Vatican Library is digitizing 1.5 million pages of ancient manuscripts


April 23, 2012

Incunabulum of the Nurenberg Chronicle (1483), edited by Hartmann Schedel (Photo: I. Pilon/Shutterstock)

Incunabulum of the Nurenberg Chronicle (1483), edited by Hartmann Schedel (Photo: I. Pilon/Shutterstock)

Scholars, priests, historians, and followers of the da Vinci Files can now look toward the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (the Vatican library) with anticipation. In a five-year joint project with the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, the Vatican Library will work to digitize and post online some 1.5 million pages from Greek manuscripts, 15th-century printed books (incunabula), Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books.

Many of the manuscripts to be digitized have a striking beauty as well as historic and cultural importance, as in the 1476 Natural History of Venice. Incunabula would include the Gutenberg Bible and the Nuremberg Chronicle, although these may not be among the examples digitized. Greek manuscripts will include works by Homer, Plato, and the early Church Fathers. The Hebrew works include a ninth century copy of the Sifra, the Halakic Midrash to Leviticus (Midrash is a Talmudic teaching tool which leads the student to a deeper understanding of the text of the Torah) as well as a complete Bible from the 12th-century.

The initiative has been made possible by a £2 million (US$3.2 million) award from the Polonsky Foundation, whose founder, Dr. Leonard Polonsky, has a long standing passion and commitment to democratize access to information. Another recent major project made possible by contributions from the Polonsky Foundation is the digitization of the Bodleian’s exceptional collection of over 25,000 Cairo Genizah fragments, which can now be browsed and read online.

Perhaps the most exciting part of this project is that, being online, these remarkable (and physically beautiful) historical and philosophical volumes will be available to everyone with internet access - a far cry from the days of guarding ancient texts against damage even from scholars. "Twenty-first century technology provides the opportunity for collaborations between cultural institutions in the way they manage, disseminate and make available for research the information, knowledge and expertise they hold," said Dr. Polonosky. "I am pleased to support this exciting new project where the Bodleian Libraries and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana will make important collections accessible to scholars and the general public worldwide." The date when materials from this project will first be available has not yet been announced.

Sources: The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

The internet was born out of the brilliant concept that the way to preserve information is to give it to all, increasing chances of survival. These manuscripts have been hidden away from all but a select few for a long time. Dissemination of information leads to preservation - keep the internet wild and free! Support a free for all access for all internet


Oh dear. reCAPTCHAS are gonna get a whole lot harder.


This doesn't make sense, we have had microfiche for decades and nobody ever thought of using that?


Holy cow, this is HUGE! The implications are far-reaching. If this is easy, free access, the ability for researchers, historians and linguists is massive!

Honestly, I'm pretty shocked that they're putting all of this out there for easy access to the public. That kind of changes the Catholic church's whole stance on the availability of these documents. Hopefully it's going to be done on an un-edited, un-restricted, unclassified, "full disclosure" basis.

Dave Andrews

The question is - will they remove the creators name from these early translations as they have in today's versions? It can be found around 8,000 times in the oldest writings.

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