Behind the scenes at British Library Publishing

16 September 2020
Thomas Irvine of British Library Publishing talks to History Scotland about the challenges of presenting historic texts to modern-day audiences.

What are the challenges posed in presenting maps and manuscripts to modern-day readers? 

We are faced with many challenges when reproducing maps and manuscripts for a book like Jeremy Black’s The History of the Second World War in 100 Maps. The most difficult problems we face are those of size and scale. Some of the maps in the book are fantastically large and were produced to be laid out on those huge tables in the Operations Rooms that you see in the black and white Second World War movies like The Dam Busters.

The sheer size presents problems in photographing the maps and when I visit the British Library Photographic Studios I often see three-metre high maps carefully mounted and hung down vertically from the ceiling ready to be photographed once the lighting has been adjusted. We then receive truly enormous digital scans to work from, which of course are wonderful and allow us to produce some of the details you see in the book. 

Another size problem we encounter on books like this is that of trying to reproduce these vast maps in a book where our trimmed page size in only 220mm wide. Some of the detail on the larger maps is lost given the size reduction and we always take this into account when making our initial selections.

We do use tight crops to bring out some of this detail where possible but I know some readers get frustrated at not being able to see everything on a page. Sadly, we cannot sensibly produce books which are six-feet high and expect a bookshop to stock them.

The final size-based issue is simply the amount of material we have in the British Library and how we firstly find the very best maps to include and then how we select one map from a folder of twenty from one particular month in one particular military theatre. 

2020 presented one final challenge for this book. We were in the middle of the photographic process back in March when the British Library building was closed and all work there stopped for four months due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Looking back to mid-July It was actually a massive leap-of-faith to believe we could get all of the photography done, and the remaining maps retrieved from the closed Library archives, so as to finish the book. The amazing can-do attitude of our map curator Tom Harper, the dedication of our basement and collection team and indeed the tenacity of our team photographer Jonathon Vines made it happen and we are publishing as planned in October.

We really hope our readers enjoy the resulting book. It is truly exciting to publish so much of this material for the very first time and to have Jeremy Black’s insight and interpretation to guide us through it.

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How do you approach cover design? Does each book always have some elements of the original cover?

Our approach to cover design is to create something appealing and original for every book, whether new non-fiction or a reprint of classic fiction. Our classic crime, science fiction and weird fiction series each have a bespoke series style which evokes the atmosphere or setting of the original material rather than reproducing first edition cover art.

For instance, the Crime Classics feature travel posters of the period and setting in which the action of the book takes place. For our non-fiction covers, we focus on material within the book such as maps, photographs or paintings to form the basis of our design which we will then develop with modern typography and graphics. 

British Library Publishing

British Library Publishing creates high-quality books and eBooks for the UK and international book trade and co-editions markets. They publish some 50 books per year and nearly all are inspired by the desire to present original, previously unpublished or undeservedly neglected content from the superlative and extensive holdings of the Library. Alongside their range of award-winning exhibition catalogues, British Library Publishing has also pioneered a market-leading list of classic crime fiction and is also developing fast-growing strands of women’s fiction, weird fiction and science fiction. Its ever increasing list of top-quality non-fiction encompasses history, literature, exploration, cartography, food and drink and, of course, books about books. 

The British Library

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries. It provides world-class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages. 

A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps – Jeremy Black. Hardback £35. ISBN 978 0 7123 5313 7. 240 pages, 280 x 220 mm. 

Publishing October 2020.

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