Digitization project to ‘unlock’ Vatican, Oxford libraries

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Oxford's Bodleian Library. Credit: Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0)

A new collaboration between the Vatican Library and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library will digitize 500,000 pages of historic texts, including the Gutenberg Bible, and publish them online for researchers and the general public.

Cardinal Raffaele Farina, Librarian of the Holy See, praised the project.

“The service to humanity which the Vatican Library has accomplished over almost six centuries, by preserving its cultural treasures and making them available to readers, finds here a new avenue which confirms and amplifies its universal vocation through the use of new tools,” he said in an April 12 statement from the Bodleian Library.

The endeavor is funded by a $3.2 million grant from the London-based Polonsky Foundation. The project will help digitize some of the Vatican’s 1.6 million books, 75,000 manuscripts and 8,300 early printed books known as incunabula.

The five-year project will scan half a million pages of manuscripts and incunabula from both institutions.

More than 800 full pieces will be made public, including the Latin-language Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed from 1451 to 1455.

The project will also digitize Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.

Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian Library’s deputy librarian, was enthusiastic about the project.

“(T)he thought of unlocking and opening up the doors of the Vatican library through the power of the internet to make its riches accessible to scholars is one of the most exciting things about this project.”

He told Vatican Radio that the effort is “very significant” and will have “a huge impact on the scholarly world.”

Vatican Library prefect Msgr. Cesare Pasini welcomed the grant. Because of the Polonsky Foundation’s support, he said, “two of the oldest libraries in Europe will join forces in an innovative approach to digitization driven by the actual needs of scholars and scholarship.”

He said the effort represents “a great step forward in the Vatican Library’s entry into the digital age.”

About two-thirds of the digitized material will come from the Vatican Library while the rest will come from the Bodleian Library.

Dr. Leonard Polonsky said that 21st century technology provides the opportunity for collaborations between cultural institutions.

“I am pleased to support this exciting new project,” he said.

Sarah Thomas, Librarian of the Bodleian Library, said the project “helps transcend the limitations of time and space” and will help scholars investigate the documents in “fresh approaches.”

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