The past belongs to everyone: British Library calls on public to help piece together history

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As the British Library thrusts itself into the digital age, more than a million images from its archives have been made available online. And it wants the public's help to expand what is known about them.

The antique architectural sketch shows the outlines of four walls surrounding a network of paths and, at the centre, a small rectangular building.

The drawing, published in 1893, shows the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the Kaaba at its centre.

It was sketched by French artist Ernest Griset for a book by Sir Richard Burton, the explorer and polymath who entered the city in 1853 disguised as a pilgrim.

He was one of the first Europeans to do so – and risked death if he was discovered.

That the illustration survives is down to two things. Decades ago, Burton's book, the oddly titled Vikram and Vampire, or Tales of Hindu Devilry, was placed in the archives of the British Library, the official repository of everything published in the UK.

Second, it was pulled from the dusty storage vaults and thrust into the digital age as part of an initiative that has made more than a million images that are out of copyright instantly available to view and use, without charge.

The drawing describes the building as the “Prophet’s Mosque” or “Bait Allah” (God’s House). It includes the Maqam Ibrahim, the stone that survives to this day, and the footprint of the Prophet Ibrahim as he stood building the Kaaba.

Also clearly labelled is the well of Zamzam, from which is drawn the blessed water that pilgrims still bring back from their journey to Mecca, and three of the four main schools of Islamic law: Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali.

From the same collection and the same book is a bird’s-eye view of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a colour drawing of a “pretty badawi girl”, and a flamboyantly dressed pilgrim.

The book was edited by Burton’s wife, Isabel, a woman who shared many of her husband’s adventures in the Middle East.

All of the British Library's images have been placed on Flickr, in an enterprise described as "a treasure hunt without a map". The library hopes that users will help to expand what is known about the images as users can tag them using their Flickr accounts.

“The illustrations, maps and portraits were found within a set of 65,000 volumes of books, digitised through a partnership with Microsoft,” says Ben O’Steen, from the British Library Labs team who managed the project.

"The digital scans allow us to present the content in all manner of ways. I wrote some code, which has since become called the mechanical curator, to go through all of the books and to make copies of all the illustrations it could find. It found more than a million images from just these few books." The mechanical curator has its own Twitter account, @MechCuratorBot, which randomly picks out images on the hour and posts them for the public to tag.

Such a vast collection inevitably contains many references to the Middle East and the world of Islam, often reflecting the prejudices of the time.

Away from the region, the collection includes portraits, photographs by explorers, comics, maps and even the signature of William Shakespeare on a mortgage deed in March 1613.

Making this intellectual heritage accessible to everyone for “research, inspiration and enjoyment” is one of the main visions behind the project, says Mr O’Steen.

“I uploaded the mechanical curator’s discoveries to Flickr, to engage with the wider community and to provide access to this relatively unseen content,” he says. “We knew what page the images were from, and what book, but we had little knowledge of what was in a particular picture.

“What we did know is that the illustrations were interesting enough that people might want to see them. All the images can be tagged and commented on by any of Flickr’s users and this has given us great insight into how best to curate this collection with the community.”

It took about two weeks to completely upload the images. Some have been put into themes, such as castles, ships, fauna and music.

Valentine’s Day is particularly popular, with one lover telling another: “You know I love you dearly, But Darling, we must wait, For I am not seven nearly, and you are only eight!”

Advertisements also feature, such as “coca wine” from 1893, described as an invigorating tonic for a “fatigued mind and body”.

In a world where people spend most of their time online, providing the public with images that capture the humour, desires and concerns of different eras has proved to be a hit – the Flickr British Library account has 21,900 followers.

As for Mr O’Steen, one of his favourite finds, and perhaps the most odd, “almost leapt from the screen”.

"It was one of many from a curious book called The Chromatographic Chronicle of English History, Illustrated by Coloured Charts, Etc by R Quinton in 1864.

“An unassuming title, but when you see it you realise that the author has attempted to colour code, visualise and quantify the entirety (to him) of English history,” he says. “You never know what you will find.”

This story has been amended to clarify that Ben O’Steen is from the British Library Labs team, not the British Library Laboratory team.