Vatican library shortens distance between works and scholars


ROME – On April 13, 1923, a French prelate named Eugenio Tisserant and his assistant left the Italian port city of Trieste to buy books.

The following year, after browsing bookstores and private collections scattered across the Middle East and Europe, they returned with 2,700 volumes – and the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, a higher school dedicated to the study of the eastern branch of Christianity, was born.

“I was perched on a ladder, surrounded by dust and heat,” Tisserant recalls years later of his stay in Constantinople, where he examined the volumes “one by one, for days on end.”

Church scholars today may find it much easier. Some of the Rome Institute’s texts, which over the years have reached some 200,000 works, have just been digitized and will soon be available to a global audience – no travel or scale required.

The first digitized versions will be available to the public in mid-2022, the product of a charity initiative that has connected the institute with tech companies in the United States and Germany.

“You know, like in a Mickey Rooney movie: I have the costumes, I know a guy who has a barn, and we can put the play on there,” said Rev. David Nazar, rector of the institute. .

The companies, he said, immediately understood the value of the project. Many of the books come from countries like Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, where war or other disturbances endanger entire collections. Others come from countries where authoritarian censorship was equally threatening.

“We are not a hospital, we are not in the fields of Syria,” said Father Nazar, “but we have students who come from there, who study here because our resources were not available. destroyed by war. “

Although most of the institute’s titles are unrecognizable by the general public – the 19th century six-volume Oriental Orthodox canons collection “Syntagma tôn theiôn kai hierôn kanonôn” has never made a bestseller list. – they are valuable to scholars. They include volumes such as a first Greek edition of the Liturgies of John Chrysostom, an early church father, printed in Rome in 1526.

“The library is unique in the world,” said Gabriel Radle, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who studied at the institute ten years ago.

Its volumes cover the wide range that is Eastern Christianity, a catch-all term for traditions and denominations that developed in the early centuries of the church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, spreading across Greece. , Turkey and Eastern Europe, north to Russia, south to Egypt and Ethiopia, and as far east as India.

The first set of books to be digitized was digitized by a team of eight members of a Long Island company, Seery Systems Group, using scanning technology from SMA in Germany. The project was somewhat unusual for Richard Seery, whose clients for the company are typically state and local governments.

“I’ve told people that I don’t usually travel on the New Jersey Bridge on business, and now I’m going to Rome,” Seery said in a telephone interview. The equipment was a first for him too.

“One page can be in German, the next page in Sanskrit or some other language,” Mr. Seery said of his experience scanning texts. “And the funny thing was, after going through page after page, book after book, all of a sudden I was able to read something – in English, something in English.”

The digitized books will be managed through ShelterZoom, a New York-based company whose blockchain technology will ensure that the institute retains ownership of the volumes and control of their consumption.

Chao Cheng-Shorland, Managing Director of ShelterZoom, said she visited the library last year and was very excited about the project.

“It’s unique, not only in a technological sense, but also in the sense of contributing to such a wonderful piece of history,” she said in a telephone interview. ShelterZoom subscribes to the first phase of the project.

Fabio Tassone, the director of the library, said digitization priority has been given to the most requested books, those dealing with the Eastern liturgy and the study of the early Christian writers of the Eastern churches.

Journals published by the institute itself, especially issues that included unpublished manuscripts, their translation and scientific analysis, were also among the first to be digitized. In total, around 500 volumes have been digitized so far, he said, with plans to continue the process in the future.

The material reflects the uniqueness of the institute, where “you can study all the Eastern churches, not just one,” said Father Nazar. “We are preserving the resources of so many of these Eastern cultures and churches so people will come back and look at their roots, especially when things are a mess. “

Tisserant’s own book-buying efforts reflected the breadth of the institute’s mission and the depth of its commitment.

In 1923, his assistant, the Eastern Catholic priest Cyril Korolevskij, left for Romania, Transylvania, Hungary and Poland, before finally arriving in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

“He hoped to reach Bosnia, but was forced to give up,” Tisserant recalls in a letter written in 1955, when his own star had risen. Tisserant then headed the Vatican Library and, as dean of the College of Cardinals, then presided over the funeral masses of Pope Pius XII in 1958 and of Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Most of the books the institute subsequently collected came from countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

The library thus possesses unexpected gems, such as a complete collection of the Izvestia and Pravda newspapers from the Soviet period, including issues that cannot be found in Russia, Mr. Tassone said, “because they were made to disappear.”

The institute, which is developing a price list for access to digitized volumes, will continue to digitize the collection even after the departure of its charitable partners. He ended up buying the scanner with that in mind.

The pandemic has made people understand the value of the project, said another former student.

Former student Lejla Demiri, now president of Islamic doctrine at the University of Tübingen, Germany, wrote in an email that two years of closures and blockages have proven “just how crucial it is to have digital access to academic sources “. No ladder required.


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