Pier Paolo Cito / AP

A Vatican Library for all

The Vatican's digital initiatives may seem idiosyncratic, but preservation and access have long been priorities

May 25, 2014 1:15AM ET

I spoke recently with Monsignor Cesare Pasini, the prefect of the Vatican Library, who said that its digital initiatives will eventually “provide access to its rich collections to anyone with an Internet connection, even as they will ensure that the library’s resources are preserved.”

Preservation and access. Despite the popular image of an institution steeped in secrecy, these have been the watchwords and the highest aspiration of the Vatican Library since its founding in the 15th century. Its digitization initiatives — the most recent one a collaboration announced in March with the Japanese data firm NTT, which will digitize 3,000 manuscripts over four years — mark one more step in a storied history and signal the library’s participation in the digital revolution.

It was in 1451, in fact, that Pope Nicholas V wrote a letter to a humanist educator, the little-known Enoch of Ascoli, charging him with an important mission: to scour European libraries, “so that, for the common convenience of all learned men, we might have a library of all books, both Latin and Greek, a library appropriate to the worth of the Pope and the Apostolic See.” Enoch participated with enthusiasm, traveling far and wide to purchase or copy manuscripts — handwritten books — of texts thought to have been lost during the Middle Ages. Some 25 years later Pope Sixtus IV authored a bull (perhaps best thought of as a charter) that officially founded the Vatican Library.

The library continued to grow into a “library of libraries,” as discrete collections of books came to the Vatican. During the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48, for example, many books from the library of the German Palatinate came to the Vatican as a gift of its new ruler, the Catholic Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. The same century saw the Vatican acquire the manuscripts of the Dukes of Urbino and of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Over the centuries, the Vatican amassed one of the most formidable collections of rare books in the world, rivaled only by the British Library and the French National Library. Thanks in part to the worldwide Jesuit presence, its collections have exceeded Nicholas V’s mandate to collect Latin and Greek books: One can find pre-Columbian Aztec, Arabic, Hebrew and many other languages represented. The Vatican’s digitization efforts seek to preserve these diverse manifestations of language and literature, philosophy and art.

Since antiquity, libraries have wrestled with preservation and access: Important, rare books need to be protected, but they also need to be shared. Yet a third element has always been present: technology. Until recently, the main technological question had to do with book production.

In the famed ancient library of Alexandria, books were written on scrolls made from papyrus. In the early years of the Christian era a new form of book arose: the codex — more or less the standard book we know today. Instead of unrolling a scroll to find a passage, a reader could find it more quickly by turning the pages, which were made by then of parchment: treated animal skins, usually sheep or goat. The next great technological innovation was the arrival in the West of paper, costing one-sixth the price of parchment. An invention of the Chinese from the first century A.D., it made its way to then-Islamic Spain in the 11th century and appeared in Italy by the 13th. Finally, printing with movable type was perfected in the 1450s, with the 1455 Gutenberg Bible its earliest triumph.

Technology can allow a scholar to decipher more than the physical book alone permits. You can magnify letters, highlight and decipher abraded passages and look 'underneath' palimpsests.

Then what? Not much. The 15th-century printing press did increase the sheer number of available books. The Protestant Reformation could never have spread as fast as it did without printed pamphlets propelling its message.

But the overall pace of change was slow, by our present-day lights. Printed books for the first 100 years after Gutenberg looked deliberately like manuscripts, and human hands still powered printing presses. The early-19th-century invention of the steam-powered printing press sped up book production and allowed more uniformity over large print runs, but the basic physical artifacts remained more or less the same.

Until recently. The Internet has transformed the way we read — on tablets and telephones — with unprecedented speed. We are living though a technological revolution that is faster, wider-ranging and broader than any that preceded it. One intriguing result: Technology, once used to make and produce books, is now helping to preserve and proliferate their contents.

It is this fact that makes the Vatican Library’s ongoing commitment to digitization so exciting. Digitized books represent an interesting hybrid: They are representations of physical books, and as such not the “real thing.” Yet technology, especially in the case of old handwritten books, can allow a scholar to decipher more than the physical book alone permits. You can magnify letters, highlight and thus decipher abraded passages that have been worn down over time and with Photoshop-like tools look “underneath” palimpsests (where one text is written over another that was scratched out). The possibilities are endless. In the long run, too, it is easier for libraries to preserve rare books if scholars are not handling them excessively.

The Vatican Library possesses approximately 80,000 manuscripts, as well as a host of rare early printed books. There are digitizing collaborations already underway with the Universities of Heidelberg and Oxford. The newest effort with the Japanese firm, which is donating equipment and labor, is potentially the most far-reaching. The manuscripts have been selected for variety; there are texts in a number of different languages. Some also include images — not least, to give one tantalizing example, a manuscript containing Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” illustrated by none other than Botticelli.

As a whole, it is an awe-inspiring project that compels one to think twice about what libraries are (and could be) and the way information circulates and is preserved. It is only in rare cases that scholars will need to consult the original artifact once digitized. One will occasionally need to see how a work was bound together with other works. Sometimes a reproduction of an image, no matter how well done, cannot substitute for the original. But in most cases, the digital version will do. Professional librarianship has changed radically already to reflect this shift, with library science programs routinely including digital skills in their curricula.

Libraries, even a “library of libraries” like the Vatican, will be less frequented by people in the flesh (a natural if sometimes disquieting evolution), even as their burgeoning electronic wings will encourage consultation the likes of which the world has never before seen.

Christopher S. Celenza is the director of the American Academy in Rome and a professor of literature and classics at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “Machiavelli: A Portrait,” forthcoming in spring 2015 from Harvard University Press. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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