One of the joys of tablet devices is being able to sit back and relax while you explore a wide range of often beautifully presented content. A case in point is the new app from The British Library. In partnership with developer BiblioLabs, a selection of over 1000 19th Century books.

Although you’ll find plenty of novels from classic authors of the time, like Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, it’s the obscure books that are unlikely to emerge on platforms like the Kindle that are particularly interesting.

Search through categories like ‘History of Asia’ and you’ll find little-known titles like ‘Intimate China. The Chinese as I have seen them’, by Alicia E. Neva Bewicke. Yes, hardly a popular tome, but if you’re interested in the world as people 200 years ago saw it, this app is a treasure trove.

photo 6 220x293 Explore historical books on the iPad with the British Librarys new app photo 4 220x293 Explore historical books on the iPad with the British Librarys new app

Exploring the library of titles isn’t quite as easy as it could be, using text-based menus rather than a grid of cover thumbnails – which would have been easier on the eye. However, a small selection of curated collections help with picking out highlights when you start using the app. If you’re used to traditional e-readers, the approach of offering scanned books in their complete form might sometimes seems frustrating – especially when many of the books here feature several blank pages right at the start which you need to flip though, it’s better to think of these titles as historical documents than simply books.

The books featured in the app are all in the public domain and digitised with help from Microsoft. Although the app is currently free, the plan is to charge subscription fee for an enhanced version, featuring 60,000 titles, which will be released later in the summer.

You can find The British Library 19th Century Books on iTunes here, for free.