It’s said that you know you’re a history fan when you still get upset thinking about the destruction of the library of Alexandria. But with luck, the records of the Vatican Library, in Rome, will be preserved electronically for generations to come—eventually.

The Vatican Apostolic Library was founded 600 years ago by Pope Nicholas V and consists of some 82,000 manuscripts, some of which date back to the second century, reports the Wall Street Journal. Those manuscripts are so rare and fragile that scholars can read them only by requesting special access. Scanning these documents will not only protect their contents, but also make them more available to interested people all over the world, for free.

That, however, brings up the challenge at the heart of this digitization project: How do you scan documents that are hundreds of years old without damaging them in the first place? The Vatican has been working on this problem for more than a year, and now believes it has the machines and methodology to solve it.

Specifically, operators are required to wear white gloves and remove all their jewelry and watches to make sure they don’t damage the documents. In addition, to protect the documents from light that could also damage them, the machines have a protective screen, and windows in the scanning room must remain shut and curtains drawn to keep dust and light out of the room, the Journal reported.

But while the Vatican has solved the “how,” don’t expect to be able to hop online next week and see the treasure trove—the “when” is still a work in progress. It’s expected to take four years just to scan the first 3,000 documents, a project that’s expected to cost up to $25 million. And, notes Mashable, if it takes four years to scan 3,000 manuscripts, the entire library may not be online for more than 109 years. However, some documents may be available online by as soon as the second half of this year.

The Vatican Library first started working on the scanning project in 2012 with the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, using a $3.2 million grant from the Polonsky Foundation, which focuses on the democratization of information. The Foundation paid for a similar scanning project at the Bodleian Library consisting of 25,000 fragments from Cairo.

Eventually, up to 40 million pages of documents from the Vatican Library are expected to be online and available, in text form so they’re easier to read, and with metadata included so that they’re easily searchable. While the original documents will also continue to be available to researchers who are less into high tech and more into high touch, to hedge against any library of Alexandria destruction scenarios, the Vatican will also electronically store images of the original documents, complete with archaic scripts and illuminated illustrations.

What isn’t yet clear is exactly how the scanned images are going to be stored in a way that ensures that people of the future will still be able to read them, though reportedly the Vatican plans to use a “highly sustainable”—but unnamed—storage format. As we’ve written about before, preservation of digital data, in a way that can be used for multiple types of computers over a number of years, has been an issue for other libraries. First, the storage media itself can become obsolete, and second, the software used to store and read the information can become obsolete.  How the Vatican intends to deal with this issue could be a lesson for other libraries and information repositories.

No word on what Dan Brown thinks about it all. 


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