Disruption from the Medieval to the Digital World

vatican-libraryOne of the most exciting and interesting projects I came across during my time working with IBM was the digitisation of the Vatican Library. A great humanist project, the Vatican Library was created during the Renaissance when books were literally hand crafted. Scribes, illuminators, binders and printers would work together to create objects that were as beautiful as the content.

It was Nicholas V (1447-1455) who decided that the Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, which had grown from 350 to around 1,200 from his accession to the time of his death (March 24 1455), should be made available for scholars to read and study.

On his death, Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) gifted his extensive personal library to the Vatican. Containing Latin and Greek codices as well as secret archives of the Popes, these three collections formed the basis of what would become the Palatine Library under Nicholas’ successor, Sixtus IV. A dark and damp space accommodating shelves, desks, benches and a growing collection, the knowledge contained in these spaces soon burst forth.

VaticanLibrary Under successive popes, the collection grew. Sixtus V rebuilt the library, adding frescos, large bright windows and benches. Of course, as was the custom of the time, each volume was held fast by a solid chain. There were strict rules about reading and copying but books were also loaned. The records of these loans are still in existence. They’d make fascinating reading in their own right.

But the flow and accumulation of knowledge could not be stemmed. This new, beautiful library was soon flooded, with books washing out of the main rooms and into hallways and adjoining rooms. The torrent could not be stopped. In fact, it was bolstered by the Pope himself. Pope Clement XI (1700-21), for example, actively acquired manuscripts and volumes from all parts of Asia, effectively establishing the Oriental Collection.

But not all these acquisitions were completely free of drama or controversy. One of Nicholas V’s first contributions to the library was the secret archives of the Vatican. Now covering over 1000 years of history, the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum separately houses  a treasure trove of precious documents on 85km of shelving. Furthermore, some of the acquisitions have raised eyebrows over the centuries:

For example, the first 6 books of the ‘Annals of Tacitus’ were known to have been stolen from the Monastery of Corvey. In the early 16th century Pope Leo was able to acquire them, and fully knew the circumstances. In 1515 he made printed copies of the manuscript, and ‘graciously’ sent a set of the ‘printed’ books, specially bound, to the Abbot of Corvey. [You can now see translations of these on Wikipedia.]

This, of course, raises questions around ownership, copyright and ethics. But it goes deeper – to the root of power, knowledge and human experience. It impacts identity and community and touches our foundational institutions no matter whether they are educational, political or cultural in nature. Understanding the flow of this far reaching impact is how we identify the fact that we are living in a state of disruption. Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her discussion of the impact of the invention of the printing press outlined five impacts of this “new media”:

  1. Experts coming under pressure from new voices who are early adopters of new technology
  2. New organisations emerge to deal with the social, cultural and political changes
  3. There is a struggle to revise the social and legal norms — especially in relation to intellectual property
  4. The concepts of identity and community are transformed and new forms of language come into being
  5. Educators are pressured to prepare their students for the newly emerging world

Today, we face this same torrent of disruption. This time, instead of hard, physical and space-consuming books, the disruption is driven by the accumulation of data. But we don’t have the hand-picked curatorial power of the Vatican Librarians. We don’t have a carefully crafted, focused collection. We have a vast sea of bits and bytes loosely connected by strings of relevance, some social cohesion and meaning and an electricity and data grid that spans the planet.

Eric Schmidt from Google famously stated that we now create as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003. A princely figure worthy of any Pope. The Vatican Library pales by comparison:

In September 2002 the new Periodicals Reading Room, where the most important material is available to readers on open shelves, was opened to the public. At present the Vatican Library preserves over 180,000 manuscripts (including 80,000 archival units), 1,600,000 printed books, over 8,600 incunabula, over 300,000 coins and medals, 150,000 prints, drawings and engravings and over 150,000 photographs.

The Vatican Library was conceived as a vast humanist initiative. And it is one that has stood the test of time. But in this push to digitise every aspect of our lives, I wonder whether we are missing something important. As Ben Kunz suggested, there is somethind deeply personal and decidely human about our relationship to books and knowledge.

After all, our memories are deeply tied up with these dusty old objects that haunt our lives. And no matter how many blog posts or videos we produce, they never have as much impact as a table thumping tome. Just think, for example, how many businesses have disappeared or merged over the last 20 years. How many of them will still be here in 1000? Amazon may rise and fall, but I’d lay money on the fact that the Vatican Library will still be there in 3014.

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