Splendid Things

We toured the British Library this afternoon, which is filled with what our tour guide called, “splendid things.”

The books reach down to the Victoria Line and are retrieved by conveyor belt, much like this:

I’m really enjoying their commitment to the public. Even though the building’s design is questionable– Saved By The Bell food court meets Carnival Line cruise ship– it’s clearly intended for the people of Great Britain and beyond. And their digitization projects are stunning.

I’ve been flipping through this first edition of The Canterbury Tales, without so much as a free log-in. Look ma! No dust!

Our tour guide encouraged us to check out EEBO: Early English Books Online, which I did. It’s a paid service, and a medieval historian’s treasure cave. It’s a nice comparison between the two.

The British Library is using Flash to create a beautiful interactive timeline– perfect for anyone with a passing interest in things that are lovely and old. Each document has a nice discovery layer with links to contextual information.

For example, Caxton, who printed Chaucer’s work also was apparently the first printer to publish in English. These web designers essentially created a museum for their digitized works, perfect for wandering around and taking it all in online. It’s not enough to make these works available to the public. I love that the British Library doesn’t rest, until they’ve made these old documents enticing.

On the other hand. EEBO is much more geared towards the academic crowd. It’s a paid database, but for your money you get searchable text, encoded with a mark-up language that’s new to me: SGML. If I’m understanding this definition correctly, SGML allows librarians to classify the different pieces of a document, allowing a researcher to search just for letters, or maybe to identify one piece of the letter– maybe salutations– has changed over the centuries. The EEBO project is less flashy on the surface, but I think it goes pretty deep.

I could get lost thinking about all these new ideas. Luckily, the British Library has a Tolkien exhibit up right now.

I got my reader’s card at the end of the tour, and it’s good til 2015! I hope to get back there while my card’s still active.

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