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VATICAN LETTER Jul-18-2008 (870 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Vatican Library: Sounds of rustling pages turn to clanging scaffolds

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Emergency reconstruction on the Vatican Library has meant the hushed tones of rustling book leaves and scholars scribbling notes have been replaced with clanging scaffolding, pounding workmen, and the now-permitted banter and laughter of library staff.

The sounds of silence will continue to be drowned out by the buzz of busy workers until massive renovation on one wing of the 16th-century building is completed in 2010.

The library's dedicated staffers said they "feel strange and out of place" without the 20,000-25,000 researchers and scholars who normally visit every year, said Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the library.

"Books are living things and if no one is here to read them, well, the library becomes a cemetery, a morgue; it's no longer a library," he told Catholic News Service July 14.

The research world was up in arms last year when the library gave notice that severe structural weaknesses would force the more than 500-year-old institution to close its building to public access from July 2007 to September 2010.

But the library has since kick-started a number of initiatives with the aim of continuing to serve and keep in touch with scholars worldwide.

Staff have completely revamped the library's Web site, for example, improving the format and organization of the online catalogue of the library's immense collections.

Interested readers can also sign up for a free online newsletter that gives updates and pictures of the renovation and alerts readers to the library's latest initiatives, Piazzoni said.

The new site at www.vaticanlibrary.va is still a work in progress, he warned, which means many features are still not up and running.

The new Web site and newsletter are important ways the library is trying to "be seen, talked to, and have contact with the scholars" who have been shut out of the stacks, he said.

Scholars can still request photographic and microfilm reproductions of the library's collection of precious manuscripts and ancient and modern volumes.

Soon researchers will be able to fill out their request forms directly online which, the vice prefect said, should save scholars time and prevent any errors or delays since the library staff will no longer have to decipher and rewrite shipping addresses.

Every year, the library receives requests to provide between 300,000 and 400,000 photographic or microfilm reproductions, and that number has increased since the library's closure last year, Piazzoni said.

Renovations have forced staff in charge of reproductions and restoration out of their usual workspaces and laboratory. Now their large high-tech equipment is crammed into the library's public reading and consultation rooms.

Different eras are starkly juxtaposed as staff peer onto 21st-century plasma computer screens in Renaissance rooms lined with frescoes and aged tomes.

Piazzoni said new technology and the digitalization of ancient texts have helped make precious materials available and consultable to more people around the world. They also help the library continue to preserve these often-fragile treasures.

"The real problem is finding a just balance between use or consumption and preservation," he said.

The 75,000 priceless manuscripts in the Vatican's collections are best protected when they are kept in a cool, dark, somewhat dry environment. But, Piazzoni said, every time a parchment has to be consulted it is exposed to the light and "the hot humid oven" of the reader's body.

"Even if I'm very careful, I am still adding a bit of wear and tear just by opening up the manuscript," he said.

Permanently vaulting the ancient texts would impede scholarly research since studying a photograph or digital copy provides only half the story. Many things can be discovered and learned by carefully touching and even smelling the original parchments, he said.

A balance has been found, he said, by letting a scholar work off high-quality reproductions for the majority of his or her studies, thereby cutting down time handling the originals.

Created by Pope Nicholas V in the 15th century, the Vatican Library belongs to the pope. Books can only leave the premises with explicit papal permission through the Vatican's Secretary of State.

Though Pope Benedict XVI visited the library last June during a special audience with staff members, he has not made any requests to take out any of its books, Piazzoni said.

"Pope Benedict has such a large personal library of his own -- he was a professor for so many years -- so I think a great part of what he is interested in is already in his own library," he said.

The Vatican Library plans to celebrate the 2010 reopening of its restored and remodeled facilities with an international congress and the release of the first volume in a book series on the history of the Vatican Library.

Piazzoni said the congress would feature professors and researchers from various fields to discuss whether this centuries-old papal institution can help advance people's research and studies.

"We aren't inviting people to tell us how great we are and to pat ourselves on the back," he said. Instead, he said, he hopes the congress will reveal how the library has helped research and where there is room for improvement.


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