Law Librarians Tour Vatican Library
by Fred Barnhart, Loyola University School of Law Library and
Julienne Grant, Loyola University School of Law Library
Associate Director of the Loyola Law Library, Fred Barnhart, and Reference Librarian Julienne Grant, each had a rare opportunity to tour the Vatican Library during recent individual trips to Rome. Thanks to a Loyola professor's connection to Vatican Reference Librarian Massimo Ceresa, Fred and Julienne got a peek at this spectacular Library. Fred's visit was in November 2005, and Julienne toured the Library this past November.
Although the Library's top floor (the Sistine Hall) is open to the public as part of the Vatican Museums, access to the "working" areas is highly restricted. For security reasons, and also to ensure the continued preservation of materials, only individuals with specific academic qualifications and research interests are admitted. Massimo, however, kindly arranged for Fred and Julienne to enter the Library after its official closing time for their own private tours.
Fred and Julienne began their tours at St. Ann's Gate (Porta Sant' Anna), where they were cleared by the Vatican Police (an experience in itself). Massimo then met each of them at the Library's entrance off the Belvedere Courtyard (Cortile del Belvedere). From there, Massimo led the Loyola librarians through the magnificent rooms that house the Library's priceless collection.
The Library's collection, which Pope Nicholas V officially established in the mid-15th century, now numbers over two million items requiring some 45 kilometers of shelving. The items include printed books, manuscripts, serials, cartographic materials, prints, coins, and medallions. Three beautiful Reading Rooms are available for consultation, depending on the type of material required. In the Printed Books and Periodicals Reading Rooms, patrons may remove a limited number of items from open shelves, or request materials from the closed stacks. In the Manuscripts Reading Room, patrons must request manuscripts and archival items from closed shelves, place the materials on lecterns, and hold the pages open with special wooden rods.
The Vatican Library's manuscripts and archives collection is indeed one of the most spectacular in the world. Numbering some 150,000 items, this part of the Library's collection includes magnificent illuminated works, with some materials dating back to the 2nd century. Although most of these items are written in Latin and Greek, the Library also owns manuscripts in Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, and assorted modern languages. The manuscripts are written on a variety of media, including parchment, paper, papyrus, camel skin, silk, palm leaves, and wax tablets.
To address the age and variety of materials in its collection, the Vatican Library has taken extraordinary restoration and preservation measures. A restoration laboratory, for example, was established in the Library in 1890, and was quite possibly the first of its kind. The Library has also begun to digitally copy some of the collection's manuscripts, and the copies are so realistic that they capture even minute imperfections in the originals. The reproductions themselves are somewhat rare and are prized by libraries and scholars lucky enough to acquire them. One of the highlights of the tour for Julienne was seeing a reproduction of an Aztec codex in the Vatican collection that depicts the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico in the 16th century.
During their tours, Massimo also informed the two Loyola visitors that the Vatican has its own School of Library Science, which is located just down the street from St. Peter's Basilica. The School began classes in 1934, and currently has a student body of about 50. There are seven courses offered at the school, including two classes that Massimo teaches--"Bibliography and Documentation," and "Bibliology." One of Massimo's former students at the Vatican library school, Elise Aversa, is currently the librarian at Loyola University Chicago's Rome campus.
At the end of the tours, Massimo explained that the Vatican Library has entered the modern age in many respects. The Library, for example, has three online catalogs that are available onsite and via the Library's web site. Massimo also reported that his services as a Reference Librarian now include assisting patrons via e-mail, rather than strictly within the Library's walls. He noted to Fred, with some amusement, that he receives a variety of questions, some of which have nothing to do with the Library's resources. For example, someone once asked Massimo if the Pope is a vegetarian.
Despite the modern enhancements, however, the Vatican Library is still steeped in history and formality. Strolling through the Library's frescoed rooms, where even the pages wear suits and ties, indeed feels like being transported three or four centuries back in time. Both Fred and Julienne thoroughly enjoyed this once in a lifetime experience and are extremely grateful to Massimo for serving as such a gracious and knowledgeable host.
Note: See The Final Pics for photos from the Loyola librarians' journey.
Bosser, Jacques. The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
Grafton, Anthony, ed. Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture. Washington: Library of Congress, 1993; New Haven: Yale, 1993; in association with the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
Massimo Ceresa, e-mail message to Julienne Grant, January 22, 2007.
Scuola Vaticana di Biblioteconomia, http://www.vaticanlibrary.vatlib.it/BAVT/scuola/ (last visited January 11, 2007).
Vatican Library. Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana. Rome: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 2000.
Vatican Library. http://bav.vatican.va/en/v_home_bav/home_bav.shtml (last visited January 11, 2007).