April 11, 2011
Fr. Robert Taft holds a rare book in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.


Fr. Robert Taft holds a rare book in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.


VATICAN CITY — 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 Jesuit Father Robert Taft, former prefect of the library.

Rome's temperatures swing wildly from bone-chilling cold in the winter to hot, high humidity in the summer. 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, moulding, water-damaged or riddled with the holes of bookworms.

"Everybody knows 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 grey 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 by the Vatican. However, the portion they receive is only enough to increase their holdings and keep the place running.

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

Having digital copies would mean works would be "preserved permanently in case of stealing or loss or destruction."


While digitizing the collections will save further wear and tear, funding must still be found for repairing the degraded volumes, which Taft said "costs a fortune."

"You just don't send it out to your corner bindery; these have to be handled by experts who work in a lab."

The institute's rector, Jesuit Father James McCann, said a climate-controlled system for the library and its collections could cost a quarter of a million dollars.

More than 9,000 scholars a year peruse the metal stacks.

Unfortunately for scholars, some precious collections are increasingly being put under lock and key or plates of museum glass for reasons of preservation.

The oriental institute, however, "is not an archival library or a museum library. Our things aren't here to be oohed and aahed over; they're here to be put into somebody's hands and used," said Taft.