All posts by Georgia Gallavin


Vatican Library to Digitize Priceless Manuscripts

Found this in WSJ, thought it would be of interest to the class!

The Vatican’s Precious Manuscripts Go Online

Japanese Tech Firm NTT Is Scanning the Ancient Texts in the Vatican Apostolic Library


Updated April 11, 2014 11:46 p.m. ET

VATICAN CITY — Almost 600 years after Pope Nicholas V founded the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Holy See is now turning to 50 experts, five scanners and a Japanese IT firm to digitize millions of pages from its priceless manuscripts, opening them to the broader public for the first time.

When the project is finished, one of the richest and most important collections of historical texts in the world will be available with a click of the mouse—and free.

The plan marks a revolution for an institution known as the Popes’ Library, which houses more than 82,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the second century. Scholars must now submit a detailed request to gain access to the library, which sits within the Vatican walls. The most precious works of art, such as a 1,600-year old manuscript displaying Virgil’s poems once studied by Raphael, have been mostly off-limits.

What’s News: The Vatican Library teams with Japanese tech firm to digitize manuscripts. President Obama nominates Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Google glass to go on sale to the masses on April 15. Tanya Rivero reports. Photo: AP

“This restriction was wise to protect such valuable manuscripts from hordes of visitors,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian who has used the Vatican library several times. “If anybody could visit, it would be like putting a child with a paintbrush in front of the Mona Lisa.”

By digitizing its archives, the Vatican library, established in 1451, joins the ranks of illustrious institutions such as the British Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Cambridge University Library. The Vatican is offering “a service that we provide all mankind,” said Msgr. Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library, at a recent presentation of the project.

For the past year, Vatican officials have worked closely with experts at Japanese IT firm NTT DATA Corp. to test special scanners designed to handle particularly delicate documents. Glove-wearing operators, who must remove watches and jewelry to prevent scratching the texts, made sure that the scanners wouldn’t damage the documents.

The machines have a protective screen to limit the manuscripts’ exposure to light, and windows must remain shut and curtains drawn during the scanning procedure to keep dust and extraneous light out of the room.

With the test phase finished, about 50 Italian and Japanese operators will soon begin the process of digitizing the first batch of 3,000 manuscripts under the watchful eye of Vatican librarians. That process, which will take place entirely inside the library, is expected to take four years.

After each document is scanned, it will be formatted for long-term storage and then released onto the library’s website. The first digital images are expected to be put online in the second half of this year. All of the manuscripts, including the most delicate ones, will eventually be scanned, and viewers will be able to examine them from a variety of angles.

Digitalizing the library will be a mammoth task, involving 43 quadrillion bytes. (A byte is a unit that is used to represent an alphanumeric character.) In the end, about 40 million pages will be available for all to see. The Vatican won’t say how long the whole project will take.

Disaster recovery mechanisms will be put in place so that images of the manuscripts will be conserved should anything happen to the originals.”If something horrible happens—and I pray to God it doesn’t—at least all this won’t be lost,” said James R. Ginther, professor of medieval theology and director of the Center of Digital Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri.

NTT DATA has agreed to front the €18 million ($25 million) cost of the first, four-year phase, but it is seeking sponsors to recoup that figure. To encourage donations, the Vatican Library’s website will display the sponsors’ logos next to scanned images.

Even when the digitization is complete, Vatican officials expect scholars and researchers to still seek access to the library to view the originals in person.

“It is really important to have a physical feel of the manuscript…and this can only happen when you are there,” said Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, who has used the library in the past.

The opening of the library might be a letdown for Vatican conspiracy theorists. The alleged secrets housed in the Vatican’s archives have sometimes featured in mystery novels, such as those penned by Dan Brown.

When asked if any compromising or embarrassing documents will emerge when the digital archives are thrown open to the public, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, librarian of the Holy Roman Church, chuckled.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said.

