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Rome Notes: Vatican Library Going High-Tech; Lady Carey's Journey

4/2/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Turning to Computer Chips to Track 1.6 Million Volumes

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, APRIL 1, 2004 (Zenit) - The Vatican is not normally associated with high technology. But buried deep in the frescoed rooms of the Vatican Library, employees are working to install the first electronic cataloguing system of the West's most precious books and documents.

The technology consists of placing a computer chip, called a radio frequency identification tag, inside the cover of every book so that its movement can be traced anywhere in the library.

"If a book is re-shelved incorrectly here," said the library's vice prefect, Ambrogio Piazzoni, "it is lost forever, unless you happen on it by chance."

The new system enables librarians to know exactly where a book is at any given time and by placing a computer wand in front of a stack, to know exactly which books are missing.

The Vatican Library is the first in the world to attempt this system, every aspect of which had to be carefully considered, including the type of glue to be used to adhere the chip to the books.

"The biggest problem here is space," said the prefect, Salesian Father Raffaele Farina, as he led a group of journalists down a series of narrow hallways to the heat-controlled stacks below the library. The stacks run some 30 miles long and contain 1.6 million printed volumes, ancient and modern.

"The new system will enable us to know which books are most used and should be kept upstairs, while less-consulted books can remain in the back," said vice prefect Piazzoni.

So far, chips have been placed in 50,000 books and periodicals.

The more than 150,000 ancient manuscripts are the library's most precious holdings, but rarely are they brought out, even for academics.

"There are maybe four or five academics in the world who would need to see an original manuscript," said Piazzoni. "Others can make do with very good copies."

The parchments of original manuscripts are easily damaged, pages curling from the humidity of even two or three people near them.

"The Codex B is the oldest complete Bible we have," explained Father Farina. "It contains the canon of the Council of Nicaea, from 325, the time of Constantine, when he had 50 copies reproduced to place in the basilicas of the empire."

The oldest document is a copy of two letters of St. Peter dating from A.D. 206.

John Paul II presented each of his cardinals a copy of the letters as a gift on the 25th anniversary of his pontificate last October.

The Vatican Library is not a lending library. Only the Pope can request books or documents, says Father Farina, "since much of the collection originally came from his private apartment."

Others who wish to consult manuscripts will find entry into the library not so simple. Students are not accepted and academics must have several letters of recommendation.

Those who do manage to get in -- around 150 researchers use the library each day -- had better know what they're looking for.

"The catalogues here are incomplete," says the prefect. "You've got to ask for what you want and if you don't know, you're better off at home."

* * *

The Vicar's Wife

I once read an argument, written by an Englishwoman, in favor of celibacy for Catholic priests. The argument placed great stock in the fact that if priests were allowed to marry, Catholics would become like Anglicans and "we would have all these vicar's wives everywhere." Vicar's wives, it seems, are not so popular.

Last Tuesday, I met a vicar's wife, Lady Eileen Carey, wife of the former Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, at a gathering at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita in Rome. Her intelligence and sense of humor put paid to the unfair reputation of vicar's wives.

For one used to Catholic clergy, the introduction of the "Archbishop and his wife," was a novelty in itself, and though the talk was about milestones in Lord Carey's ecumenical journey, it was clear that this was a journey shared and encouraged by his wife.

Lady Carey spoke of her and her husband's "narrow evangelical background."

"The word Roman Catholic was never mentioned in church or in my home," she said. "I was brought up thinking that Roman Catholics were not part of the church and we Anglicans had all the answers."

That thinking changed in the late 1970s when she began to accompany her husband on trips to Rome.

Welcomed by the Catholic community here, Lady Carey "began to think ecumenically," and now, she says, she has a deep love for the Catholic Church.

It is a love which grew in her husband at the same time as the Careys found themselves leaving ...

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