Honestly, they’re really onto something with this exhibit. Here’s a problem that famous libraries have with their Beautiful Old Books: all the really good stuff, they don’t want to let you touch it. Sure, they might trust David McCullough on a good day, assuming he filled out all the paperwork ahead of time. But give you an old book and you’ll only sneeze on it, paw at it with chocolate-smeared fingers, and then perhaps set it afire. No, it’s best kept far, far away from the likes of you. And if they are so kind as to display an old treasure like the Lindisfarne Gospels or a Gutenberg Bible, it will be under glass, and you’ll only see two facing pages of the entire book.
What you want to do is hold that book and caress it, dwell on each page, and slowly and lovingly turn the pages. This will never happen. Unless, of course, you are willing to accept an online digital compromise called Turning the Pages. This online exhibit does a wonderful job of letting you flip through twelve different historical books, including one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. All the books are spectacular, but I particularly like seeing a facsimile of Leonardo’s notebook, because his work is so often excerpted. How many times have you seen the same picture of the guy with four arms or the child in the womb, and always without any sense of context? I want to know what he doodled on the page before and the page after. I want to see the text close enough to work out his mysterious left-handed mirror script. The British Library exhibit lets you do that. The only missing pieces are the dusty inky smell and tactile pleasure of fingers on vellum. Maybe we’ll get that one day, too. (seen on tingilinde)