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The Vatican gets digital

The Vatican Library is thought of by many as a repository of secret documents, but that is changing, in one of the world’s great digital initiatives, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The famed Vatican Apostolic Library has inspired many myths of its own, such as being a repository of documents so secret, no one outside a select circle may know what is in them. The truth is more mundane: many of the documents are so fragile, being handled by humans will destroy them.

Francesco Dazzi /

No more than 20 per cent of the collection can be studied,” said Luciano Ammenti, Director of the Information Technology Centre (CED) at the Vatican Library, speaking at the EMC World 2014 conference in Las Vegas this week. “Many manuscripts are not even studied, and often we do not know what is in our books.

Four years ago the CED created a commission to study the possibility of digitation its collection.

We made a decision to give all the world the opportunity of reading the manuscripts.

But the team immediately ran into a fundamental problem: in a world of fast-changing technology and storage systems, what hardware and software standards could they use for conservation of the documents?

Our infrastructure evolves from day to day, because our project is a work in progress, and we continually update our policy, because we understand that every day something will be better.

The answer was to use an ISO-certifiable digital format, meaning the documents conform to international standards for digitisation, and a flexible storage solution that would meet evolving needs without compromising the survival of the documents. Right now, that is a product called ViPR, a “software-defined storage solution” from global storage leader EMC. It uses an open architecture for seamless integration into data centres, and simplifies storage management, automation, delivery and access.

A year ago, EMC announced it would provide the Vatican with 2.8 petabytes – that’s 2,8-million gigabytes – of storage as part of its Information Heritage Initiative to preserve the world’s information and make it globally accessible in digital form for research and education purposes. To put that in perspective, all the content of US academic research libraries would take up about 2 petabytes. The Vatican collection will eventually be much larger.

The books being digitized include treasures that have only been handled by a select few individuals in living memory, such as the 42 line Latin Bible of Gutenberg, the first book printed with movable type in the 1450s, and the original Sifra, one of the oldest existing Hebrew codes, written in about the 10th century.

According to Art Min, EMC vice president for strategy and operations in EMC’s Advanced Software Division, the company shared the Vatican’s philosophy regarding the open nature of the resource.

At the highest level, we believe customers want choice in how they use storage,” he said. “Vendors that try to maintain tight control of customer models don’t fare well, In the long term, customers don’t want to be embedded with one protocol, as they can’t do refreshes as the technology changes. ViPR doesn’t require the Vatican redoing its business processes.

When the digitisation project began, ViPR did not even exist. By the time the entire Vatican Library is available online, it will probably be running on technologies that are not yet imagined today.

* Images courtesy of Shutterstock

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