Libraries can be an excellent resource but a lot of their material is so fragile that it cannot be viewed directly by the public. Such is the case with the British Library's collection of bookbindings, which is so delicate that the library has had to offer an alternative method of access.
For years the library was reliant on a paper-based system comprising rubbings of the bindings. To view this collection, users had to book an appointment with the curator and access was extremely limited. Philippa Marks, curator of the collection, explains that awareness of the collection among the public was very low and it was used primarily by specialists.
In 1996 the library began looking into new ways of presenting its collection. "Digitisation was the buzzword," says Marks.
The library chose to digitise photographic images of the bindings rather than the rubbings due to the problem of notes written on the reverse showing through when they were scanned. It was also felt that the public would prefer the more visually appealing photographic images.
While the library was scanning the bookbindings in its photographic studio, Marks began inputting accompanying data into a Microsoft Access database. But there was still no clear plan. "We needed to link the two," she explains. "And that is where iBase came in."
The library was familiar with digital management firm iBase, having worked with the company on a previous project, and asked for a quote. Unfortunately it could not afford it, but the company then agreed to do it for free. "It was really down to iBase that we have a project at all," says Marks. "It has been a pragmatic project done by 'wheeling and dealing' really."
Because iBase was working for free, the pace of the project was sluggish. And when the collection moved to a new location halfway through the project deadlines were pushed back even further.
The system is based on a touch-screen terminal in the library's rare books and music reading room. Users can locate information using structured searches, keyword searches or visually by using the gallery. Images can be magnified by touching areas on the screen.
David Gryner, the library's technician, is currently working on an Internet version of the system, which he hopes to have online by the end of the year.
There are also plans to include other fragile works as part of a coherent digital library system, creating a kind of "one-stop shop" for library users.
"These things are meant to be seen," says Marks. "There is no point having them if they are locked away."
For more information on the British Library at www.bl.uk/
This was first published in September 2001