University of Oxford and Vatican to digitize 1.5 million pages of historical texts

A collaboration between the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana at the Vatican will bring historical texts dating back to the Middle Ages into the digital era. 1.5 million pages from both collections will be digitised and made publicly available.

The Bodleian Libraries and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana will embark on a new collaborative digitisation project with the aim of opening up repositories of medieval and early modern texts and making a selection of their remarkable treasures freely available online to researchers and the general public worldwide.


The digitised collections will be in three subject areas: Greek manuscripts, 15th-century printed books (incunabula) and Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books. These areas have been chosen for the strength of the collections in both libraries and their importance for scholarship in their respective fields. The project will span four years and will result in approximately 1.5 million pages being made available in digital format.

The Vatican is home to about 5000 Greek manuscripts, which include works by Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Hippocrates, manuscripts of the New Testament and of the Church Fathers, many of them richly decorated with Byzantine miniatures. Meanwhile, the majority of the Bodleian’s manuscripts of Greek classical authors date from the 15th and 16th centuries, some of them written in Italy by immigrant Greek scribes.


The collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library is one of the most important in existence, even though it is not one of the largest. Except for a few dozen items, all the manuscripts were written in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from the 9th to the 16th centuries. Among the collection is probably the earliest Hebrew codex in existence, a copy of the Sifra written towards the end of the 9th century or in the first half of the 10th century. The Vatican also has a copy of the entire Bible written around 1100 in Italy, and other medieval Halakhah, Kabbalah, Talmudic commentaries, liturgy and liturgical commentaries, and texts related to philosophy, medicine, astronomy and other sciences.

The Vatican and the Bodleian libraries are home to the fourth and fifth largest collections of early printed books in the world. Many of the first books printed in Rome between 1467 and 1473 are still preserved in the Vatican Library, while 45% of the Bodleian’s fifteenth-century printed books come from Italy.

The initiative has been made possible by a £2 million award from the Polonsky Foundation, whose founder, Dr Leonard Polonksy, has previously supported the Bodleian’s library digitisation initiatives previously.

Dr Polonsky said: ’21st-century technology provides the opportunity for collaborations between cultural institutions in the way they manage, disseminate and make available for research the information, knowledge and expertise they hold. I am pleased to support this exciting new project where the Bodleian Libraries and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana will make important collections accessible to scholars and the general public worldwide.’


The partnership between the two institutions was recently established with help from the Bodleian’s Centre for the Study of the Book. The digitisation project builds on the existing relationship between the two institutions.

Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, said: ‘Transforming these ancient texts and images into digital form helps transcend the limitations of time and space which have in the past restricted access to knowledge. Scholars will be able to interrogate these documents in fresh approaches as a result of their online availability. Today’s world (and tomorrow’s) is one of global connectedness. The Bodleian Libraries are pleased to have the opportunity to work closely with Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in this cross-cultural collaboration.’

With approximately two-thirds of the material coming from the BAV and the remainder from the Bodleian, the libraries hope the digitised collections will also benefit scholars by uniting virtually materials that have been dispersed between the two collections over the centuries.


The Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten of Barnes, said: ‘We are very grateful to Dr Polonsky for his insight into the importance of widening access to the fundamental texts which have had a major impact on the development of civilisation. By making these collections available online we give the wider public access to a small but significant part of the world’s heritage.’

Monsignor Cesare Pasini, the Prefect of the Vatican Library, said: ‘Thanks to the far-sighted and generous support of the Polonsky Foundation, two of the oldest libraries in Europe will join forces in an innovative approach to digitisation driven by the actual needs of scholars and scholarship.

‘With this joint initiative, the two Libraries continue to accomplish their mission for the benefit of science and culture; it represents a great step forward in the Vatican Library’s entry into the digital age, and the Library is particularly grateful to Dr Leonard Polonsky for giving us this extraordinary impetus.’

The Vatican Library was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V ‘for the common convenience of the learned’. The humanistic spirit has remained unchanged in theLibrary of the Holy Father, which today is still a private institution and one of the most important research libraries in the world, without, however, being attached to a university or other academic institution. At present the Vatican Library preserves over 180,000 manuscripts (including 80,000 archival units), 1,600,000 printed books, over 300,000 coins and medals, and 150,000 prints, drawings and engravings.


The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford form the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. They include the principal University library—the Bodleian Library—which has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years; major research libraries; and libraries attached to faculties, departments and other institutions of the University. The combined library collections number more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 45,000 e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats.

Source: Vatican