Theology's Brown Helping To Digitize The
Vatican Library

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The Vatican Library's 150,000 manuscripts - ranging from the Bible to works by Aristotle, Dante, Euclid, Homer, St. Thomas Aquinas and Virgil - are enticing, but out of reach to scholars limited by time and travel constraints. That is about to change, however, thanks to new computer technology being developed with assistance from Prof. Stephen Brown (Theology).

Brown is serving as a consultant on a project involving IBM, the Vatican Library and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro to offer a "digital library" that will allow scholars to call up images of rare manuscripts in the Vatican Library via the Internet. When the project is complete, Brown says, researchers will be able to view centuries-old works over their computers as clearly as if they were holding the parchments in their hands.

"They'll give you a picture of a manuscript that will look just like the original, right on your screen," said Brown.

Using heat-proof digital scanners that do not harm parchment, IBM technicians have captured images of 20,000 manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Brown is aiding the project by offering advice on which manuscripts to post first, to attract the most potential subscribers to the service. He has gathered suggestions from fellow medieval scholars on the documents they would find particularly useful.

If the project's potential benefit to scholars is vast, Brown says, so is the amount of work that will be involved in assembling and cataloguing the thousands of on-line images required. A high-speed scanner can do one page every five seconds, he explained, but before such an immense collection of images can be stockpiled in cyberspace, corresponding catalogues must be assembled that describe the images.

Prof. Stephen Brown (Theology).

"This is going to take many years," said Brown. "All the mechanics are there and the possibilities are enormous. What you're getting is technology with tremendous potential. It might cost a few thousand dollars to buy a license for access to the data - but that's relatively inexpensive compared to the money you'd spend on numerous trips to Rome."

This breakthrough in technology is welcomed by Brown, a specialist in 13th and 14th century philosophy and theology for whom deciphering medieval documents is a passion. "I read Latin manuscripts more than I read English," he said. "I'd do it if I didn't have a job doing it, if I had to pump gas to pay the bills."

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