eBooks: 1998 – The Electronic Beowulf Project

The British Library began offering digitized versions of its treasures, for example Beowulf, the earliest known narrative poem in English and one of the most famous works of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The British Library holds the only known manuscript of Beowulf, dated circa 1000. The poem itself is much older than the manuscript  — some historians believe it might have been written circa 750. The manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731. 18th-century transcripts mentioned hundreds of words and characters which were then visible along the charred edges, and subsequently crumbled away over the years. To halt this process, each leaf was mounted on a paper frame in 1845.

As explained on the website of the British Library, scholarly discussions on the date of creation and provenance of the poem continued around the world, and researchers regularly required access to the manuscript. Taking Beowulf out of its display case for study not only raised conservation issues, it also made it unavailable for the many visitors who were coming to the British Library expecting to see this literary treasure on display. Digitization of the manuscript offered a solution to these problems, as well as providing new opportunities for researchers and readers worldwide.

The Electronic Beowulf Project was launched as a database of digital images of the Beowulf manuscript, as well as related manuscripts and printed texts. In 1998, the database included the fiber-optic readings of hidden characters and ultra-violet readings of erased text in the manuscript; the full electronic facsimiles of the 18th-century transcripts of the manuscript; and selections from the main 19th-century collations, editions and translations.

Major additions to the database were planned for the following years, such as images of contemporary manuscripts, links to the Toronto Dictionary of Old English Project, and links to the comprehensive Anglo-Saxon bibliographies of the Old English Newsletter.

The database project was developed in partnership with two leading experts in the United States, Kevin Kiernan, from the University of Kentucky, and Paul Szarmach, from the Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University. Kevin Kiernan edited the electronic archive and supervised the making of a CD-ROM with the main electronic images.

Brian Lang, chief executive of the British Library, explained on its website: “The Beowulf manuscript is a unique treasure and imposes on the Library a responsibility to scholars throughout the world. Digital photography offered for the first time the possibility of recording text concealed by early repairs, and a less expensive and safer way of recording readings under special light conditions. It also offers the prospect of using image enhancement technology to settle doubtful readings in the text. Network technology has facilitated direct collaboration with American scholars and makes it possible for scholars around the world to share in these discoveries. Curatorial and computing staff learned a great deal which will inform any future programmes of digitization and network service provision the Library may undertake, and our publishing department is considering the publication of an electronic scholarly edition of Beowulf. This work has not only advanced scholarship; it has also captured the imagination of a wider public, engaging people (through press reports and the availability over computer networks of selected images and text) in the appreciation of one of the primary artefacts of our shared cultural heritage.”

Other treasures of the British Library

Other digitized treasures of the British Library were available online as well, for example Magna Carta, the first English constitutional text, signed in 1215, with the Great Seal of King John; the Lindisfarne Gospels, dated 698; the Diamond Sutra, dated 868, sometimes referred to as the world’s earliest print book; the Sforza Hours, a Renaissance treasure dated 1490-1520; the Codex Arundel, with notes by Leonardo Da Vinci from 1478 to 1518; and the Tyndale New Testament, as the first English translation of the New Testament, printed in 1526 by Peter Schoeffer in Worms, Germany.

In November 2000, the British Library released a digitized version of the original Gutenberg Bible on its website. Gutenberg printed its Bible in 1454 in Mainz, Germany, perhaps printing 180 copies, with 48 copies still available in 2000, and two full copies at the British Library. A little different from each other, both were digitized in March 2000 by Japanese experts from Keio University of Tokyo and NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Communications). The images were then processed to offer a digitized version available online a few months later, for the world to enjoy.

German rare prints

The Bielefeld University Library (Bibliothek der Universität Bielefeld) in Germany offered online versions of German rare prints. Michael Behrens, in charge of the digital library project, wrote in September 1998: ” We started digitizing rare prints from our own library, and some rare prints which were sent in via library loan, in November 1996. (…) In that first phase of our attempts at digitization, starting November 1996 and ending June 1997, 38 rare prints were scanned as image files and made available via the web. (…) The next step, which is just being completed, is the digitization of the Berlinische Monatsschrift, a German periodical from the Enlightenment, comprising 58 volumes, and 2,574 articles on 30,626 pages. A somewhat bigger digitization project of German periodicals from the 18th and early 19th century is planned. The size will be about 1,000,000 pages. These periodicals will be not just from the holdings of this library, but the project would be coordinated here, and some of the technical would be done here, also.” (NEF Interview)

The ARTFL Encyclopédie

The same year, the database of the first volume (1751) of the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert was available online as an experiment from ARTFL (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language), a common project from the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique  — National Scientific Research Center) in France and the University of Chicago in Illinois. This online experiment was a first step towards a full online version of the first edition (1751-1772) of the Encyclopédie, with 72,000 articles written by 140 contributors (Voltaire, Rousseau, Marmontel, d’Holbach, Turgot, and others), 17 volumes of text (with 18,000 pages and  21,7 million words) and 11 volumes of plates. Designed to collect and disseminate the entire knowledge of the time, the Encyclopédie was a reflection of the intellectual and social currents of the Enlightenment, and contributed to disseminate novel ideas that would inspire the French Revolution in 1789.

Copyright © 2011 Marie Lebert

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