Thousands of rare books and manuscripts at Camrbidge University Library including handwritten notes by Sir Isaac Newton are to be made available on line thanks to a £1.5m donation.
The gift from the former businessman Dr Leonard Polonsky will be used to start the Digital Library for the 21st Century create an infrastructure capable of digitising the vast collection housed at the 600-year-old institution. Digitisation will be completed in stages, with the first collections to be called "The Foundations of Faith" and "The Foundations of Science".
Among the Library's religious collections are some of the world's most ancient Qur'ans and an eighth century copy of the Surat al-Anfal, the Qur'an's eighth chapter. Judaism is represented by the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection containing 193,000 fragments of manuscripts as significant as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Christian documents include a Greek New Testament manuscript, the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, and a 1455 copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest European book produced using movable type. There will also be the Anglo-Saxon texts the Book of Cerne and the Book of Deer.
The development of modern science is captured in Newton's annotated Principia Mathematica, copies of his lectures as Lucasian Professor and proofs of Opticks. It is hope that further funding could lead to the digitisation of manuscripts from Darwin and Stephen Hawking, continuing the story of science into the modern age.
Anne Jarvis, the university Librarian, said that the exciting new plans would open up priceless collections to students worldwide. She said: "Our library contains evidence of some of the greatest ideas and discoveries over two millennia. "We want to make it accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with an internet connection and a thirst for knowledge. "This will not only make our collections available to the world; it will also initiate a global conversation about them.
"At the click of a mouse, students or scholars of divinity or politics, history, physics, medieval languages or the history of medicine, will be able to plunge into the worlds of Mediterranean Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities of the 11th Century, or into the minds of Isaac Newton and his contemporaries. "Faith and science will be the two cornerstones of the project, both of fundamental importance in our quest to understand the world and our place in it.
"Thanks to Dr. Polonsky, we are at the start of what we believe will be an incredible journey into the digital future. "Hopefully his generosity will encourage others to follow his lead so we can make one of the world's great libraries available, literally, to anyone around the world."
Dr. Polonsky, founder of the Polonsky-Coexist Lectureship in Jewish Studies at the University, hoped the project would open a dialogue between libraries worldwide. He said: "As reading and research become increasingly electronic, my hope is that this grant will serve as a catalyst for the digitisation and linking of the great libraries of the world so that their riches can be enjoyed by a global public."
Cambridge University Library has been a legal deposit library since 1710 and is entitled to acquire a copy of each book and journal published in the UK and Ireland. The library currently houses eight million books and periodicals, one million maps and thousands of manuscripts over 100 miles of shelving, expanding at the rate of two miles per year.