The plan marks a revolution for an institution known as the Popes' Library, which houses more than 82,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the second century. Scholars must now submit a detailed request to gain access to the library, which sits within the Vatican walls. The most precious works of art, such as a 1,600-year old manuscript displaying Virgil's poems once studied by Raphael, have been mostly off-limits. "This restriction was wise to protect such valuable manuscripts from hordes of visitors," said Alberto Melloni, a church historian who has used the Vatican library several times. "If anybody could visit, it would be like putting a child with a paintbrush in front of the Mona Lisa."
By digitizing its archives, the Vatican library, established in 1451, joins the ranks of illustrious institutions such as the British Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Cambridge University Library. The Vatican is offering "a service that we provide all mankind," said Msgr. Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library, at a recent presentation of the project.
For the past year, Vatican officials have worked closely with experts at Japanese IT firm NTT DATA Corp. 9613.TO -2.39% to test special scanners designed to handle particularly delicate documents. With the test phase finished, about 50 Italian and Japanese operators will soon begin the process of digitizing the first batch of 3,000 manuscripts under the watchful eye of Vatican librarians. That process, which will take place entirely inside the library, is expected to take four years.
After each document is scanned, it will be formatted for long-term storage and then released onto the library's website. The first digital images are expected to be put online in the second half of this year. All of the manuscripts, including the most delicate ones, will eventually be scanned, and viewers will be able to examine them from a variety of angles.
Digitalizing the library will be a mammoth task, involving 43 quadrillion bytes. (A byte is a unit that is used to represent an alphanumeric character.) In the end, about 40 million pages will be available for all to see. The Vatican won't say how long the whole project will take.
Disaster recovery mechanisms will be put in place so that images of the manuscripts will be conserved should anything happen to the originals."If something horrible happens - and I pray to God it doesn't - at least all this won't be lost," said James R. Ginther, professor of medieval theology and director of the Center of Digital Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri.
The opening of the library might be a letdown for Vatican conspiracy theorists. The alleged secrets housed in the Vatican's archives have sometimes featured in mystery novels, such as those penned by Dan Brown.
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