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 today. “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

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

1. Visit the Emory Libraries home page at http://web.library.emory.edu/

2. In the discoverE search box on the right side of the screen, type the word “yellowbacks” and click the search button.

3. At the next screen, under results on the left side of the screen, click “online resources.” You can also narrow by genre, topic and author.

4. Click on the title of the yellowback you wish to read.

5. Scroll down under details, and at the second blue arrow, click “PDF version.”

6. The yellowback will load; note the first page is usually blank. You can then save the novel to your desktop or a flash drive and read it at your leisure.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.