Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

07 October 2021

You Can Now Make Your Own Online British Library Exhibit with IIIF

The Digital Scholarship Training Programme is an internal, bespoke staff training programme that provides colleagues with the space and opportunity to delve into and explore all that digital content and new technologies have to offer in the research domain today. One of the events that occurs monthly is our Hack & Yack -  a casual, hands-on session to work through an online tutorial at everyone's own pace but with support of colleagues.

In April 2021, our Hack & Yack was based around the topic of ‘Making interactive online exhibits and teaching resources with IIIF Manifests!’ by exploring the tool Exhibit. This tool was created during the COVID-19 pandemic by the University of St Andrews, and allows people to build online exhibits using objects in the Universal Viewer. We realized that with the vast amounts of digitised collections here at the BL, this tool allowed a real opportunity to continue engaging with our audiences through this online, so we gathered to chat and learn.

There was some trial and error at the start of the session - how do you find IIIF manifests, how do you link to a specific page instead of a collection, and what’s the best practice for highlighting and annotating specific details? As we worked our way through these questions, one thing was abundantly clear, the Exhibit tool was intuitive and easy to use once you could work your way around IIIF. 


So, what is IIIF?

IIIF stands for the International Image Interoperability Framework. The IIIF website further defines it as:

  • A set of open standards that help archives, libraries, and museums make the most of their digitized collections with deep zoom, annotation capabilities, and more, and
  • The community of users and developers who work everyday to enrich the IIIF ecosystem and advocate for its adoption.

This framework ‘enables better, faster and cheaper image delivery’, and ‘gives users a rich set of baseline functionality for viewing, zooming, and assembling the best mix of resources and tools to view, compare, manipulate and work with images on the Web, an experience made portable–shareable, citable, and embeddable (’ It’s this exact functionality that allows Exhibit to work so flawlessly. Once an image with a IIIF manifest has been uploaded into, the creator of the exhibit can zoom in on details, and add annotations for the viewer like in the following gif.

An animated gif showing how Exhibit zooms in on details like a signature and provides annotations about the detail, like ‘a verified Austen signature sold for £23,750 at auction in 2014’.
Click on the image to play an animated gif displaying the first few details of the Jane Austen Exhibit on


How to find & use IIIF Manifests

The British Library has just launched a brand new IIIF Collection Guide which is an excellent starting point when looking for images within our main catalogue and our archives and manuscript collections with IIIF standards. More discovery searches from other institutions can be found on IIIF’s GitHub Awesome IIIF

Staff from the Library's Heritage Made Digital programme, which is digitising parts of our collection that have never been made available online before or are underrepresented in our online collections, have created the following video that shows how you can find and copy the IIIF manifest from the British Library’s Universal Viewer. 

Once you have found the IIIF manifest URL, you can paste it into various tools to view the content, for example the Exhibit tool.


How does IIIF work with

Exhibit works with digitised photos and objects with IIIF standards to enable the creator to tell a story while displaying the digitised collection. The service is free to use and doesn’t require a login, all you have to do is find your material and get started! Exhibit has created a whole help section, including how to get started and how to create an Exhibit. The creator of the exhibit can have the watcher flip through a book with added annotations describing what they’re looking at, before switching over to photographs, or even highlighting 3D digitised objects. 

For example, in the Jane Austen: Books and Bibliography exhibit, we flip through manuscripts and books by Austen, see paintings and photographs related to her life, and are shown a 3D model of Austen’s writing desk that is held here at the BL. All of this helps the creator to tell the story of who Jane Austen was and why these objects and images are important. 

Several members of the Heritage Made Digital team came along to our Hack & Yack on and quickly realised the power it could have in making some of their digitised collections more accessible. Curators can share their favourite items and collections with interesting facts for the public. And that’s exactly what four members of the team have done. 


Creating Exhibits: Catherine Cronin, Eyob Derillo, Kate Thomas, and Sara Hale

The Heritage Made Digital Portfolio is transforming digital access to the British Library’s renowned collections of rare books, manuscripts, early newspapers, sound recordings and other heritage materials, in keeping with the Library’s Living Knowledge vision.

Part of this Portfolio is The Heritage Made Digital Digitisation and Ingest Programme which is tasked with making available 20 years worth of digitised content in IIIF; digitising and making available new content in IIIF, and streamlining current digitisation workflows across the Library. We are excited by the tool Exhibit’s ability to showcase the Library’s digital items; to educate and inspire users about what is available, to encourage the reuse of our collection items worldwide, to aid research, teaching and for pleasure. 


