Turning the Pages

Turning the Pages

Turning the pages of our most precious items

One of the key aims of the British Library is to extend access to our collections. So, as long ago as 1998, we were looking at ways to give visitors and scholars access to our most precious books and manuscripts through the use of groundbreaking technology.

This technology - Turning The Pages - provides a high resolution image and interpretive text, allowing users to, literally, turn the pages of a number of our most precious items. Developed through collaboration between the Library and an external software developer, Turning The Pages allows people to engage and interact with some of our oldest and fragile books and manuscripts - items that are normally kept in cases or in storage with, at most, one page visible.

The first four titles were launched in 1998. These were the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Diamond Sutra, the Sforza Hours and the Codex Arundel (Leonardo da Vinci's notebook). As the collection's grown, it's given the Library the chance to showcase its greatest treasures using state-of-the-art technology.

The challenges

From a conservational point of view, the main challenge is to ensure that the process of digitisation doesn't damage the items at all. Once a manuscript is identified, then the conservators assess it to see if it can be removed from its case and photographed. Once the decision is made, the conservation teams and curators need to work closely with the Imaging Services team to make sure that the item's handled as sensitively as possible.

Working together

The Development Office, Conservation, Creative Services, Imaging Services, Web Services, and E-Strategy and Information Systems all have significant parts to play in the production process. Once the Development team have secured funding for a project, work begins on selecting which folios are to be featured. The Conservation team then assesses the item and, if they give the go-ahead, the original manuscript is then photographed in the studio.

While our high resolution images are being assembled into the digital book by an external software development company, a number of other Library departments are involved. Once the interpretive text has been written, an audio version of the text is recorded in the Library's creative suite.

Two working versions are created - one for the Library's gallery kiosks and one to go on our website. These are tested by Web and Creative Services, and any amendments are made. E-Strategy and Information Systems then work on hosting the new title on the Library's web server, and when everything is ready the new title is launched.


The Turning The Pages technology gives people the chance to see items they wouldn't normally see. And we're constantly looking at improving and updating it to keep it at the cutting edge. For example, Web 2.0 technology enables you to give users the chance to ask questions about the manuscript, or make comments on a particular page. It allows you to give input and truly interact with the manuscripts, and with other users.

While we're looking at introducing these new functions to give users even more opportunities to engage with the Turning The Pages items, we also want to add to the collection. Naturally, we'd like to include as many of our precious items as possible in Turning The Pages. So we're looking at the possibility of digitising lots of items in our collections to create an expanded online Library. Who knows - eventually, people around the world may be able to view our entire collection this way!