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Vatican’s Collection of Rare Books on Christian East at Risk

Books are seen in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome on 16 March. The library houses a priceless collection of books on Eastern Christianity. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring) 

28 Mar 2011 – by Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Pontifical Oriental Institute has the best general collection in the world on Eastern Christianity.

It boasts some 184,000 volumes, including rare and precious imprints and manuscripts, documenting centuries of Eastern Christian culture in a multitude of languages.

But the library’s oldest and most valuable collections are in a serious state of degradation, including an extremely rare 1581 edition of the Ostrog Bible — the first complete Bible printed in Slavic.

“For the Slavic churches, this is the Gutenberg” Bible, said U.S. Jesuit Father Robert Taft, former prefect of the library and former vice rector of the institute.

Rome’s temperatures swing wildly from bone-chilling cold in the winter to hot, high humidity in the summer. Then add that to the ordinary wear and tear on volumes that are hundreds of years old.

What’s left are works whose covers and bindings are disintegrating, metal clasps that are broken, and pages that are fragile, molding, water-damaged or riddled with the boreholes of bookworms.

“Everybody knows that that the only way to preserve material like this is to have a standard uniform temperature with humidity control and climate control throughout the entire year,” he said.

“Thank God for Scotch tape,” he said sarcastically as he pulled a manuscript of Byzantine liturgical music from a steel gray fireproof case. Brittle bits of yellowed adhesive tape flaked off the worn binding and large green rubber bands held together other volumes that were completely lacking spines.

“This is a sin against the patrimony of the human race,” said the priest.

The institute and library are funded, like all pontifical institutes, by the Vatican. However, the portion they receive is only enough to increase their holdings and keep the place running. Major expenses for modern equipment, renovation, and preservation are just not in the books, he said.

The institute’s rector, U.S. Jesuit Father James McCann, said he is looking for outside funding for its preservation efforts.

Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., hopes to provide a grant to the library that would pay for a high-tech digitizing machine plus a year’s stipend for one person to do the scanning, he said.

Digitizing the collections would help preserve many of the works, especially the most fragile, since scholars could work off the scanned pages, Father Taft said.

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