Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2005 Issue

"Turning The Pages:" Another Step Forward For Online Books

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Pages from Conrad Caesner's Historiae Animalium, ready to be opened on the NLM site.


By Michael Stillman

The process of placing books online, a move from old-fashioned reality to virtual reality, has taken another step forward with the "Turning The Pages" feature recently offered by the National Library of Medicine. In the past, we have written about the digitization process by Google, Project Gutenberg, and others to place the entire texts of old books online. These projects promise to make the text of millions of books available via the internet to anyone in the world in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps one day the great majority of books will be available this way. On the other hand, the National Medical Library has, at this point, made just three available. Why does this rate a story?

The answer is that what the National Library of Medicine has offered is no mere text, nor scanned book pages either. They have attempted to create the experience of leafing through a book, even if it is all being accomplished on a computer. If scanned pages were the equivalent of a film, what the NLM offers is a 3-D, sensurround, Imax movie. It's as close to real thing as you're going to find on a computer screen today.

The technology goes by the name "Turning The Pages" (TTP). Originally developed for the British Library, the NML became the first U.S. institution to begin using the technology in 2001. It was used to place virtual books on kiosks in their Visitors' Center. The kiosks offered touch screens that allowed visitors to virtually leaf through the pages of their books. From there, the next logical step was to place the books online, allowing anyone anywhere to look through their books, just as visitors to their center could through the kiosks.

What happens when you go to one of the books on the NLM website is you get to turn the pages with a click of your mouse. So, you place the cursor on the book, click the mouse button, and the book opens before your eyes. It does not suddenly appear open as with standard scanned pages, but the book opens, the cover, than the pages, turning before your eyes. Once the page has opened, the image of the page remains frozen for you to read, until you again decide to turn the page.

Naturally there are still a few disadvantages to these virtually real books. Skimming through pages is not possible, nor is it easy to move quickly from one page to another that is not adjacent. However, NML balances this out with some features not offered by real books. There is a built-in magnifying glass to read small print or closely examine illustrations. A "text" button allows you to read a summary of what is described in the pages (especially helpful for books not in a language you understand), or if you prefer, the site will read the descriptions to you. These are "talking books."

There isn't much more to be said about this technology; it's time now to try it for yourself. Click the following link to go to the "Turning The Pages" site, and the click the "Turn The Pages" icon below any of the three books to see. Go to: http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/books.htm.

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