Innovation: British Library pulls Beowulf into hi-tech era

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The Independent Online
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. This index will be compiled by Professor Kiernan in collaboration with Paul Szarmach of the State University of New York, Binghampton. The archive will also be published on compact disc.

'It may seem that we are photographing the manuscript to within an inch of its life, but we hope that by making the images available electronically we can preserve the life of the original,' Dr Prescott says. The original is normally on exhibition in the British Library, but such is the demand from scholars that it has to be withdrawn about 30 times a year.

In fact, the manuscript is standing up well to this amount of handling, mainly because of the skill with which it was restored in 1845. The unique copy of Beowulf was part of the Cottonian collection of manuscripts that suffered fire damage in 1731. It remained in its burnt binding until 1845, when it was restored by pasting each vellum leaf to a paper frame, like mounting a photograph. The framed leaves were then rebound in a new cover.

This treatment has preserved the fragile bits of text along the burnt edges, but has hidden many hundreds of letters and bits of letters from view.

'The digital camera at last provides us with a practical means of both revealing and recording these covered letters,' Professor Kiernan says. 'The camera easily captures many other features too, which are difficult or impossible to record in conventional facsimiles.

'An electronic Beowulf will provide better access to parts of the manuscript than studying the manuscript itself.'

For example, researchers interested in the accuracy of the scribes will be able to investigate their erasures, image-processing techniques will make faded passages legible, and it will be possible to examine the colour and texture of the vellum in great detail. 'Readers of the electronic facsimile will acquire a reproduction of the manuscript that reveals more than the manuscript itself does under ordinary circumstances,' Professor Kiernan says.

Researchers in the United Kingdom, United States and Europe have had access to these images for two to three weeks, and Dr Prescott says they are already reporting that the new material is affecting their views on the text.

There are more than 100 fire-damaged manuscripts in the Cottonian collection restored in the same fashion as Beowulf, so the techniques promise to reveal great treasures to Anglo-Saxon scholars.

It is planned to begin making images of the first of these manuscripts this year. Dr Prescott thinks it will be four to five years before the problems associated with transmitting vast amounts of data are overcome, and it becomes possible to send high-resolution manuscript images over networks in a routine way.

(Photograph omitted)