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British Library app brings Beowulf, The Beatles

The national library of the United Kingdom releases software that lets iPod, iPad, and Android users explore many of its treasures.

Bewoulf, as viewed in the iPhone version of the British Library's Treasures app
Bewoulf, as viewed in the iPhone version of the British Library's Treasures app
British Library

Injecting some high-brow culture into a smartphone realm more characterized by people texting at dinner and playing video games on the subway, the British Library has released an application to allow exploration of some of its collection.

OK, so perhaps it won't mean people rushing to read Beowulf in the original Old English from 1,000 years ago. But it's nice to know the option is there, and the application comes with commentary from experts such as a video on Beowulf by linguist David Crystal.

In any event, it is encouraging at least to this history and museum fan that the Treasures app gives a new digital lease on life to a wide range of historic cultural artifacts. The app will cost $4 for iPhone and Android and $6 for iPad once a half-price promotion ends January 24. Among Treasures' subjects:

• The Gutenberg Bible, Lindisfarne Gospels, and Sultan Baybars' Qur'an;

• Handwritten lyrics by The Beatles;

• Original scores by Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and Purcell;

• Charles Dickens' handwritten draft of "Nicholas Nickleby";

• The writings of Jane Austen as a teenager;

• The battle plan of Admiral Horatio Nelson before beating the French at the Battle of Trafalgar;

• Letters by Galileo and notebooks from Leonardo da Vinci;

• Oracle bones from China about 2,000 years ago;

• And it's the British Library, so of course there has to be a version of the Magna Carta from 1215.

I had problems running the app on an Android Nexus One phone, though. First came a seemingly interminably waiting spinner. Next came a note that assets would have to be downloaded to my SD card, a bugaboo of the Nexus One's limited internal memory. Fine--but then the installation progress bar crawled up to 19 percent over something like an hour.

Update 9:17 a.m. PT: After a little more futzing, I got the app to work better. Although an initial installation on an LG Optimus One faltered the same way as on the Nexus One, with the download eventually stopping altogether and the application not able to show any pictures or play any video or audio, a reinstallation went better.

And I understand better why the download went so slowly: If you set the Android app to download all assets, it's a 1.16GB chunk of data. An option to download just photos is much smaller but obviously misses out on a lot of data.

Happily, things are better on iOS. "Our iPhone and iPad users...are not required to download all the assets and can stream the larger media files, such as images and video," said Sayoko Knight Teitelbaum, a representative of Toura, which helped develop the app. " However, Android requires a user to download all...I believe there may be some changes in Honeycomb [the upcoming Android 3.0] that could help."

A redesigned update to the Android version is due later this quarter, Teitelbaum said.