Download and Read 19th Century Yellowbacks

Published 03-04-2010

Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) Level 10, Robert W. Woodruff Library

As seen in The London Times.

A glimpse of 19th century British life is available online, courtesy of Emory University Libraries’ Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).

More than 1,200 novels known as yellowbacks have been digitized using a cutting-edge robotic digital book scanner purchased from Kirtas Technologies by Emory Libraries in 2008. The Kirtas machine enables the Libraries to scan thousands of rare and out-of-copyright books in its research collections.

Yellowbacks were cheap, 19th century British literature sold at railway book stalls, with colorful, sensational covers to attract buyers. While some were well-known books such as “Sense and Sensibility,” many of the yellowbacks were obscure titles by authors unknown nowadays. “They were the equivalent of a popular novel you’d read on a plane today,” says David Faulds, MARBL’s rare book librarian.

The digitization project allows MARBL to make the collection of rare, fragile books accessible to a widespread audience. “There are a good number of yellowbacks where we have the only known copy of the text, so we’re able to make that available to people around the world,” he says. “They’re very rare now because they weren’t that sturdily built – they just disintegrated or were thrown away. It’s an aspect of 19th century life that’s disappeared today.”

The project has taken about six months and is almost finished, says Kyle Fenton, leader of digitization services and digital curation, whose team worked to digitize the collection of yellowbacks. Of the 1,235 books digitized, nearly all of the titles are available online and can be downloaded by readers for free.

MARBL has the second largest collection of yellowbacks at an American university library, behind UCLA. The nickname comes from the yellow glazed paper of the illustrated covers.

The genres and topics include romance, detective fiction, war, biography, medicine, horse racing, hunting and fishing. “Some of these books are so rare that they’ve been lost to history,” Faulds says. “Scholars and casual readers can now discover these works. There may be aspects of them that are of interest not only to literary researchers but also social historians looking at Britain or America in the 19th century or women’s lives in this period – what they were reading, how they are portrayed or what they wrote.”

How to access the yellowbacks (updated Feb. 3, 2011)

You’ll need Adobe Acrobat Reader. To access the yellowbacks:

1. Type "yellowbacks" into the discoverE search bar to bring up a variety of titles, or search for a specific yellowback title or author of your choice.

2. Under the selection you wish to read, click on "online resource", then click "open in new window."

3. The yellowback will load. You can then save the novel to your laptop or a flash drive and read it at your leisure.

For media inquiries, contact: