Digitizing the Vatican Library

June 1, 2018
by Mark Ollig

Pope Sixtus IV, whose papacy lasted from 1471 to 1484, is credited with opening the resources and transcripts of the Vatican Library to scholars in 1475.

By the early 1950s, many Vatican transcripts and letters had been electronically processed onto microfilm and microfiche, including 37,000 pieces from the Vatican Library.

One used an electronic reading device with a magnifier to view the Vatican information contained on the reel of microfilm or flat sheets of microfiche – you might remember using such a device at your school’s library, back in the day.

In 1995, the Vatican began planning the digitizing of its massive archive library of manuscripts, printed books, drawings, paintings, photos, coins, medals, and other materials, so they could be seen, studied, and researched by the public, online, via the internet.

“Bringing the computer to the Middle Ages and the Vatican Library to the world,” said the late Father Leonard Boyle in 1995.

Father Boyle, a specialist in medieval manuscripts, led the effort of bringing online the many thousands of Vatican Library manuscripts – some dating back hundreds of years B.C.

“A library like this one will last forever. I say it bluntly and unequivocally. It’ll last as long as it lasts,” Father Boyle added.

A new Vatican project called DigiVatLib (Digital Vatican Library) began in 2010.

DigiVatLib provides free internet access to the Vatican Library’s ever-growing digitized collections.

The Vatican Library has more than 80,000 printed books and hand-written manuscripts currently being digitized.

In total, there are approximately 40 million images being digitized.

With such a massive project, the Vatican Library needed to prioritize which materials would be digitized first, so they came up with the following precedence:

Physical manuscript delicacy, fragility, and loss of data vulnerability;

Importance and preciousness;

Selections granted for cooperative projects;

Scholar’s’ requests.

Many of the parchments and manuscripts are fragile and thus, extra time and care are needed to preserve their physical stability while being digitally scanned.

Professional scanning equipment was brought in to avoid any damage to the parchment materials during the digital scanning process.

“Even in a best-case scenario, we will need a couple of decades to fulfill our ambitious goal,” the DigiVatLib website disclosed May 17, 2016.

DigiVatLib established the following goals for making the newly-digitized Vatican Library materials easily accessible for scholars and others:

Give an unprecedented level of uniform and productive access to image-based resources hosted around the world;

Define a set of standard application programming interfaces that support interoperability between image repositories; and

Develop, cultivate, and document shared technologies, such as image servers and web clients, which will provide a world-class user experience in viewing, comparing, manipulating, and interpreting images.

The online user experience provides display functions, including the ability to zoom, browse, and “turn pages” of many of the digitized manuscripts and books.

I noted enhanced search boxes with various word filters to assist in finding particular material.

Individual digital galleries include Selected Manuscripts; containing digitized manuscripts of most significance, and, Latest Digitized Manuscripts; featuring a gallery of newly-digitized, handwritten codices or manuscripts from hundreds, and more than 1,000 years ago.

If you’re ever in Vatican City, stop by the Vatican Library’s Periodicals reading room; it’s open to the public. There, you can see more than 180,000 manuscripts; 1,600,000 printed books; 8,600 incunabulum books and pamphlets (published before 1501); 300,000 coins and medals; 150,000 prints, drawings and engravings; and more than 150,000 photographs.

Many of the above items mentioned are also viewable online at the Vatican Library website.

Although the complete digitizing of all the Vatican archived collections won’t be completed until around 2036, many thousands of historical documents and items are viewable online right now.

The Vatican Library internet website can be reached at https://www.vaticanlibrary.va (“.va” is the Vatican’s internet country-code). The site is in Italian, but it allows you to choose the English language from the homepage.

The DigiVatLib website is located at https://digi.vatlib.it (“.it” is the internet country-code for Italy).

Father Leonard Boyle was born Nov. 13, 1923, and passed away Oct. 25, 1999.

I posted images from DigiVatLib and the Vatican Library on my weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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