Opening up access to early manuscripts

A man photographing a collection item under ultra violet light in the British Library's digitisation studio.

A generous donation from The Goldhammer Foundation has allowed us to make new discoveries into manuscripts severely damaged by fire almost three centuries ago.

The Cotton Collection is one of our founding collections. In 1731, while the collection was housed at Ashburnam House in London, a major fire broke out. Many of the manuscripts were damaged and a handful were completely destroyed.

Restoration had been carried out on many of the manuscripts, but boxes remained containing burned fragments. Due to their extremely fragile nature, these have been inaccessible to Readers and online users.

A new programme has allowed our conservators to explore new techniques to better preserve and open up access to these items for future generations. Multi-spectral imaging has allowed us to read the fragments for the first time and share these findings on our website. Work to catalogue the digitised fragments is ongoing but initial findings include items dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, as well as a collection of Saints’ Lives written in the 1300s.

Researchers, historians and academics can now explore these texts which were previously hidden for hundreds of years. We are very excited to see what further discoveries come from these fragile and unique fragments, and are extremely grateful for the support of The Goldhammer Foundation, which made it possible for us to undertake this work.

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