How Digital.Bodleian will open access to over 1 million extraordinary images

Late 15th Century manuscript

On 14th October 2015 I’ll be speaking at RLUK’s conference, Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities, and ahead of that I would like to tell you the story of Digital.Bodleian, which we launched in July this year. Digital.Bodleian brings together 25 years of digitisation of our unique collections under a single interface. Public engagement and support to digital scholarship are key strands of our strategy, and Digital.Bodleian was designed to draw in people from all walks of life to our collections as well as to engage the researchers who are our traditional user base.

Extraordinary collections were largely isolated online

We are privileged to hold collections at the Bodleian Libraries that are significant and extraordinary from a scholarly point of view.  Much of our content has a historic and aesthetic richness that holds value for non-academic users too. Each year we serve around 70,000 readers, over 40% of them from beyond the University of Oxford.  Our exhibitions in their new spaces in the Weston Library in Oxford, including Marks of Genius, have been critically acclaimed and attracted over 200,000 visitors in their first three months. To make our collections open to users around the world for teaching, learning and research, we have been digitizing our rich holdings of archives, manuscripts, books, photographs, maps, music scores and a wealth of other content for over twenty years. 

Up until the launch of Digital.Bodleian, like most academic libraries, our digitised collections were disseminated on-line in separate silos, in discrete project-driven websites. These have been incredibly popular with the academic communities they serve, but their functionality for public discourse has been limited. Because many of them were developed some time ago, they are restricted by technology and they demonstrate, sometimes quaintly, that design trends have moved on!

Our previous sites included the LUNA image library, Early Manuscripts at Oxford University, the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera and the Oxford Digital Library. Each of these sites used a different search interface and different descriptive formats. So each collection remained largely isolated, difficult to search and impossible to link to other collections at Oxford or elsewhere.

drawings of insects

Open collections, open standards, open software

With Digital.Bodleian we had a clear vision: to draw in new audiences, provide a more modern service to academics, and to unite the collections in a more contemporary and engaging way, using innovative technology. The result is that we now have over 120,000 freely available digitised images accessible to users worldwide, and at least another 1.5 million images which we hope to release over the course of the coming year.

Three principles have guided the development of Digital.Bodleian. Those principles are:

  1. Open collections: using open licences that allow people to use and re-use the images for education and research, without payment of a fee or the need to separately obtain copyright permissions. You can see our licence terms here
  2. Open standards for metadata and APIs that allow the collections to be shared with as few technical barriers as possible. So we are using the Dublin Core metadata standard, and the International Image Interoperability Framework, or IIIF set of APIs.(I’ll come back to IIIF in a minute).
  3. Open software, allowing the community to benefit from our technical development. The software which powers the user interface ofDigital.Bodleian was developed by Armadillo Systems in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries. Armadillo have made plans to make this software open-source. We have also implemented the British Library’s ‘universal viewer’, a fully open-source viewing interface based on the Wellcome Player, developed by Digirati and the British Library
The oldest road map of Great Britain

An engaging window into some hidden gems

On the home page you can see the variety and diversity of collections we have digitised, which include our Western manuscripts; Hebrew and oriental manuscripts; Exploring Egypt in the 19th Century, a collection from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; an outstanding collection of maps in script and print; an astonishing collection of insects, the Entomologist’s Useful Compendium; breathtakingly beautiful plates from John Gould’s Ornithological works – and many others. Essentially, Digital.Bodleian provides an engaging window into some hidden gems.

One of the many attractive features of Digital.Bodleian is that it allows faceted search and browse across the collections for the very first time. You can try this for yourself, by searching for the keyword ‘France’, then refiningthe search resultsby type (maps) and language (Latin) to retrieve a map of France and Belgium from 1477. It has taken considerable standardization of the metadata to facilitate this (some would call it data ‘munging’) converting 11 different formats into one (Dublin Core).

cartoon of 2 men talking

I said I’d come back to IIIF. For the geeks among you, we’ve converted all our images from a variety of formats to a lossless JPEG2000 and migrated them to a robust scalable storage infrastructure which supports the IIIF set of APIs (application programming interfaces). IIIF is a cultural heritage standard supported by 12 founding members from around the world, including the University of Oxford, Stanford University, the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and others. The image API provides access to the image content and technical descriptions. The presentation API gives just enough structural and descriptive information about the image’s context to appropriately render it in a web-based viewing environment. While IIIF’s origins are in libraries, the community is rapidly expanding to include museums, archives and image services of all types, creating new opportunities for exchange and collaboration across sectors.

For example, try searching for one of our Hebrew manuscripts, the Moreh Nevukhim, which we digitized with generous funding from the Polonsky Foundation. You can view the full page and zoom into see the fine detail at very high resolution. This is exactly what digital scholarship demands, in order to investigate annotations, marginalia, ownership marks, or illuminations, as well as the text itself. If you click on the UV button in the metadata panel, you can view the same images displayed via the IIIF presentation API inthe British Library and Digirati’s Universal Viewer (which is itself based on the Wellcome Library’s Wellcome Player). This is collaboration and partnership between world-leading heritage organisations demonstrated!

As our users would expect in today’s social world, Digital.Bodleian provides the ability to tag and annotate images. Try searching for the medieval French poem Le Roman de la Rose.You can tag the image, then save your own private notes or add public comments, and bring together content in your own virtual collections, which you can then share with your research group or friends. 

Users can also now download images and metadata at medium resolution for non-commercial use. Our terms of use are here. We have received lots of comments about our licence terms, some of them complimentary, some less so (for example, read this thought-provoking blog) and we are considering making changes to our terms of use in the future, for example to make our images easier to tweet, share and use on blog posts which are themselves not unequivocally non-commercial uses.

Moreh Nevukhim close up

A little like painting the Forth Bridge...

Digital.Bodleian was four years in the making, which feels like an epoch in today’s fast-moving digital world. It was a challenge to maintain the project’s funding and then to launch it when we knew there was so much still to improve. But, building digital products is a little like painting the Forth Bridge; they are always imperfect, never finished. We felt that Digital.Bodleian was more than a ‘minimum viable product’, in the jargon. We decided to go ahead and make this valuable resource public, with the expectation that we will continue to improve it over time.

Now we have taken that leap of faith, we know there is much more to do. We want to make the interface much more responsive, working with Armadillo, so that it works beautifully on mobile devices, in line with our mobile first policy. We aim to increase the number of images available through the site to over a million, and we want to implement new features of IIIF.

Digital.Bodleian has been a data transformation project, an infrastructure project and a software development and design project; and a partnership between the talented team here at the Bodleian Libraries, Armadillo Systems and Jisc who were our initial funder. In particular Christine Madsen, Head of Digital Programmes; Matthew McGrattan, Collections Delivery Architect; and Emma Stanford, Digitisation Assistant all played key roles on the project and injected determination, passion, enthusiasm and large doses of good humour in addition to their considerable expertise.

So please can I urge you to enjoy the extraordinary riches of our digitised collections and send us your feedback so we can improve Digital.Bodleian for the future by tweeting me @LucieCBurgess or @BDLSS, or e-mailing We hope it will make our cultural heritage more open and accessible to the world.

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Image sources

Le Roman de la Rose, 1475, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015 / original cropped and resized

The entomologist’s useful compendium, plate 2 , Samouelle, George, 1819, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015 / original cropped and resized

The Gough Map, 1360, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015 / original cropped and resized

John Bull and the alarmist, Gillray, James, 1803-09-01, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015 / original cropped and resized

Moreh Nevukhim (close up), Maimonides, Moses, 1275 - 1325, Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2015 / original cropped and resized


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