Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Going to the library

The BBC has a story on the upcoming closure of the Vatican Library until 2010. Scholars complain about their disrupted schedules, etc. etc.

There is a lot of good information on the library itself.

The Vatican Library was started by Pope Nicholas V in the early 1450s with an initial 350 Latin manuscripts. By the time he died in 1455, the collection comprised some 1,500 documents and was already the largest in Europe.

The collection now contains more than 1.5 million printed books, in addition to 150,000 precious manuscripts, the earliest of which date back to the days of the late Roman Empire.

One of the library's greatest treasures is the Codex Vaticanus, the world's oldest Bible, written by hand in the days of the first Christian Emperor Constantine, early in the 4th Century AD.

Mr Piazzoni, a layman, is proud that the Vatican Library is in the vanguard of digital technology. Microchips have already been installed inside some valuable books, which tell librarians if a book is missing from its regular stack.

In co-operation with a Japanese company, new techniques have also been developed to read palimpsests, or ancient documents that have been written over again in the days when parchment or paper was a valuable commodity.

"Using ultraviolet rays we can now easily scan documents digitally to reveal the writing underneath, which is invisible to the naked eye," Mr Piazzoni said.

I asked him why stacks of old card indexes still fill one of the reading rooms when the library catalogue has been transferred to a digital database.

"We shall never destroy them because scholars often prefer to use the old library cards, and they are a permanent record which we can always use to check possible mistakes in the database," he explained.

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