online as searchable, contextualized texts, this literature is being placed online as whole artistic work—great for pleasure reading, but not so great for use in dissertations or academic research.

All of the 60,000 books to be available through the British Library's application are in the public domain; the text of most have already been made available on the Internet from other sources.

This will be the British Library's second major application launch for the iPad. Another recently released app, titled Treasures, allows users to explore highlights from the library's collection including medieval illuminations, sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, antique maps, first editions of Shakespeare and more. Unlike the Apple-only 19th Century Literature application, the Treasures app is also available in an iPhone edition and on the Android platform.

The British Library is not the first national library to embrace the possibilities of the tablet platform for promotional and educational purposes, but they are far ahead of the competition. The Library of Congress' iPhone/iPad app simply gives a virtual tour of the library.

[Images via British Library]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

[Front Image: Flickr user Squid!]

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