Cost Exorbitant

Bringing the world's most important library to the internet wasn't going to be cheap, but until now, we didn't realize just how expensive DigiVatLib would be. The Vatican Library in Rome has issued some puffy press releases, the media have printed vague predictions and pretty pictures of the reading rooms, but there haven't been any hard facts to enable some critical discussion.

My colleague Alvise Armellini, Deutsche-Presse Agentur correspondent in Rome, has done some digging and has just published what as far as I know is the first detailed, behind-the-scenes account of this globally important cultural project to scan the ancient manuscripts page by page: 
Credit: BAV/dpa/Bild
You can read the English version online at dpa, while the German version appears in many newspapers including Bild, Sächsische Zeitung, Mannheimer Morgen and Frankenpost.

There are some important revelations here. 

One is that the librarians decline to surrender the fragile Vatican manuscripts to digitization, presumably because the light levels, cradles and page-turning of the present scanning equipment, and perhaps the skills of the staff, are too rough for them (the cotton-gloved lady above is using a flatbed, not a cradle scanner). There's no indication of how these will be ultimately scanned, although the Vatican Library's May 17, 2016 statement says these are first priority.

For the first time we get the cash value of what NTT Data, a big Japanese systems software company, is donating: 18 million euros. Even for a multinational, and even if it's mainly their own costing of the book value of services, not cash, that's an extraordinarily large sum of charity. It makes comparable 1-million-at-a-time German government grants look paltry by comparison.

It outstrips a grant from Manfred Lautenschläger to digitize the 2,000 items of the Pal. lat. collection, the cash value of which has never been published, but must be in the range of 5 to 10 million euros. The contribution from the Polonsky Project -- about half of 2 million pounds, or 1.2 million euros -- to digitize Hebrew manuscripts in Rome is much less.

NTT Data Italia says its funding extends to 3,000 manuscripts up 2019. The portal does not say which manuscripts NTT sponsored, but this is probably in any case only a nominal figure.

From simple arithmetic, it would seem to value NTT's work at 6,000 euros per manuscript. That is surprisingly high: e-codices, the Swiss online library that is the gold standard among manuscript digitization projects, disclosed in March this year that digitizing was costing it 3,000 to 5,000 dollars per manuscript, and this includes expensive metadata research which the Vatican simply does not bother with.

What of the future? There are 82,000 manuscripts in total, so at the current rate, putting them all online would take more than 100 years, Armellini notes.

Why can't the digitization project be scaled up? Antonio Massari, the Italian software engineer in charge, reveals that he wouldn't be able to find enough staff for unlimited expansion. "If money was no object, we could feasibly scale up operations by a factor of five," Massari says. "Beyond that, we would probably not find enough experts with the right skills to supervise and carry out the project." Conversely, that would mean he has tied down about 20 per cent of skills available in Italy.

It remains entirely unclear what happens after 2019. Is it possible the entire project could crash and burn without a follow-on sponsor? Other big sponsors will have to be found. Like the widow with her mite, you can help too. There is a fund-raising arm, Digita Vaticana, and they are even offering a free goody as an incentive, a texturally perfect facsimile of a page from the Vatican Vergil.

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