An Interactive Wonderland: The British Library Web Site

Finding new topics that take you into deep discussions with strangers is always an interesting endeavor. I find that such conversations always include some mention of what people found helpful, entertaining or amazing on the internet. Recent conversations at an off-site training course I attended were no exception when the instructor shared one of her favorite web sites, the British Library. I am accustomed to having our local library web site offer helpful search functions to locate books, audio or video media on a topic that I am researching. However, I didn’t expect the amazing array of online capabilities that the British Library offered. This site went beyond my expectation of what a modern-day library experience could be.

Virtual Books

Imagine being able to view original historical documents page for page in the author’s own handwriting or 1st edition printed text. Add to this the capability to have the text (foreign language or English) narrated online or contain an audio commentary explaining the text as you leaf through the pages. Thanks to a program called Turning the Pages™ (TTP), a joint initiative between the British Library and Armadillo New Media Communications, this software is used to digitize and create an interactive online version of an original text. These virtual books can be digitized from personal diaries, folios, printed scrolls, hand-painted manuscripts and even journals with material samples attached (e.g., botanicals). Plugins are required to view these TTP virtual books but pop-up instructions help you download any plugins you need for viewing. The TTP program has now been adopted by a number of other libraries and museums to help bring their collections alive on the web (see links and examples at the end of this post). Here is one example of a virtual book using the TTP program on the British Library web site.

Above is the virtual book for Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), considered to be one of the most influential works on the history of Western Medicine published in 1543. Vesalius was a professor at the University of Padua and was given permission to dissect dead bodies from the gallows without fear of persecution. Click on the “Listen” feature and hear a narration on the significance of the illustrated page and what people thought about the information at the time.

Interactive Tools

The Learning section of the British Library site is the epitome of sophisticated teaching tools.  Take for example, the British Library’s companion tool to their sacred texts collection called Sacred Contexts. This compilation of videos, audio and interactive tools was created during their Sacred exhibition in 2007, focused on understanding the common ground of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Click on the “Understanding Sacred Texts” interactive tool and a window opens with the book cover images of the Christian Bible, the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible. Select one of these books, and the images of five people appear; an Atheist-Philosopher, a Young Person, an Academic, an Educator and a Faith Leader. You can then choose a question from the menu, click and drag it over the person, and the animated image begins to answer the question as if you were having a personal conversation. Here is how this interactive page appears:

Incredibly cool! There are more features to this online learning section that are too numerous to detail here and I would encourage anyone to explore it further—if not for the content, at least to see how the information is organized for an enhanced learning experience. 


Continuing on my journey of online learning, the British Library incorporates a historical timeline tool. You can overlay multiple timelines on a central timeline of key historical events. For example click on “Launch Timelines”. Select the “Medicine, Science and Technology” timeline and the “Central” timeline to produce a screen with a chronological date line and images you click on to retrieve details of the event. Did you know that the same year (1543) Vesalius published his treatise on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, explaining his theory of how planets orbited the sun and not the earth, a theory considered heresy at the time. Below is an example of this timeline tool:

As I continued my exploration of the British Library site, I continued to be impressed with their desire to provide context, history and insight into important books and documents in their collection. Take a look at their presentation of the Magna Carta, the first document in feudal times to declare that a king is subject to the law of the land, not above it.  Here you can find a viewer tool with a digitized file of the original 1215 document complete with:

    • Audio translation
    • English translations and original Latin transcription
    • English translation visualized in the magnification screen
    • Timeline with the document’s historical impact on other documents
    • Curator videos explaining the history and significance

    Needless to say there is still more I could explore on the British Library web site. They have made researching their collection of world knowledge fun and informative. Their site has done something unexpected. It fosters the desire to learn more. Enjoy your adventures down the rabbit hole!

Extended Reading with Virtual Books

British Library:
View and listen to Lewis Caroll’s illustrated journal of Alice’s Adventures Underground, the handwritten precursor to the 1865 published version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Royal Society:
Check out Ben Franklin’s impeccable handwriting in his 1773 Stilling the Waters essay from his personal journal.

Wellcome Trust:
Flip through the medical section of The Wellcome Apocalypse, a text written in central Europe in about 1420-30 with beautiful, hand-painted medical illustrations.

Natural History Museum:
Read Darwin’s hand written comments inside an 1859 1st edition, personalized copy of On the Origin of Species he presented to a colleague.

National Library of Medicine:
Scan through Robert Hooke’s Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses published in 1664, the first book to illustrate objects (bugs, fabric, plants, etc.) viewed under microscope lenses.

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Maria Perr

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