Read the 19th century online

Many new and developing technologies in the world today have provided libraries and museums with opportunities to provide access to their collections in exciting and innovative ways. The RCP is embracing these opportunities, and last year became a partner in the UK Medical Heritage Library (UK-MHL) project.

The UK-MHL is a collaborative digital curation project coordinated by the Wellcome Library. The purpose of the project is to digitise 19th century rare books and pamphlets (and some from the 18th and 20th centuries – the project includes titles from 1780 to 1914) from some of the world’s leading medical libraries. Once digitised, all materials are published online under an open Creative Commons licence, which means they will be free to access and use. Through this project scholars, interested readers and the public will have access to important, high-quality, historical resources without having to travel to visit collections.

Preparing books for digitisation

The project is a large scale one, bringing together a diverse range of materials from a number of different medical libraries and collections. Along with the RCP and the Wellcome Library there are six universities: UCL (University College London), the University of Leeds, the University of Glasgow, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, King's College London and the University of Bristol. Two other medical royal colleges are also contributing: the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

The Internet Archive – famous for its Wayback Machine webpage archive – is carrying out the digitisation work in a specialised centre designed for this project. It is anticipated that 15 million pages of books and pamphlets will be digitised in total, creating a comprehensive and detailed database of information on a remarkable period of medical discovery and development.

The first batch of books was sent from the RCP library in March, and a new batch will be sent each month until early next year. All together 564 items have been sent so far, covering a range of topics from instructions on reading legal handwriting, to evolution and genetics, to health guidelines for school children. These items included pamphlets and printed books, in many different languages and styles of illustration and decoration.

All of the RCP materials digitised and added to the UK MHL are available through the Internet Archive,  The Wellcome Trust, and JISC Historical Books will also provide digital copies as the project progresses. Copies are uploaded as they are digitised, so do check back to see what new items have become available.

All the hard-copies that have been digitised will still be accessible in the RCP library reading room as usual.

Alana Farrell, project coordinator

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