The British Library Digitizes 300 Literary Treasures from 20th Century Authors: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce & More

First Edition Ulysses

As a young col­lege stu­dent, I spent hours wan­der­ing through my university’s library, look­ing in a state of awe at the num­ber of books con­tained there­in by writ­ers whose names I knew or who seemed vague­ly famil­iar, and by hun­dreds, thou­sands, more I’d nev­er heard of. Always con­tent to immerse myself in seclud­ed cor­ners for days on end with a good book, I could­n’t have felt more at home.

The inter­net was in its infan­cy, and my online life at the time con­sist­ed of awk­ward, plain-text emails sent once or twice a week and the occa­sion­al clunky, slow-load­ing web­site, promis­ing much but deliv­er­ing lit­tle. Excitable futur­ists made extrav­a­gant pre­dic­tions about how hyper­text and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty would rev­o­lu­tion­ize the book. These seemed like intrigu­ing but unnec­es­sary solu­tions in search of a prob­lem.

To the book­ish, the book is a per­fect­ed tech­nol­o­gy that can­not be improved upon except by the pub­lish­ing of more books. While inter­ac­tive texts—with linked anno­ta­tions, biogra­phies, his­tor­i­cal pre­cis, crit­i­cal essays, and the like—have much enhanced life for stu­dents, they have not in any way improved upon the sim­ple act of read­ing for plea­sure and edification—an activ­i­ty, wrote Vir­ginia Woolf, requir­ing noth­ing more than “the rarest qual­i­ties of imag­i­na­tion, insight, and judg­ment.”

Though Woolf would like­ly have been unim­pressed with all that talk of hyper­tex­tu­al inno­va­tion, I imag­ine she would have mar­veled at the online world for offer­ing some­thing to the read­er we have nev­er had until the past cou­ple decades: free and instant access to thou­sands of books, from lit­er­ary clas­sics to biogra­phies to his­to­ries to poetry—all gen­res upon which Woolf offered advice about how to read on their own terms. With­out the anx­ious admis­sions process and cost­ly tuition, any­one with a com­put­er now has access to a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the aver­age col­lege library.

And now any­one with a com­put­er has access to a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the British Library’s rare col­lec­tions as well, thanks to the ven­er­a­ble institution’s new online col­lec­tion: “Dis­cov­er­ing Lit­er­a­ture: 20th Cen­tu­ry.”

orwell rejection

Read­ers of our site will know of Open Culture’s affin­i­ty for 20th cen­tu­ry mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture, like that of Vir­ginia Woolf, and for the dystopi­an fic­tion of George Orwell. These authors and greats of more recent vin­tage are all well-rep­re­sent­ed in the British Library col­lec­tion. You’ll find such trea­sures as a scanned first edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first Amer­i­can edi­tion of Antho­ny Burgess’ A Clock­work Orange, and first edi­tion of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. These are just a few of the clas­sic nov­els avail­able in the “over 300 trea­sures” of the col­lec­tion, writes the British Library.

woolf cover

The online library offers a par­adise for read­ers, cer­tain­ly. And also a heav­en for schol­ars. Includ­ed among the rare first edi­tions and crit­i­cal essays and inter­views on the site’s main page are “online for the first time… lit­er­ary drafts… note­books, let­ters, diaries, news­pa­pers and pho­tographs from Vir­ginia Woolf, Ted Hugh­es, Angela Carter and Hanif Kureishi among oth­ers.”

Some incred­i­ble high­lights include:

And as if all this—and so many more 20th cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary treasures—weren’t enough, the col­lec­tion also tucks in some won­der­ful arti­facts from pre­vi­ous eras, such as a col­lec­tion of man­u­script poems by John Keats, includ­ing the Odes and Robert Burton’s ency­clo­pe­dic 1628 study of depres­sion, The Anato­my of Melan­choly.

“Until now,” says Anna Lobben­berg, the Library’s Dig­i­tal Pro­grammes Man­ag­er, “these trea­sures could only be viewed in the British Library Read­ing Rooms or on dis­play in exhibitions—now Dis­cov­ery Lit­er­a­ture: 20th Cen­tu­ry will bring these items to any­one in the world with an inter­net con­nec­tion.” It tru­ly is, for the lover of books, a brave new world (a book whose 1932 orig­i­nal dust jack­et you can see here).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Library Puts Over 1,000,000 Images in the Pub­lic Domain: A Deep­er Dive Into the Col­lec­tion

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

Vir­ginia Woolf Offers Gen­tle Advice on “How One Should Read a Book”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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