British Library partners with Google to bring European history online

The British Library and Google have announced a partnership to digitize a quarter-million (250,000) out-of-copyright books, pamphlets and periodicals published between 1700 to 1870 from the Library’s collections. The project will result in allowing access to up to 40 million pages from one of the world’s greatest collections to researchers, students and others around the globe through Google Books and the Library’s website.

“What’s powerful about the technology available today isn’t just its ability to preserve history and culture for posterity, but also its ability to bring it to life in new ways,” said Peter Barron, Google’s director of External Relations. “This public domain material is an important part of the world’s heritage and we’re proud to be working with the British Library to open it up to millions of people in the UK and abroad.”

No dates for when the digitization process will begin or be completed have been announced. The effort will focus on materials that are not yet freely available in a digital form online.

“There is no doubt that the digitization of this unique material will greatly benefit the research process,” Professor Colin Jones, President of the Royal Historical Society and Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London commented. “Academics are increasingly using new technologies at their disposal to search for innovative ways of investigating historical material to enable us to probe new questions and find alternative patterns of investigation. Digitization gives us the freedom to not only do this quickly and remotely, but also enhances the quality and depth of the original.”

Among the first works to be digitized however, are an account of the hippopotamus (1775) and the tale of the first combustion engine-driven submarine (1858) as well as political pamphlets. In all the range of printed books that will be digitized covers the period that saw the French, American and Industrial Revolutions, the invention of rail travel and the telegraph, the Battle of Trafalgar, and the end of slavery. Material in a variety of major European languages.

The Hippopotamus
The Hippopotamus (Leclerc) Courtesy of the British Library

De Natuurlyke Historie van den Hippopotamus of het Rivierpaard (The Natural History of the Hippopotamus or River Horse) by George Louis Leclerc (no known relation to Queen Sophie-Ann) published in 1775. Translated from a French original, but with additional material, including an account of the stuffed Hippopotamus in the Prince of Orange’s cabinet of curiosities.

Narciso Monturiol’s Proyecto de navegacion submarina (A scheme for Underwater Seafaring: the Ichthyneus of Fish-Boat) published in 1858 describes the invention of the first combustion engine-driven submarine. Monturiol was also the inventor, by the way, for you trivia buffs.

“In the nineteenth century it was the ambition of our predecessors to give anybody access to as much of the world’s information as possible, to ensure that knowledge was not restricted to those who could afford private libraries. The  way of doing it then was to buy books from the entire world and to make them available in Reading Rooms,” explains Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library.

This project, when complete, will create a virtual Reading Room where researchers, students and other information users will not only be able to view historical items from anywhere in the world, they will also be able to copy share and manipulate text for non-commercial purposes. The partnership with Google is just the latest of the British Library’s efforts to digitize parts of its collections. Another recently announced partnership with Brightsolid is intended to digitize some 40 million pages of the Library’s newspaper collections. Previously the British library partnered with Microsoft to digitize 65,000 books from the 19th century.

Google, which has partnered with 40 libraries to create the current cache of materials available through Google Books, will cover all digitization costs.

“We are delighted to be partnering with Google on this project and through this partnership believe that we are building on this proud tradition of giving access to anyone, anywhere and at any time. Our aim is to provide perpetual access to this historical material, and we hope that our collections coupled with Google’s know-how will enable us to achieve this aim,” Dame Lynne concluded.

History has always been a source of inspiration for authors, role-players and dreamers. Whether you are creating a character living in the past or just exploring how new and unknown creatures were described when they were first encountered, the materials included in this project can be a treasure trove of information and inspiration.

British Library Alice in Wonderland, St. Pancreas
Alice in Wonderland at St. Pancreas courtesy of the British Library
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