British Library Pulls Beowulf into Hi-Tech Era

By Moran, Nuala | The Independent (London, England), February 27, 1994 | Go to article overview
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British Library Pulls Beowulf into Hi-Tech Era


Moran, Nuala, The Independent (London, England)


ONE OF the great treasures of the British Library in central London, a thousand-year-old manuscript of Beowulf, can now be studied anywhere, via computer. Researchers all over the world can access digital images of the Old English poem through such networks as Internet - and they will see more detail in the manuscript images than if they were to come to London and study the original.

The first test images became available earlier this month. Eventually each page of the manuscript will be photographed with a high-resolution digital camera, making it possible to see such microscopic details as the hair follicle patterns of the animal skin, or vellum, on which it is written.

The manuscript is also being photographed under ultraviolet light, which shows up writing that is too faded to be readable on the original, and indicates where scribes made mistakes or revisions and had to rub things out. (In another manuscript, The Life of Saint Sebastian, parts of the text that are invisible under ordinary light were recently identified with the help of ultraviolet light.) The most exciting development is that the pages are being photographed when illuminated from behind by high- intensity fibre-optic light, allowing researchers to see letters formerly obscured by fire damage in 1731, and the subsequent restoration of the manuscript in 1845. Fibre-optic light is cool, so there is no risk of heat damage to the manuscript.

The test images were made available as the first fruit of the British Library's Initiatives for Access programme. As part of its strategic objectives for the year 2000, the library aims to increase access to its collections by the use of imaging and network technology.

The chief constraint to making all of Beowulf and other manuscripts widely available on networks is that each digital image consists of 21 to 25 megabytes of data. This means the hard disk of the average personal computer, which typically stores between 150 and 250Mb, would soon fill up. It also takes a long time and is therefore expensive to transmit this amount of data down ordinary phone lines. This capacity problem is holding back multimedia applications in most areas of business.

The images of the unique Beowulf manuscript will form the centrepiece of a complete electronic archive of Beowulf material edited by the world's leading expert on the poem, Kevin Kiernan, of the University of Kentucky. The archive will, for example, include images of the late 18th-century Thorkelin transcript of Beowulf, held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Andrew Prescott, curator of Western manuscripts at the British Library, says the aim is to create a retrieval system that will allow researchers to highlight a word or sentence on the computer image of the original and then pull up a list of all references in the electronic archive that relate to that element.

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British Library Pulls Beowulf into Hi-Tech Era
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