Content old and new

This week my day job took me to a conference on social media and the future of communication. There were speakers from Facebook, Twitter and myriad free-thinking marketing wonks illuminating what the future holds. They were dizzy with excitement about what lies around the corner for us in the way we communicate with each other.

The manner in which we record and share information, or ‘content’ as people in these circles love to call it, has changed out of all recognition in recent years. And we’re not done yet it seems. There’s new net-based thrills at every turn. Hold on, it’s going to be quite a ride.

davies-ethel-statue-of-newton-by-eduardo-paolozzi-the-british-library-london-england-united-kingdomIt happened that this gathering was held at the British Library in London, at the conference centre there. So at lunchtime I wandered across the courtyard with it’s imposing, if rather baffling, statue of Newton, and entered a dimly lit room in the main body of the great library.

There, in the gloom, are the collected treasures of the British Library. And I was awed to see communications devices from a different age. Ancient manuscripts and huge hand-written tomes, illuminated scrolls and documents of great age.

Never has the word treasures been more aptly used than for these marvellous books. All that was precious, all that was strange and wonderful, all that was worth writing down in an age when writing things down represented the pinnacle of new technology is here.

There are religious books from many faiths across the world, richly decorated in gold and beautifully crafted. Yet, some of the most fascinating artefacts are among the most humble in appearance – the hand-written early gospels unearthed from ancient desert dust, for example, which provide insight into the beliefs of early Christians.

The forging of political belief is represented here too – the Magna Carta, soiled and burnt and torn, it’s words and ideas still resonating down the centuries.

There’s music as well – a case of original hand-written manuscripts from Mozart through Beethoven to Handel’s Water Music, until finally at the end we find Beatles lyrics, the words to Yesterday scrawled on a page torn from an old notebook – the first draft of Ticket to Ride written on the back of a child’s birthday card.

And then we come to literature. Here’s an early Shakespeare folio, there notes from Milton and Jane Austen, Conrad and Angela Carter.

Beowulf_firstpage_jpegIn one corner of a case against the back wall is a small unassuming looking book. It is tatty and burnt at the edges. Its awkward, runic, Anglo-Saxon script is indecipherable to modern eyes. It is Beowulf, the earliest poem we have, the earliest literature of any kind, written in English. It is where our literature began.

I wonder what the British Library will keep from our brave new age of fast paced social media. What ‘content’ will become the treasures of the future? Will they keep our Facebook status updates? Will they preserve our tweets?

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10 thoughts on “Content old and new

  1. LOVE the BL!! In the 70’s I had a Reading Room ticket to the old building to do a project on ‘Rock and Roll Music of the 60’s’ as it was the only place to store all those mags and books from the era. Recently, I got another Readers’ Ticket as I needed to copy the 1925 Law of Property Act for the Village Green Inquiry.. .and you are right, it is an amazing place just to wonder round and be inspired by. (The cake is quite good too)

  2. I would just love to go there, Chris. It sounds like literary heaven. It is rather odd, when I think back, that I lived in London until I was 14, but my parents never took us there. We ‘did’ all the art galleries, concert halls and museums, but never the BL. I have to suppose that despite being keen readers, they never considered the written word as important as the visual arts. I’ll get there one day!

  3. Most tweets and EMails and Faceboook pages will be relegated to the dustbin of history, primarily because they just don’t say anything. Yours will have a place next to Beowulf.

    • Ha – I think not. Mind you, anything, however ephemeral, takes on historical importance if it’s old enough – witness the shopping lists and similar which are prized from ancient Rome.

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