Turning the Pages of Priceless Manuscripts

Article ImageIf you ran the British Library, would you let the general public into your climate-controlled rare books area, allow them to finger the pages of priceless medieval manuscripts, encourage them to touch a 14th century Koran, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, or the world's earliest dated printed book? Would you endanger the Sherborne Missal, a 15th century service book worth $24 million, by allowing people to turn its pages? Thanks to an innovative digitization project, appropriately called Turning the Pages (TTP), the Library plans to do just that.

From the word digitization, you've probably realized that patrons won't be physically walking into the Library's rare book area to turn these pages. However, you can visit the exhibition galleries in London at the Library's St. Pancras location to view the ten treasures digitized thus far—the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Diamond Sutra, the Sforza Hours, the Leonardo Notebook, the Golden Haggadah, the Luttrell Psalter, Elizabeth Blackwell's Herbal, Vesalius's Anatomy, the Sherborne Missal, and Sultan Baybars' Qur'an.

It's an interesting mixture of religion and science. According to Clive Izard, creative projects manager, there's been a conscious effort to expose the Library's collection to the broadest possible audience and the collection is particularly strong in manuscripts relating to world faith. He has a "wish list" of other titles to add to TTP, but these must wait for sponsorship money.

If you're interested in the science titles, you might want to visit the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, where you can turn the pages of Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal. Not nearly as ancient as some of the other Turning the Pages titles, Herbal is a collection of illustrations of medicinal plants published between 1737 and 1739. Also on view is Vesalius's Anatomy, a 16th century book of anatomical drawings.

While I've not been able to visit either St. Pancras or NLM to view these manuscripts, during the June 2003 Special Libraries Association's annual conference and exhibition 2003 in New York City, I visited the British Library's booth. The centerpiece was an enormous, three-foot wide, touchscreen showing the Lindisfarne Gospels. I put my hand up to the screen, touched the lower right hand corner of the page, and moved my hand to the left as I would when leafing through a printed book…and the page flopped over. I could turn pages backwards and forwards, marveling at the bright colors, the intricate calligraphy, and the incredible gold leaf.

Granted, I couldn't read a word of it; it's in Latin. Dating from the early 700s, this illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament survived Viking raids on Britain, was written on vellum (parchment made from calfskin), and is now in an extremely fragile condition. The Library has selected 40 pages, from the total of 259, for digitization. What's even more remarkable, I now have a CD-ROM of The Sherborne Missal and can turn its pages while sitting at my computer. (The CD also includes the Qur'an.) I use my mouse to turn the pages, rather than my fingers, which keeps the smudgy fingerprints off my screen. It also takes a bit of getting used to (if you move the mouse too fast, the page starts to turn, then falls back to its original place). Other enhancements include a Zoom function that enlarges whatever portion of the manuscripts you mouse (or finger) over. Audio, depending on the book, lets you hear an explanation of the page you're viewing, music appropriate to the section, chanting (the Diamond Sutra), recitations recorded at a London mosque (the Qur'an), or even English bird songs (the Sherborne Missal). Izard notes the Library has added elements unique to each manuscript, such as a mirror button for da Vinci's notebooks.

This may not sound so revolutionary; digitization isn't all that new or unusual. What's different about this project is clarity of the reproduction and the technology that enables the pages to be turned. A combination of digital imaging and animation, created by Armadillo Systems, produces a remarkably realistic experience. The newest version of the software, TTP3D, will enable the Library to make its digital library of treasures available via the Internet. "TTP3D is more affordable and lets us put more pages onto the Internet," comments Izard. It also allows for the commercialization of the software. The British Library plans to digitize other collections as well—for a fee. Izard expects customers to be libraries and museums with important books they want to display, but can't for conservation reasons. Even he, however, admits that not all books warrant the TTP treatment. "We've digitized the Gutenberg Bible, but we haven't animated it. TTP3D works best with manuscripts that have intricate illumination. Text is not well-suited to animation."

The British Library, with its Turning the Pages project, has taken preservation, conservation, and ebooks to the next level.
(www.armadillosystems.com; www.bl.uk)