Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rare Book Room

Gaining access to rare books is a problem for the ordinary reader - they can be viewed in exhibitions, but for the most part they can only be read by the privileged few with access to the special libraries that have copies. Digitisation and the Internet have changed this situation as many Libraries now make electronic versions of the books available online.

Ten years ago a company called Octavo began "digitally photographing some of the world ’s great books from some of the greatest libraries. These books were photographed at very high resolution (in some cases at over 200 megabytes per page)."

The Rare Book Room contains all of the books (about 400) that Octavo have digitized to date. These range over a wide variety of topics and rarity. In particular the site includes:

1. Some of the great books in science, including books by Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Einstein, Darwin and others.

2. Most of the Shakespeare Quartos from the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the University of Edinburgh Library, and the National Library of Scotland. It also contains the First Folio from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

3. The complet copies of Poor Richard ’s Almanac by Benjaman Franklin.

4. Very rare editions: Gutenberg ’s Bible of 1455 (from the Library of Congress), Harvey's book on the circulation of blood, Galileo ’s Siderius Nuncius, the first printing of the Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta.

The first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary is included - as far as I know the only freely available online copy.

Among my own favourites is Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio a series of massive, detailed prints depicting the life and culture of the North American Indians. Catlin spent eight years of his life studying and drawing the members of some 48 Indian tribes before publishing this portfolio, which is based on a small part of his massive outpouring of paintings and sketches.

Although the books presented here are scanned to fairly high resolutions - still try to see the originals if you can, because they possess an innate magic that the camera cannot capture.

(note that the images won't load in a Safari browser - so if you use a Mac use Firefox or Camino)