20 June 2011

The British Library's Virtual Books

Victor and I have been to London a number of times, and one of our favorite places to visit is the British Library. Like our Library of Congress, it is a national library; unlike the Library of Congress, it sees its mission as global rather than national (its slogan: Explore the world's knowledge). A personal visit to either can be a little disappointing for a lay book lover--the shelves are typically not open to just anyone; you have to present yourself as a researcher of some kind, fill out a request slip, and wait for the librarian to deliver what you desire.

Even so, our first visit to the British Library took hours. Open to the public is a large exhibit room containing a varying assortment of remarkable documents under glass: a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, a handwritten draft of a Beatles lyric by Paul, pages from Jane Austen's first novel. In an alcove, you can sit at a terminal and virtually turn the pages of (for example) an early illuminated Hebrew bible.

It is really the coolest thing ever.

And I just learned you don't have to go to London to use it. The British Library's website provides access to "virtual books." You can download a Shockwave plugin and leaf through one of William Blake's notebooks or Mercator's first atlas of Europe.

Unbelievably awesome. Just when you're thinking that all the Internet has to offer is faster, grimmer news and LOLcats, something like this makes you remember that technology can still do amazing things.

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