Arts and Entertainment

Learning as play: Faculty and staff work to animate interactive, antique texts

A "Metamorphosis" movable book in color ink wash, circa 1800. Credit: Tom FlachAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The paper is thin and worn, more than 300 years old. But the flaps still lift, if you’re careful, similar to a child’s pop-up book. And the pictures and writing are still clear, if you can read the antique script.

It’s a movable book, and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh wants the world to know about them.

Precursors to today’s pop-up books, movable books were pamphlet-like books with flaps that would be lifted to change the pictures and display more of the story. But after centuries of wear and tear, the original movable books are fragile and stowed away in library archives. So Reid-Walsh is working with a team of other Penn Staters to digitize the books and make them available online.

An associate professor of children’s literature and women’s studies, Reid-Walsh first became enamored with movable books in graduate school. Her interest was renewed while watching her daughter interact with new media, like computer games.

“My daughter’s generation is so tech-savvy, and I became very interested in the way new technologies — like the computer game "The Sims," for example — reminded me of older media, like playing with dolls,” said Reid-Walsh. “I eventually decided to narrow my focus and concentrate on movable books, one of my first loves.”

The earliest known movable book was printed in London in 1650 and depicts a story warning of the dangers of caring too much about money. Panels show Adam and Eve, a lion transforming into an eagle, a man becoming rich and then his eventual downfall from greed. This ended up being a much-imitated movable book, and the subsequent versions were called “Metamorphosis.”

While the first version was probably designed for adults, later versions were geared toward — and were often made by — children. While the images and story stay faithful to the original, each movable book is unique.

“I became very interested in the travels and evolution of 'Metamorphosis' over time and in different areas,” said Reid-Walsh. “You can see that they all mimic the first one, but each still has its own twists and details.”

One movable book drawn in 1698 looks very much like the others until it’s flipped over. On the back is a practice drawing of the lion, as well as a short, journal-like entry about the time period in which it was created. The first note, written in 1698, describes a late frost the town suffered. A second note, added in 1754, details a sickness that spread through the family’s cattle herd. More than 50 years later, the movable book still served as a place to keep records.

As Reid-Walsh studied each book’s unique quirks, she knew she wanted to share the books with a greater audience — those who didn’t regularly visit the archives of libraries around the world. To truly experience the book, readers must be able to lift each flap to read the story chronologically. But most of the originals are so old and fragile they can’t be handled.

Digitizing and animating the books would be an ideal solution, so Reid-Walsh reached out to Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts, and Linda Friend, head of scholarly publications, in the University Libraries for help with the project. Digitally animating the books allows the reader to interact with the book instead of just viewing the flat pages on the computer screen.

“For me, the project is about preservation,” said Stelts. “If the books are digitized, more people can view and interact with the books without actually touching them. It’s a win-win — the books are able to be enjoyed while remaining safe.”

For help with the digital animation of the books owned by Penn State’s Special Collections Library, Stelts and Friend contacted Carlos Rosas, associate professor of art in Penn State’s Interdisciplinary Digital Studio (IDS) in the School of Visual Arts.

“I was immediately interested in the project because I actually come from a printmaking background,” Rosas said. “And IDS is all about making collaborative connections with other groups and disciplines, so it was a great project right off the bat.”

Rosas used a program called Unity 3-D Game Development System to animate and display the digitized books. Carlos said the system, popular with indie game developers, was an affordable and user-friendly way to design the project.

“Even though we’re digitizing books, it’s very much like a game in a way. It’s this idea of play with the book and almost solving a puzzle,” said Rosas. “The books themselves are very interesting because the way the pictures transform when you lift or lower a flap is like a very early form of animation.”

Rosas couldn’t do the project alone, so he recruited some of his undergraduate and graduate students from IDS to help. The team tackled the tasks head on: They figured out the best way to simulate a folding mechanism, made sure the pages would fold in the right order and direction, digitized the photos and brought it all together in the 3-D program.

The project wasn’t without its setbacks, though, and Rosas said there was a lot of problem solving along the way.

“These books are very old, and the way they were made didn’t create perfectly straight edges or cuts,” Rosas said. “The flaps and panels don’t always meet each other perfectly, so there were some gaps. We had to do a bit of finagling, but it ended up working out.”

The digitization not only lets users experience the books in the way they were originally intended, but also places the books in front of new sets of eyes. Reid-Walsh hopes the project will introduce movable books to those who had no idea they existed, as well as be a powerful resource for those who are already fans of the books. She hopes readers learn a bit about children in history along the way, too.

“People sometimes dismiss children’s lit, but it’s important because when you give a child a book, you’re giving the child a message about what’s important,” said Reid-Walsh. “It shows the world to a child. We reveal more about ourselves by what we write for children."

Last Updated November 07, 2014