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Discovering gems at the Cambridge Digital Library

On mile after mile of shelves in cool, dark stacks at the back of Cambridge University Library sit some of the world’s greatest treasures. From 3,000 year old Chinese oracle bones through to the handwritten notes of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin – from the earliest known copy of the Ten Commandments to the wartime diaries of Siegfried Sassoon, these collections span the ages and the globe. Some of the items are world famous, but large parts of our collections are undiscovered or little known – a recent project to catalogue our Sanskrit manuscripts found 600 more manuscripts than expected, with unique texts among those brought to light. And in our work on the Board of Longitude archive we discovered an astonishing letter from William Bligh apologising somewhat passive-aggressively for the loss of the ship’s timekeeper in the mutiny on the Bounty. One thing all of the collections have in common is that until recently they were only accessible to a small number of academics. This began to change in 2011 with the launch of Cambridge Digital Library, and just over three years later we are turning the old, restricted access model on its head with nearly 25,000 unique or rare items available online, to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.

Our basic model is to take massive, superb quality pictures of the material, wrap them up in expert description, and try to put the whole package a maximum of 2 clicks from a Google search. The result being that a school child who has been learning about Isaac Newton can search for “Isaac Newton Notebook” and in seconds be reading Newton’s handwritten notes from his own time as a student. This democratisation of information is a very powerful model – we don’t just want to extend the audience for our collections, we want to open them up to whole new audiences, with completely different opinions and insights. Which is not to underplay the Digital Library’s significance to research – we have seen that around 18 months after we put a collection online there is a significant spike in academic publication on that topic. The pattern we see is that when we make a collection public it receives a lot of attention, then people start talking/writing/tweeting about it, which draws more attention, more conversation and the whole thing goes on in a kind of virtuous circle. The transition from hidden treasure to public resource is immediate and extreme – and it’s very exciting to ‘press the button’ and see the results!

The Digital Library is very much a collaborative endeavour, and we work closely with academics, subject experts and institutions on a national and international scale. Our current Darwin Manuscripts project is a case in point, with the images being produced here in Cambridge, and the descriptions and transcriptions of the material by a team at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Unfortunately, Skype limits the opportunities for transatlantic trips, but it’s still pretty amazing to see material produced so far apart come together so seamlessly on the site. We are always eager to work with anyone who has an interest in our collections, and it’s this blend of expertise, enthusiasm and technical know-how which makes the Digital Library such a rich and useful resource.

We put more material up every month, and the best way to keep in touch with what we’re doing is to follow us on Twitter. It’s difficult to give a sense of the range and the scale of the material already on the Digital Library – you can explore at your leisure – but here are four items which caught our imagination and hopefully will catch yours too:

newton_bodkinThis gruesome page from Newton’s Laboratory Notebook contains his own excruciating description of the famous “Bodkin in the Eye” experiment: “I tooke a bodkin & put it betwixt my eye & ye bone as neare to ye backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye with ye end of it … there appeared several white & darke coloured circles”. We have thousands of Newton’s handwritten pages online, from his student notebooks through to his groundbreaking Waste Book, to his own annotated copy of the first edition of the Principia. Here we see him forming his ideas, arguing with contemporaries and filling whole pages with minute calculations – an incredibly revealing portrait emerges of the man behind some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history.

The last thing you expect to come across when leafing through darwin_drawingDarwin’s manuscripts is a brightly coloured picture of a soldier sitting on a carrot. Flip the page, and the reverse is covered in Darwin’s rather awful handwriting. This piece survives only because it was picked out of the waste paper basket and reused as drawing paper by one of Darwin’s children. After years stuck on the Darwinian fridge or equivalent, it made its way into our archives where it was recognised as one of the few surviving leaves of a lost draft of On the Origin of Species. Darwin is rightly known as one of the world’s most important scientists – but this shows another side to life in the Darwin household, which was by all accounts (wooden slide on the stairs, rope swing on the landing) quite a fun place to live!

Our items are not only important for their content – they are objects in themselves which have often lead vivid lives – travelling widely and sometimes going through extreme situations. None more so than this leather-bound pocket sized journal. If you closely examine the grooves around the inside cover you can see traces of mud and damp, as if it had been dropped in a puddle then quickly retrieved. The item is Siegfried Sassoon’s journal for June-August 1916, and the mud is from the battlefield of the Somme. Along with drafts of poems and surreal sketches, Sassoon’s journals contain eyewitness accounts of life in the trenches and vivid descriptions of major battles as they unfolded. During the first day of the Somme, “a sunlit picture of hell”, Sassoon somehow found time to make entries throughout the day, giving a real-time account of one of the most tragic days in British history.

This rather gory scene also features a bodkin – in this case used to open up a 3D anatomical model or manikin from Vesalius’ Epitome, which was published in 1543 as a companion piece to the Seven books on the fabric of the human body. We can see in this image that the manikin has been reinforced with a manuscript – a fourteenth century legal text, possibly in French. This might make us shudder nowadays, but such recycling of manuscripts was common in the period and many have been found in the bindings of early printed books. Indeed, such fragments have sometimes been recovered and found to be important in their own right – such as this 16th century lute manuscript, recovered from the bindings of books in the Library and reunited in 1972.

Images reproduced:
Sassoon image: Image copyright the Trustees of G. T. Sassoon Deceased
All other images: Cambridge University Library

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