Much Ado about Nothing? The British Library’s “First Folio” App for iPad

The British Library, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’ for iPad.

It’s pretty rare that I feel “leading edge”; in general, I tend to bob along after trends like a rubber dingy tethered to an ocean liner.  This Christmas was no exception:  like, it would seem, a great many others, I received an iPad2 from Santa. (Well, strictly speaking I bought it for myself, and then placed it under the tree: the old guy is too busy to keep up with all of the tech toys, and I wanted to be sure that what I received was actually what I wanted and needed.)

I have always been resistant to the allure of Apple, although I have long owned an iPod:  while I will readily concede the excellence of Apple products, their corporate philosophy and insistence upon a closed-source control over very nearly every aspect of everything they produce has always seemed to me a bit . . . well, fascist.  However, the point of getting an iPad in the first place was to get a sense of the way in which digital texts were being translated for tablet computers, and, for better or worse, most of these are being produced for the iPad (although more and more appear to be available for Android as well).

When I first began to explore digital textuality some 8 or 9 years ago, the “place” where electronic texts “happened” was, of course, on the desktop or laptop computer.  Increasingly however, and particularly with the advent of relatively cheap eReaders such the Kobo and Kindle providing access to tens of thousands of inexpensive (and sometimes even free) digital texts, digital textuality is moving on to the tablet or eReader. My interest in the books available on simple readers such as the Kindle is fairly limited right now, although I’m sure that this will change.  These are relatively unsophisticated devices after all, and their potential is limited by the simplicity of their platforms. Also, they are not nearly as pretty or fun as tablets, and you can’t play Angry Birds on them.

Title Page for First Folio

The title page of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

The potential offered by the graphics and scripting capabilities of the true tablet computer such as the iPad, on the other hand, means however that texts made available for these platforms can provide full and deeply engaging multimedia experiences.  And so, almost the first two apps I downloaded on to my shiny new iPad – just after “Angry Birds,” of course – were a Shakespeare app from the British Library, and another devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Early Modern book geek that I am, I was particularly excited by the Shakespeare app, which promises “an exact facsimile reproduction of the large and handsome book known simply as the ‘First Folio,’” and notes that consulting early printed versions of these plays “is an essential part of a more complete understanding of Shakespeare’s work.”  Well, yeah.  Duh.

Ok, fair enough. Unfortunately, however, the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’” on iBooks turns out to be something of a disappointment.  The application does indeed provide no fewer than 905 photo facsimiles of one of the BL’s copies of the First Folio: these are very nicely rendered in full colour, and can be displayed to show one page opening, or a single page per screen. A zoom feature also permits a somewhat closer view of the text, although the image deteriorates in quality fairly rapidly if one attempts to zoom in too closely.

Sadly, however, this is pretty much all the BL app offers.  The briefest one page introduction to the history of the First Folio (given without any citations or references), and an even shorter list of the credits for the short audio excerpts included in the app represent almost the only addition to the facsimile images.

A screen capture from the BL's "Shakespeare's 'First Folio'"

Now, if one enjoys, as I do, reading early modern texts in their original printed format, the app clearly has something to offer.  For the general reader or the scholar, however, this digital edition comes up decidedly short.  There is no metadata and no scholarly apparatus of any sort; the BL doesn’t even tell us which copy of the First Folio it has reproduced.  We are told nothing about the provenance, location, identity, or material conditions – not even the page dimensions – of the book we are viewing. And, while it clearly would be expecting too much for this edition to include commentary, annotations, or extensive textual notes, a simple introduction to each of the plays should surely have been possible.  This is not unexplored terrain: a few things have been written about this guy’s plays, and one would have thought that it would not have been terribly difficult or expensive to add a few words about them.

The pages can be accessed by flipping through the book one page at a time (using the somewhat annoying “page flipping” animation that has now become almost standard for this kind of eText), and there is a table of contents that provides either a list of the plays and pages, or nearly useless page thumbnails from which to choose. A search feature (which is I think standard with iBooks) will search the two “introductory” pages at the beginning – all two or three hundred words of them – but can’t access the play texts themselves, and otherwise includes only buttons to “Search Web” and (*gag*) “Search Wikipedia.”  Other than these features, the only additional “shiny” offered us is about a dozen short audio clips from the plays, performed with Early Modern pronunciation. Cool, but not really sufficiently interesting or informative to add a great deal of value to the edition.

I’m a little mystified as to what the British Library thinks it is offering here.  The page images are very pretty, and reasonably clear, but they aren’t really detailed enough, at a screen resolution of only 768px X 1024px, to be of much use to the scholar, and the lack of even a minimal textual apparatus and metadata more or less rules out any scholarly utility anyway. As for the general reader, the complete lack of annotation, explanation, context, or indeed virtually any information about what is appearing on the screen must surely render this resource a much less useful and interesting gateway to Shakespeare’s plays than might otherwise have been the case.  How many people really want to read Timon of Athens straight through in a facsimile of an original printing, without the aid of any context, commentary, or even cheap thrills?  A few might, I suppose, but I don’t know of any, nor do I number myself among them.

Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to complain about this app. Although it is relatively expensive compared to all other book apps that I’ve seen, it is still pretty cheap, coming in at about $26.00 (Canadian).  I’d happily pay that for a print photo facsimile edition, with or without apparatus.  But it is a little off-putting that the BL seems to have put such little effort into the creation of this app.  The page images they must surely have already had, and as interesting as the brief audio clips are, they don’t really add a great deal to the package. Would it have been too much to ask for a little more in the way of information from them about the book that they are so reverently offering up to the public?  One frankly expects more from the BL than what seems to be, at first glance, a hastily-assembled and poorly contextualized collection of page images.

So, for the price, this was, I suppose a worthwhile investment.  But only just.  I’m not unhappy to have it, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make some use of it in the future, but if this represents the “future” of scholarly book apps (and fortunately I don’t think it does), then I am unimpressed.  In the meantime, however, I am well equipped for the next time I feel a hankering to read Timon with long “s”s and wormholing.

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post originally written for Facebook. I have changed relatively little but the style, having received a criticism from a friend — well, she calls herself my friend — that my original was “pompous.”



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