The 10th century is meeting the 21st with the University of Exeter announcing the development of an app that will make medieval manuscripts available to the public. The app, which is being developed in collaboration with interactive museum technology company Antenna International, will allow students and the general public to study manuscripts that until now have been too fragile to be even exhibited.

As any historian can tell you, the most formidable person on campus is the rare books librarian. No dragon with a hoard of gold is as daunting as this gimlet-eyed custodian of documents dating back over a thousand years. In many libraries, you can’t get past them without references and a letter granting permission and if you somehow manage to smuggle a ballpoint pen into the reading room, they’ll make you rue the day you were born.

There’s a reason for this frightening demeanor. Ancient manuscripts are extremely fragile and if they aren't literally handled with white gloves they can easily be damaged beyond recovery. Heat, humidity, fungus and insects are all enemies of aging paper and parchment. Even light can fade ink and damage pages, so most items aren't even exhibited except on very rare and brief occasions. This means that most medieval works aren't seen by anyone except archivists and scholars while the general public encounters them as glimpses in images.

This caution may preserve valuable bits of history, but it also makes if very difficult to get the public to appreciate the value of such manuscripts and equally difficult to teach students about them. The University of Exeter hopes to address this by providing students with an interactive digital version of medieval works for tablets and other devices beginning with the Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis. This 10th century illuminated book of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the largest known book of Old English literature in the world. Written by Benedictine monks, it contains not only poetry, but also 96 riddles. Despite it’s historical value, it is rarely seen.

The app will allow students to read the Exeter Book in its original form. It will also allow them to interact with it using such functions as the ability to explode illustrations into their components, create their own medieval writing and play educational games.

Currently the app is still at the prototype stage and developers are incorporating ideas gleaned from three workshops conducted at local schools in Devonshire, U.K. The release date is yet to be announced.

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