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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 06:30 GMT 07:30 UK
Vatican Library closure irks scholars
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Pope Benedict XVI visiting Vatican Library
The library's closure is a blow for many researchers
One of the world's oldest public libraries, the Vatican Library, has closed for rebuilding.

It is not expected to reopen before September 2010.

The reading rooms were unusually full last week.

Bespectacled university professors, graduate students from famous universities around the world, monks wearing brown and black habits, and Biblical researchers from more than 50 countries were sitting elbow-to-elbow at desks piled with documents and crowded with laptops and ancient manuscripts.

They were working desperately against time to complete their work before the closing down for the next three years of this powerhouse of academic research.

Hive of activity

You could have heard a pin drop in the library. Everyone talks in whispers. There was an unmistakable sense of controlled hysteria among library staff, scurrying around to retrieve urgently needed books for scholars from the 60km (37 miles) of stacks spread over seven floors, some of them underground.

Many researchers had queued for hours to get a square metre of desk space. Vatican authorities had doubled the number of readers' chairs from 100 to 200 in an attempt to satisfy the sudden spurt in demand since the announcement of the closure of the library for the first time in its 500-year history.

Codex Vaticanus
The Vatican is home to many valuable historic texts
Even during the first and second world wars the library remained open.

One wing of the 16th Century building which houses the library was found to be structurally unsafe earlier this year. The accumulated weight of books was simply too heavy for the foundations of the building.

The Vatican Library was started by Pope Nicholas V in the early 1450s with an initial 350 Latin manuscripts. By the time he died in 1455, the collection comprised some 1,500 documents and was already the largest in Europe.

The collection now contains more than 1.5 million printed books, in addition to 150,000 precious manuscripts, the earliest of which date back to the days of the late Roman Empire.

Scholars under pressure

One of the library's greatest treasures is the Codex Vaticanus, the world's oldest Bible, written by hand in the days of the first Christian Emperor Constantine, early in the 4th Century AD.

Vatican engineers gave the 100-strong library staff only three months to remove 350,000 books from the endangered wing.

Pope Benedict XVI visiting Vatican Library
Pope Benedict visited the library last month
Scholars around the world protested against the lack of warning. The emergency closure interrupted academic research in many countries.

Scott Mandelbrote of Peterhouse college, Cambridge, told me he had to rush out to Rome to finish some library research earlier this summer, disrupting his university classes. "The Vatican Library has resources that you can find nowhere else in the world," he said.

But Ambrogio Piazzoni, deputy head of the Vatican Library, told me: "The library is now closed. There will be no exceptions, although scholars can continue to request photocopies and microfilm until the library reopens in September 2010."

Hi-tech help

In the corridor outside his office hang portraits of the red-hatted cardinals who filled the prestigious post of Papal Librarian in the 16th Century. The present head of the library, Jean Tauran, also holds the rank of cardinal.

Mr Piazzoni, a layman, is proud that the Vatican Library is in the vanguard of digital technology. Microchips have already been installed inside some valuable books, which tell librarians if a book is missing from its regular stack.

In co-operation with a Japanese company, new techniques have also been developed to read palimpsests, or ancient documents that have been written over again in the days when parchment or paper was a valuable commodity.

"Using ultraviolet rays we can now easily scan documents digitally to reveal the writing underneath, which is invisible to the naked eye," Mr Piazzoni said.

I asked him why stacks of old card indexes still fill one of the reading rooms when the library catalogue has been transferred to a digital database.

"We shall never destroy them because scholars often prefer to use the old library cards, and they are a permanent record which we can always use to check possible mistakes in the database," he explained.




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Vatican
18 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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