British Library Goes For Apps As UK Preps To Close 20 Pct Of Local Branches

More moves from old-school institutions into the world of apps: the British Library today announced a new app for Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) iOS and Android devices, its first foray into mobile. Moves like this to digitise library collections and make them widely available on mobile platforms could not come at a better time: in the UK up to one-fifth of all local branches are facing closure in the wake of drastic cost cutting from local authorities.

Treasures, as the new British Library app is called, focuses on items featured in the Library’s Treasures Gallery — these include Beowulf, first editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the world’s oldest bible Codex Sinaiticus, Da Vinci’s notebooks, teenage writings from Jane Austen and lots of handwritten music lyrics and manuscripts.

In all, the app will feature 250 high-definition images, expert commentary through texts and 40 videos, and information about current exhibitions. The app is a first for the institution, and was made by mobile guide developer Toura.

A spokesperson for the Library said there are no immediate plans to develop for other platforms aside from Apple’s iOS and Android, although that is generally a part of Toura’s long-term strategy.

Digitising older documents — as a neat and cost-effective way of preserving and disseminating that information — is certainly not a new concept. But the idea of public institutions teaming up with private companies to make that happen is. Such partnerships have not been without issues.

The British Library has been working with the genealogy website Brightsolid, part of the DC Thomson group (which also owns Friends Reunited) to digitise newspapers from before 1900 — a date chosen to avoid problems with copyright violations.

The move was met with strong public criticism from News Corp.’s Europe and Asia chief executive James Murdoch, saying that this was an example of a public institution commerically profiting from copyrighted material.

The BL spokesperson says that this is still underway, “a work in progress.” An update, he said, will be announced this summer.

Some libraries, and their government overlords, have been ambivalent about how to interface with commercial enterprises.

In France, the government first slammed Google (NSDQ: GOOG) for taking the initiative in its own book-scanning project.

It then launched its own digital library project, Gallica, only to realise that the €5 million set aside for the project was nowhere near the €80 million the Bibliotheque Nationale de France needed to tackle books just for one period, 1870 to 1940.

Then — surprise, surprise — Google came back into the picture with a deal to help with the digitising project.

At this point it’s not clear in either of these cases how and if that digitised material might make its way to mobile apps.

But Google for one has most certainly thrown its hat into the digital libary app space — this was a prominent feature of its newest iteration of Android, Honeycomb, which has been designed specifically for tablets and was shown extensively during last week’s CES show.

The British Library has yet to say whether it will look to digitising and apps as a way of making its collection more accessible. This new app is certainly a way to test those waters.

“I think it is early days for us regarding apps,” the spokesman said. “Treasures is our first, so we will obviously see how that goes and then decide on future strategies.”

It may be a while before such projects trickle to local branches of underfunded public libraries, if ever.

Until January 24, Treasures is being sold for £1.19 ($1.99) for iPhone, iPod Touch and Android smartphones; and £2.39 ($3.99) for an HD version developed for the iPad. After that the price for iPhones and Android devices will be £2.39 ($3.99); the HD version will be £3.49 ($5.99).