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The British Library has enlisted Vodafone to help mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 2016 by enabling students and the general public to download free digital facsimiles of first edition plays.
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Shakespeare’s plays began to be printed towards the end of the 16th century in pamphlets known as quartos – pocket-sized and competitively priced for the time. Many such pamphlets have survived to the present day and constitute the earliest printed record of much of Shakespeare’s work.
The plays will be made available using specially designed "digital wallpaper", in effect a virtual bookshelf at which users can point their smartphones to scan QR codes and activate their downloads.
This digital library will be touring the UK this year – starting in Trafalgar Square on 23 April 2016 – but the British Library will also be making 400 "rolls" of wallpaper available to young people through schools and scout groups.
“The look of the digital library is inspired by the shelving of the iconic King’s Library Tower, a tall glass structure at the heart of the British Library building,” said Adrian Edwards, head of printed heritage collections at the British Library.
“The quartos were designed to be read by the broadest possible audience, so it is extremely fitting to share them digitally on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death via the Digital Library Tour.”
The British Library has been a keen adopter of digital technology for some time.
Six years ago it launched its 2020 Vision strategy, ramping up its activity around digital in recognition of the need to safeguard Britain’s literary heritage, preserving fragile printed material and widening access to researchers, students and the general public.
In 2011, it made 250,000 out-of-copyright titles available to read for free through Google Books.
Out of love with Shakespeare
Besides marking a significant anniversary in the cultural life of the UK, the British Library hopes the scheme will go some way to addressing an apparently widespread lack of knowledge about Shakespeare’s works.
Research commissioned by Vodafone claimed that 25% of people were unaware of his work, with some claiming Shakespeare wrote the movies Love Actually, Titanic, and even, somehow, Shakespeare in Love. Around one in 10 Brits were entirely unable to recall who Shakespeare actually was.
Others suggested a soliloquy – a device used in the theatre in which characters talk to themselves to share their feelings with the audience and further the plot – was something used to make car tyres, or even a pasta dish.
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Vodafone UK director of corporate and external affairs Helen Lamprell said: “Mobile technology is playing an increasingly vital role in bringing culture and communities together. This initiative builds on our global campaigns supporting young people’s constructive use of digital technology.”
The service will make 14 of Shakespeare’s plays available to download, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. The British Library will also be making 300 more digitised documents relating to Shakespeare available online, as well as running an exibition to mark the anniversary.