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Network: Digitised for the nation

The British Library's rare manuscripts can be seen by only a handful of readers. Until, that is, the completion of a project to put them on CD-Rom.
The book is dead - or is it? In new media jargon, it is interactive, portable and user friendly. But faced with games, television and computers, it is up against stiff competition with the rising generation.

At the British Library, much of the work is concerned with providing readers with direct access to books at the new site in Euston. By mid- June, most departments will be fully operational, having relocated to the new building from sites scattered across London. Readers who want to make connections across traditional subject boundaries will benefit - as will staff from the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Within the next few months, further developments in the creation of the "digital library" will allow increased access to the collections to readers who are remote from the site. Currently, the main website has about 1,400 pages and is clocking up approximately one million hits every month. Visitors can pick up general information about the library - including details of past and current exhibitions - and times of openings. Reader can also access the whole of the library's vast, incomparable catalogue.

This month, the British Library's education department is adding a specialist website targeted at students, schools and parents to its arsenal. It will build on the success of previous CD-Roms, including Medieval Realms and The Making of the United Kingdom. The disks feature original historical manuscripts, music and readings from library archives covering the period from 1066 to 1750.

"With the second disk, feedback from teachers and pupils led us to provide a more structured environment of guided investigations into key areas of religious and political change," says Karen Brookfield, head of the library's education department. A third CD-Rom will be launched in December, taking the series up to 1900.

Like the CD-Roms, the new educational website will be focused on the national curriculum and will include activity sheets for use by teachers in the classroom.

Within the next month, two more of the library's treasures will be added to the "Turning the Pages" project. Some of the most valuable of the library's manuscripts have been digitised and animated so that members of the public can use touch screens to thumb through books which would normally have been kept in temperature-controlled glass cases. They can also zoom in to pick up finer detail and listen to a narration. To digital versions of such unique masterpieces such as the Leonardo Notebooks; the Diamond Sutra; the Lindisfarne Gospels; and the Sforza Hours will be added the Golden Haggedah, a Spanish/Jewish manuscript, and the Luttrell Psalter, a document which depicts everyday life in 14th-century England with a series of gorgeous illustrations.

By midsummer, a project that has been in preparation since 1992 will come to fruition. The library has the earliest surviving manuscript of the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which is arguably the most important work of Old English literature. The 11th-century manuscript had been badly damaged by fire in the early 18th century. Copies were later made which reveal that words and letters then visible along the charred edges subsequently crumbled away.

To halt this process, each leaf was mounted in a paper frame in 1845. The manuscript, together with a range of other related documents, has been filmed with a digital camera and transferred on to CD-Rom. Ultraviolet and fibre-optic light sources have revealed a large number of alterations to the text and words which were previously obscured by the retaining paper frame. The project has been mounted as a combined effort between the library and two leading American Anglo-Saxon experts, Kevin Kiernan and Paul Szarmach. Images have been transferred by broadband network from London to Kentucky.

Andrew Prescott, of the British Library's Manuscript Collections, explains the advantages of the project: "The electronic Beowulf does not simply present us with colour images of the manuscript, but reveals features which cannot be recorded in any other way and draws together widely dispersed information about the history of the manuscript. In short, it contains information of solid research value which could only have been assembled by the use of digital technology."

Karen Brookfield says that in planning for the future, the British Library had to think in terms of hundreds of years. In fact, the architect designed the new building to last at least 250 years and voids in the ceiling and floors will allow the continual updating of cabling throughout that period. There has also been sufficient visionary thinking at the library to allow for readers to access books in the traditional way while at the same time presenting the collections in new forms and at locations far removed from the Euston base.