Digital Vatican Library: Wealth of Information but Difficult to Navigate

There is a lot of mystery and mythology surrounding the “secret archives” contained near the Sistine Chapel, encourage by fictional works such as the Da Vinci Code. The collection is not locked away because it contains the secrets of the ancient world, it is just not easily accessible. Within the last decade a fraction of the archives have been scanned and made available online. The website of the Digital Vatican Library is a tease. I was excited at what I might happen upon, but I quickly realized that it is not a user-friendly website. I expected most of the manuscripts to be in Latin or Italian, or any number of other non-English or ancient languages, but the website itself is only available in Italian, English, and Japanese. Not exactly universally accessible.

“If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.”

The Atlantic, 2018, Technology Section, para. 3.

Upon further digging in the online archive catalog I found description pages of Papal records that resemble familiar ISBD records. The descriptions include repository, unit ID, title of unit, date of unit, custodial history, acquisition information, an abstract, finding aids, and related materials.

An interesting article in the Atlantic about artificial intelligence and the Vatican’s Archives discusses a project called Codice Ratio. It uses AI and optical-character-recognition (OCR) to potentially make the digitization process easier. But this technology does not work for hand-written manuscripts and has other drawbacks. So for now, the Secret Archives of the Vatican will remain a source of imaginative mystery.

1. Kean, S. (2018, April 30). Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives. Retrieved September 21, 2019, from

2. Digital Vatican Library. 2016. Vatican Library. Retrieved September 21, 2019, from

Heidi Klise__653-01

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Posted in Archives, Cataloging, Libraries, Library, Preservation

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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