The First 500 Books From The Vatican Library's Massive Digitisation Project Are Now Online

Bilingual version of the Iliad, with Greek text and Latin translation. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The Vatican Library was founded in 1451 by Nicholas V. It holds some 180,000 manuscripts, 1.6 million books and 150,000 images and engravings.

Last year, non-profit organisation Digita Vaticana Onlus was founded with the aim of helping fund the digitisation of 80,000 of the manuscripts, or 41 million pages.

In March, Japanese IT firm NTT DATA Corp won a four-year, $23 million contract to digitise the first 3000 manuscripts, totaling 1.5 million pages.

The first 500 manuscripts are now available to view, along with 600 incunabula – books or pamphlets printed before 1500 AD.

Collection of 73 fragments of the Koran Kufic (with a precious fragment ḥiǧāzī). Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Oath, signed by 42 Christians of Kuchinotzu (Japan), to defend their missionaries to death, dated 1613. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

NTT are digitising the manuscripts using FITS, a format developed by NASA to store images and data.

According to DigitaVaticana, a FITS file can “contain metadata, information regarding the manuscript, is free from legal restrictions, updated by the scientific international community, safe from viruses, and can be read by any image processing software”.

If the project is completed – and it’s estimated that will take 15 years – the entire catalogue will weigh in at 45 quadrillion bytes.

After they are digitised, the originals will be kept in temperature and humidity controlled anti-atomic bunkers.

The Vatican Library is one of the world’s oldest and most secret. You could borrow books from the library up until the 1760s, but you could also lose your borrowing rights if you broke the house rules.

And if you were late returning a particularly important, you could be faced with a personal reminder note from the Pope himself.

These days, the library is only open to those who can prove legitimate research needs to visit.

Of those, only 200 at a time are allowed to enter.

The only other way in is by helping DigitaVaticana pay for the digistisation.

Vatican Virgil produced in Rome around 400 AD, one of the few surviving examples of ancient illustration of a classic text. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

It’s offering personal sponsorship packages starting at $4300 per year, and one of the benefits is the odd guided tour and copies of edited publications.

Hebrew manuscript of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, dated between 1451 and 1475. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Pre-Columbian Aztec manuscript. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The fundraising process started back in June with an exclusive guided tour for sponsors of the Vatican Apostolic Library, the laboratories and caveau where the manuscripts are held.

Illustrations of The Divine Comedy by Sandro Botticelli for Lorenzo the Magnificent, in XV century. Picture: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

As of writing, we actually found the website quite difficult to navigate, but it may be experiencing a heavy load.

The easiest way to view anything at the moment is by hitting up the Collection List and browsing – searching for anything is a bit of a headache.

You can also follow the library on Twitter.

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