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SCRIPTURE-LIBRARY Aug-22-2008 (1,030 words) With logo posted Aug. 21 and photos. xxxn

Library of Congress offers access to 800 years of biblical evolution

A Bible in Italian and one in the extinct language from the Isle of Man sit next to each other in the stacks at the Library of Congress. The library's Rare Books and Special Collections Division includes thousands of Bibles in more than 150 languages. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As 11-year-old Phoenix resident Savannah Wix entered the Great Hall of the Library of Congress during an early August trip to Washington, her attention was immediately drawn to a featured interactive contraption that allows patrons to closely examine the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible.

In her first trip to the U.S. capital, the golden-haired Methodist said she wouldn't normally have made a beeline for the famous Bible exhibit, but the computerized display intrigued her and once at the site she wanted to know more about these giant books filled with Scriptures.

"You can read it and you can flip through the pages just by touching the screen," the sprightly youngster squealed, as she demonstrated how to use the interactive exhibit. "Look, this one was handwritten by monks. It's so cool."

This is the kind of excitement library officials were hoping to generate in the spring of 2008 when they set up the hi-tech apparatus next to the two famous centuries-old bibles, which are glass-encased and out of the reach of human touch, said Erin Allen, a staff member in the Public Affairs Office of the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world.

"Are these the only two Bibles in the library, or are there more?" the curious Savannah asked her mother, who shrugged her shoulders indicating she didn't know the answer.

The Library of Congress actually has thousands of Bibles in more than 150 languages, about 1,500 of which are considered significant editions for their rare or historic value, said Mark Dimunation, chief of the library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Some of the oldest Bibles in the collection date back to the 13th century and were handwritten by scribes, Dimunation said.

In the Lessing & J. Rosenwald Room -- a space separated from the Great Hall in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building by a maze of hallways, an elevator shaft and a locked golden-caged door -- the rare books chief showed a reporter and photographer from Catholic News Service some of the most significant Bible editions in the Library of Congress collection.

Though most of the Bibles are more than 100 years old, the library official was generous with the accessibility of the books, some with worn leather, pigskin, embroidered or velvet bindings, often complete with gold-leafed pages of yellowing paper.

"They are all accessible to the public," Dimunation said. "As long as you are over the age of 18 and registered (with the library) to be a reader, you can come in and look at them."

And those who have valid research agendas are permitted to page through the rare books, under proper supervision, Allen said.

"The library gets about one research request a week to pour over the rare Bibles," Dimunation said.

The most celebrated Bibles in the collection are the Gutenberg and the Giant Bible of Mainz, which are proudly featured in the Great Hall, but some of the rarest Bibles, written in languages ranging from Hawaiian to Mongolian, are housed on shelves far removed from the main exhibits.

The Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles of Europe and it represents hundreds of years of work disseminating the word of God, according to the library's Web site.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first great book printed in Western Europe from movable metal type and it marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, the Web site reads.

The rest of the collection -- which Dimunation said is ongoing with new acquisitions, and will never be complete -- provides readers with an opportunity to witness 800 years of biblical evolution.

Some of the Bibles are considered significant because of the number of copies printed, the volumes that survive or the massive undertaking that was involved in the distribution, such as the Indian Bible, printed in 1663 in Cambridge, Mass., in the Algonquin language, which was used to evangelize Native Americans, Dimunation said.

"This Bible is also significant because it was the first Bible printed in America," he said.

"There are 16 languages alone in the Bibles from the Thomas Jefferson collection," Dimunation said. "The older Bibles are in Latin. However, we start to see different languages as the years go on, from Hungarian to Arabic. We can reflect on the history of the Bible when we examine these rare and wonderful books."

Though the featured Bibles in the glass-encased exhibits in the library's main hall are as wide as a door frame, some of the Bibles are small enough to fit in an adult hand.

A copy of the Confederate Soldier's Bible printed in 1862 in Augusta, Ga., is small enough to fit in the pocket of a uniform worn by the men who fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War.

The Bible used during the 1861 inauguration of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln isn't necessarily considered a significant book, except for the fact that it was used to swear in the man who is credited with preserving the nation during one of its bleakest periods in history, Dimunation said.

An interesting detail about that Bible is that Roger B. Taney -- the first Catholic appointed chief justice of the U.S., the author of the Dred Scott decision that would indirectly lead to the Civil War and a bitter political rival of Lincoln's -- was required to administer the oath of office to a man he would continue to cross swords with for the next three years.

Most of the rare Bibles were gifts to the library, but others have been purchased, and vary in price depending on their significance, Dimunation said.

"You can't really put a price tag on these books, from a curator's point of view," he said. "We are a major resource for the study of the Bible. We never talk about the money. It gives people the wrong sense of these books, with text that remain a valid expression for all sorts of interests."


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