MORE than 65,000 19th-century works of fiction from the British Library’s collection are to be made available for free downloads by the public from this spring.
Owners of the Amazon Kindle, an ebook reader device, will be able to view well known works by writers such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, as well as works by thousands of less famous authors.
The library’s ebook publishing project, funded by Microsoft, the computer giant, is the latest move in the mounting online battle over the future of books.
While some other services, such as Google Books, offer out-of-copyright works to be downloaded for free, users of the British Library service will be able to read from pages in the original books in the library’s collection.
Most downloadable books on the Kindle are by contemporary authors because they are the most profitable for publishers. Many companies have not yet decided what to charge for older, out-of-copyright books.
While the British Library books — which will include Dickens’s Bleak House, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge — will be available free online, the public will also be able to order printed copies from Amazon.
Like the onscreen versions, the paperbacks, costing £15-£20, will look like the frequently rare 19th-century editions in the library’s collection — including their typeface and illustrations. Originals of works by Austen and Dickens typically cost at least £250.
“Freeing historic books from the shelves has the potential to revolutionise access to the world’s greatest library resources,” said Lynne Brindley, the library’s chief executive.
Microsoft and the British Library, which by law purchases at least one copy of every book published in the UK, have been scanning the books over the past three years. The library concentrated the first stage of digitisation on the 19th century because the books are out of copyright and so can be offered free. Copyright runs out 70 years after an author’s death.
The library, which receives an annual government grant of £100m, declined to disclose the sum paid by Microsoft, beyond saying it was “a very generous amount”.
Books to be made available will include Victorian classics such as A Strange Story by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and The Story of a Modern Woman by Ella Hepworth Dixon.
Many of the downmarket books known as “penny dreadfuls” will also be made available to the public, including Black Bess by Edward Viles and The Dark Woman by J M Rymer.
Altogether, 35%-40% of the library’s 19th-century printed books — now all digitised — are inaccessible in other public libraries and are difficult to find in second-hand or internet bookshops.
The library hopes to extend the digitisation scheme by scanning books out of copyright dating from the early 20th century. As yet, however, neither Microsoft nor the institution itself have set money aside for the project.
For Lynne Brindley’s article about the digitisation of the British Library’s books, go to timesonline.co.uk/books