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NLM Lets Readers Explore Rare Volumes, Virtually

Have you ever seen a beautiful old book housed in a glass case, with only one page set open? Did you wish you could actually leaf through it? Now, you can.

The first U.S. site of "Turning the Pages," a remarkable program developed at the British Library, is the National Library of Medicine. On Mar. 16, the library unveiled a digitally browsable version of Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal, a collection of illustrations of medicinal plants published between 1737 and 1739.

Blackwell's story is a classic in itself — she created the herbal book to raise money for the release of her husband from debtors' prison. And, judging from the response so far, "Turning the Pages" is an instant classic, pairing history and high technology for an exceptional learning experience.

NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg demonstrates "Turning the Pages" to Erinn Dumas, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, Washington, D.C. Wilson is one of NLM's adopted high schools and Dumas works part-time in NLM's Office of Communications.

The exhibit was dedicated in a live transatlantic ceremony, featuring NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg in Bethesda and Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, in London. Tea and crumpets followed.

"Turning the Pages" uses computer animation, high-quality digitized images and touch screen technology to simulate the action of leafing through the pages of a book. "The sensation is uncannily real," said Lindberg. "It reveals the significance and beauty of rare volumes in a way never before possible. We are grateful to the British Library for creating the system and letting us be the first to use it in this country."

In addition to looking at Blackwell's colorful drawings by moving a finger across the screen and going forward or backward in the volume, the reader can touch "zoom" and focus on any portion of the page. An audioclip then provides information about the section of the book selected.

This is the first of several volumes for which NLM plans to employ the technology. The second will be Vesalius's Humani corporis fabrica ("On the construction of the human body"), considered the first truly modern anatomical text.

"Turning the Pages" has become a popular tourist attraction in London, and the hope is that it will become a similar mecca at NIH. Even Queen Elizabeth II received a demonstration of TTP at the British Library. The only problem was, she always wears gloves and the touch screen will not respond to such material; it needs the traction created by direct contact with flesh.

"Turning the Pages" is located in the NLM Visitors Center, on the first floor of Bldg. 38A, the Lister Hill Center. You can view it between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays, except federal holidays. (You're advised not to visit between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., the time of the library's daily public tour.)

Project director for the exhibit is NLM's chief of graphics, Joseph Fitzgerald.

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