We need truth and beauty in the digital age

Taken from a public lecture by Alice Prochaska, the director of special collections at the British Library, in central London

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About 180 years ago, the young but mortally ill John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems, "Ode on a Grecian Urn". He looked at the images of pastoral love painted on the sides of the urn, which had already lasted for more than 2000 years, and envied the simplicity and permanence of the people depicted there.

About 180 years ago, the young but mortally ill John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems, "Ode on a Grecian Urn". He looked at the images of pastoral love painted on the sides of the urn, which had already lasted for more than 2000 years, and envied the simplicity and permanence of the people depicted there.

Both truth and beauty have become, I would submit, even more contingent concepts than before; we live in an age in which we can manipulate appearances almost infinitely on our computer screens. And yet the paradox is that we can also use this same technology to subject evidence that in the original is obscure or unreadable to new and intensive scrutiny, uncovering information that may have defied the curiosity of generations of scholars.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest of the British Library's manuscripts reflecting the major religions of the world, has survived extraordinary vicissitudes. Created by Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne to honour the memory of St Cuthbert, and later transported for safe keeping across the sea from Holy Island to Chester-le-Street, it survived a shipwreck.

It was preserved in the cathedral at Durham from the end of the 10th century until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and then seized by Henry VIII's commissioners and brought to the Tower of London, along with many other treasures of monastic civilisation. From the Tower, it came into the possession of one of the great Elizabethan antiquaries, Sir Robert Cotton, who valued it not primarily for its beautiful illumination, but for the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospels, which was written between the lines of the Latin by the monk Aldred.

A recent extraordinary development has now revealed, using a high magnification binocular microscope, that some 60 drawings in which Eadfrith tried out preliminary versions of his flowers, birds and other images, remain impressed in the vellum.

Until recently, only research scholars could turn the pages of the original manuscript. Now, using a system pioneered in the British Library, we are able to offer scholars and the wider public the chance to turn the illuminated pages electronically. They can inspect - with much greater clarity than by looking at the original manuscript - the detail of the artist's work, with its complex abstract patterns incorporating stylised birds and other creatures, its evidence of cosmopolitan influences from as far afield as Byzantium, and parts of Aldred's translation.

The system brings this world-class treasure to life more vividly and potently - and for far more people - than ever before. The new digital technology has enabled us to do justice to the work of the original artist and scribe, and we can make available for any member of the public, at potentially numerous different sites (and eventually on CD-rom and possibly over the internet), the beautiful illuminations, which are what almost everyone who loves this manuscript wants to see.

Keats knew that he was looking at an original Grecian urn when he wrote his small masterpiece of a poem. We too can gaze on beautiful objects and works of art, and find truth and versions of the truth in the originals of books, manuscripts and images from the past, right up to the present day.

In the nearly two centuries that have elapsed since Keats's lifetime, and the more than two millennia since the work of the unknown artist who produced his Grecian urn, new technologies, from printing onwards, have enabled us to transmit and also to alter evidence.

But now that we derive so much of our information from the computer screen, have we finally lost our innocence? Can we yet recapture the clarity of vision that enables us to look at a work of art and say, as Keats did, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"?

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