Until the arrival of social media, being a curator at the British Library remained a solitary, out of the way job. In many ways it still is for Julian Harrison, curator of pre-1600 historical manuscripts. Behind the scenes he cares for the priceless collections that include copies of Beowulf, some of the world’s oldest Bibles, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the state papers of Henry VIII. He curates exhibitions such as the current Magna Carta: law, liberty, legacy. The difference for Harrison these days is that he does all this with a virtual audience of thousands.
Harrison has been working at the British Library since 2006. "I can’t think of how we could have communicated what we do back then apart from an occasional story in the media,” he says. The shift began in 2010 when the library started an experimental blog to chart the digitisation of the Greek manuscripts. "It was a niche thing for a niche audience,” he adds.
This experimental project evolved into the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog, a lively and enlightening account of the curator’s life. "We use it to promote what we do,” Harrison says. "One popular post explains why we don’t wear white gloves to handle manuscripts, but we also try to cater for a non-academic readership. Our most popular post is Knight v Snail that looks at why images of armed knights fighting snails are common in illuminated manuscripts.”
These pictures have proved very popular online. "People are often unaware of how beautiful the illuminated manuscripts are and how technically skilled they were in the medieval age,” he says. Then there’s images with a comic twist. Harrison’s posts include one entitled Lolcats of the Middle Ages. Another features a doodled figure, which looks curiously like Yoda from Star Wars.