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Light of Technology Shines on Vatican Library

April 28, 1995

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ In the musty, hushed corridors of the Vatican Library, the light of technology is shining on ancient parchment.

The library, founded in 1451, has embarked on a pilot project with IBM to scan some of its priceless manuscripts for storage in a computer database. The ancient pages can be downloaded in seconds to a scholar with a personal computer.

The library’s riches include 4th and 5th century manuscripts of the works of Virgil _ the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Roman poet; the oldest Bible manuscript, written in 350 A.D. in Constantinople; and Ptolemy’s Geography, dating back five centuries.

All told 150,000 manuscripts and 1.5 million books inhabit the shelves of the Biblioteca Apostolica _ visited by barely 2,000 scholars a year.

Digital copying will save scholars the time and expense of travelling to Rome, said library prefect the Rev. Leonard Boyle.

``The Vatican library is a repository of learning, and the more it can be made available to the public, the better,″ said Boyle, a scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University in paleography _ the study of manuscripts.

A few steps from the 6-inch steel door protecting the manuscripts, technicians are scanning pages of medieval printing and vivid illumination. It takes about four minutes to copy a page that a scribe spent most of the day to create.

One of the scholars taking part in the project, Renaissance historian Anthony Grafton of Princeton University, said there aren’t yet enough manuscripts in the system to make it valuable for research.

But he praised the results so far and called it a ``great teaching tool.″

If the Vatican decides to go forward, the next step would be to scan a much larger batch of pages, said Fabio Schiattarella, the IBM expert supervising the project.

Other question marks are how to pay for the service _ by image, by time, by subscription, for example, who would have access and how the images would be made available.

Boyle acknowledges that nothing can replace the feel, the smell, of parchment. Computer images won’t reveal what kind of parchment is used or the ruling on it, important for dating texts.

``A manuscript is unique. It was written by people who breathed on it, who scribbled in the margins, who tested their pen to see if it was sharp,″ Boyle said.

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