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Vatican and Oxford Launch Ambitious Digital Archive of Ancient Texts

by Allison Meier on December 5, 2013

Page from the Stamp.Ross.283 (1478), held by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (via digi.vatlib.it)

Page from the Stamp.Ross.283 (1478), held by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (via digi.vatlib.it)

The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford and the Vatican Library have some of the richest collections of ancient biblical texts, but most of them are inaccessible to the general public. Now, through a collaborative project, 1.5 million manuscript pages are being digitized for public access online.

The Polonsy Foundation Digitization Project, made possible by a grant from the Polonsky Foundation, launched this Tuesday with the first phase of digitization put online; the rest will continue over the next four years.

As the site for the project states:

The initiative has been made possible by a £2 million award from the Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky, who is committed to democratizing access to information, sees the increase of digital access to these two library collections — among the greatest in the world — as a significant step in sharing intellectual resources on a global scale.

Since the texts are quite old and valuable, some aged over a thousand years, the process is painstaking. As described in a post on the imaging techniques on the site, the handlers couldn’t use the same “mass-digitization” scanners that Google does for their books, but instead had to use a “Grazer Conservation Cradle” to gently hold the books while taking large enough images to allow each detail of the beautiful woodcuts or illuminated pages to be sharply visible. The process has also involved a heavy amount of conservation, as many of the books require repairs before the digitizing process. For example, here’s the rare Laudian Acts of the Apostles at Oxford both before and after its pre-digitizing repairs.

The first texts from the University of Oxford and the Vatician Library that you can peruse online in high resolution include a 10th-century Greek Bible, the oldest known Hebrew codex, and the 1455 Gutenberg Bible — the first European printed book. Don’t worry, though, it’s not all spiritual: the Greek, Hebrew, Roman, and other texts also touch on science, medicine, astronomy, and the myriad other interests of ancient bookmakers.

Click here to access the Bodleian Library and Vatican Library ancient text digitization project.

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