The Cambridge University Library has embarked on an ambitious and impressive project to digitise and showcase some of the unique and valuable material in its collections. For those of you who haven’t experienced the Cambridge Digital Library, it’s well worth a visit. So far it comprises two fascinating elements, a collection of beautiful and ancient copies of the Qur’an and the papers of Isaac Newton, which probably need no introduction. Forthcoming projects include the historically significant Archive of the Board of Longitude.

Funded by donations, the Cambridge Digital Library has been specced and produced to a high standard. The images are of excellent quality and resolution, the presentation is good and the support material is first rate. Even more sophisticated and extensive functionality is on its way. Little expense was spared on the technical side of the project, with an investment in hardware of over £200,000 providing infrastructure that can handle 2,000 concurrent hits per second. At the time of launch, this proved to be a prescient bit of development. In the 48 hours after the announcement of the Newton Papers and the simultaneous coverage in online and offline media worldwide, the Cambridge Digital Library experienced 29 million hits. It’s a testament to the expertise of the library, and the level of funding, that there were no problems with the platform under this kind of loading.

The Cambridge Digital Library is a welcome development, and a showcase for what UK academia has to offer, but there was an eerie sense of déjà vu apparent when watching a presentation by the team behind the project. Their enthusiastic and heartfelt descriptions of high-quality reproduction, support materials, search and discovery tools and their plans for future enhancements and development, were all profoundly reminiscent of another kind of presentation – that of a publisher introducing a new platform or product. Even a question from the audience afterwards, which asked if they had the resources to continue to market the project to maintain the high level of media coverage, had the familiar tone of a publishing discussion.

There’s no doubt that the Cambridge Digital Library is the start of something big, the rich, varied and unique collections held by Cambridge Libraries alone almost guarantee this, especially if the digitisation continues at its current level of quality. As time passes and projects like this take off, it will be interesting to see if representatives of university libraries begin to attend academic publishing conferences, not as librarians, but as fellow publishers.


  1. That’s actually a cool idea. The only prlobem is some people are so reckless and mishandle’s other people’s property. I wonder how long the book will actually stay in one piece by the time I get it. (LOL) Also, you have to compete with Amazon and the Kindle product that became the rage for the last 2 yrs. No wonder why Borders going out of business soon.They are closing a few stores in my area now.

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