Exhibit on The Miracles of Mary

One of the biggest additions to our digital collections are the 300 Ethiopian Manuscripts digitised as part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital programme and made available in 2019. These rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts date mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are predominantly written in the classical Ethiopian language Ge'ez. The digitised collection is currently available on a legacy viewer called Digitised Manuscripts (search Ethiopian). There are 18 Ethiopian manuscripts available now in IIIF here, and we will be making the rest of the collection available in IIIF over the coming year.

Click to view on

Eyob Derillo, Curator Ethiopian Collections, has created the above Exhibit focusing on a few of the stories from The Miracles of Mary, Or 641. The original Ethiopian title of this manuscript is ታምረ ማርያም; it contains forty stories, with illustrations of the miracles the Virgin Mary performed. 

To date, the British Library's Heritage Made Digital programme has digitised about 23 Miracles of Mary, Maqdala manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church holds the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in a unique position; Mary is regarded as the highest saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Mary is commemorated every month and there are more than thirty feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary in one year. The miracles of Mary are read during the Festivals of the Virgin, arranged according to the different days. 

This illuminated manuscript, produced in Gonder, Ethiopia, is a superb example of 17th century Gondarine art, which was a period of artistic blooming. A portion of the manuscript (ff. 30—236) was written in Gonder during the reign of king Fasildas, A.D. 1632—67.  The name of king Fasildas which appeared in the manuscript, was erased and replaced with his successor king John (I., A.D. 1667).


Exhibit on The Mirror of the World

Kate Thomas’ Exhibit takes images from our copies of The Mirror of the World, focusing on the diagrams that illustrate Gautier’s text.

Kate’s role at the British Library involves quality control of images for our Digitised Manuscripts and Universal Viewer websites, including the project to digitise incunabula: books from the early years of western print.  This involves the digitisation, from cover to cover, of all our incunabula from England, and of those from other European countries where we hold the only surviving copy.  We have published over 480 items from this project, available through our catalogue here: navigate to the ‘I want this’ tab.  You can find out more about the library’s collection of early printed books in this guide, and by searching the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue.

Click to view on

Through her work, Kate noticed that we had digitised three English copies of Gautier of Metz's L'Image du monde, known in English as The Mirror of the World, a medieval text on the nature of the earth and the solar system (you can read a twentieth-century edition of Caxton’s printed copy at  This text was written in Latin in the mid-thirteenth century but was translated into many languages: the British Library holds an early manuscript version in French prose, Sloane MS 2435The fact that printed copies of the English translation were still being made in the fifteenth century shows the ongoing interest in Gautier's work.  These were of particular interest to Kate as she has an academic background in medieval English literature, including in medieval science and medicine.

L'image du monde is an especially good candidate for digitisation, as it contains a number of diagrams which illustrate medieval conceptions of physics and astronomy.  In these, we can see that people had all kinds of ideas about the nature of the world, some of which later turned out to be incorrect, but others of which were nearer to the truth than might be supposed.  Medieval scholars did not think that the earth was flat!


Exhibit on Japanese Design Books

In 2020 the British Library digitised its collection of Japanese Design Books and is currently making them available online in IIIF. Dating from the mid-17th century to the early 20th century, the collection comprises woodblock-printed books and manuscripts ranging from practical manuals and pattern books produced by textile manufacturers and merchants to lavish design books. The books are visually stunning and include textile, toy and sweet designs. Around 80 were digitised and they are still being published online. You can find a list of links to what’s available now in this Japanese Design Books collection guide.

Click to view on

Sara Hale chose the items for her Exhibit based on this blog about the Library’s ‘Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design’ exhibition in 2020 by the collection curator Hamish Todd. Sara says: ‘The selection really highlights the development of the design books as a genre, from quite basic early pattern books to the lavish kimono designs featured in the early 20th century books. But I also included the books of Japanese confectionery designs because I love them! They are so colourful and interesting. I love how the sweets often masquerade as other things, such as plants, flowers and animals. My personal favourite is the ray fish in ORB.40/1142 volume 2. Browse through yourself to see what else you can find.’

We would love to see what you would choose to showcase in your own online exhibition from our IIIF collections, share your Exhibits with us on Twitter @BL_MadeDigital and @BL_DigiSchool.

This blog post was written by Deirdre Sullivan, Business Support Officer for Digital Scholarship Training Initiatives, Catherine Cronin, Digitisation Workflow Officer for Heritage Made Digital, Eyob Derillo, Curator, Ethiopic & Ethiopian Collection, Kate Thomas, Digitisation Support Officer for Heritage Made Digital, and Sara Hale, Digitisation Workflow Officer for Heritage Made Digital. With special thanks to Nora McGregor, Digital Curator, and Sandra Tuppen, Heritage Made Digital Portfolio Manager, for the support on this post.