Write to Liam Moloney at

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Georgia’s Interface Critique: Foundling Voices

Interface Critique, Foundling Voices

Georgia Gallavin

Foundling Voices is an online exhibition of oral histories created in 2008 and run by The Foundling Museum.  The oral histories record the lives of children sent to the Foundling Hospital, the oldest children’s home in the United Kingdom. A total of 74 participants, mostly former children in the care of the Foundling Hospital, were interviewed for the project. This online exhibition poses questions about the ability of online projects, specifically those using archival material, to effectively convey the emotional weight of a subject matter while also making the subject “digestible” for users. The interface of Foundling Voices allows the user to interact with the carefully curated narrative of individuals and simultaneously allows the user to feel in control of his or her experience.

Narratives are organized around key life experiences and are ordered chronologically: life events range from “Early Life,” as individuals recount how they came to Foundling Hospital, “Into the World,” which recounts their lives after leaving and follows the arc of their life as they look back on the Hospital’s impact on them in “Reflections.” For the purposes of this project, organizing information in this manner is both intuitive and appropriate. The site assumes that users who come to the site are using it primarily as a tool for discovery and exploration, rather than seeking data on a specific individual. This assumption also accounts for the use of only the first name of participants, instead of full names, and helps the user to feel on more intimate terms with participants. When explaining the full life story of someone, it is natural to chunk information in chronological periods starting from birth to death, and Foundling Voices takes advantage of this common organization but adjusts the life story to reflect the Hospital’s impact on the storytellers.


However, when a user is listening to a specific story, having either bypassed the home page or dived into a specific life theme, the content also becomes grouped by the specific individual. For example, once a user decides to listen to one of “John’s memories,” a user will see other stories about John on the right hand side. The original theme menu of life events remains prominent. In this way, the interface gives users control over how information is viewed with multiple methods of navigation: users can either explore themes chronologically or focus on a specific individual’s story.


These stories are obviously very personal; the Hospital is a home for children without parents, and consequently, narratives carry both elements of tragedy as well as inspiration. In order to convey a more intimate feel to the site to convey these elements, individuals are listed on a first name basis, stories are titled with direct quotes from the narrative itself instead of generic titles, and photographs complement the stories without overpowering the audio narrative. The interface does an excellent job in limiting the length of stories to create an enticing glimpse into the world of the storyteller without overwhelming the user or losing their attention. Content is curated into “digestible,” engaging pieces for the user who is lured in by catchy narrative titles and is able to immediately assess the length of a piece by the block of transcription text or the length of the audio file.

Aesthetically, the site uses a minimum color palette, focusing on red, white and various shades of black. Although color is minimal, it is used effectively to demarcate different sections. The monochromatic coloring complements many of the older black and white photos donated by participants as well as making color photos “pop” on the screen. The font is both legible and visible and consistently white, the contrasting red effectively highlights where the user is within the site, and shading keeps the site from looking too flat. As a personal observation, this monochromatic visual design reminds me of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) website which lends the Foundling Voices site an air of authority, authenticity and maturity that would not be appropriate, for example, on a children’s site.



The interface does an excellent job in curating the narratives of former Foundling Hospital residents using archival material. However, the link to the original material is weak. Users are directed to the website of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) to view the full transcripts and audio, however the link only takes the user to the home page of LMA instead of to the specific audio file. This creates extra steps for those interested in getting more information about the Hospital or an individual. Therefore, the online exhibition serves as an exemplary portal for users who wish to browse and explore, but is not for researching specific information on an individual. There are instructions for how to do so, but it is not prominent.


Despite a weak link to the archival material itself, as part of a museum exhibition, I believe the objective of enticing as wide of an audience as possible is appropriate. The interface of Foundling Voices does not have many “bells and whistles,” but its minimal aesthetic design and intuitive organization of information lets the user connect with the storyteller on a personal level and draws them into their stories.




Internship Opportunity: Guantánamo Public Memory Project Collections Internship, Spring/Summer 2014

This was up on the Media Studies blog for anyone who might be interested.

Guantánamo Public Memory Project Collections Internship, Spring/Summer 2014

About the Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project (GPMP) is a national multi-media project that seeks to build public awareness of the long history of the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and foster dialogue on its possible futures and the policies it shapes. Steered from Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, the Project has brought together 13 national universities and their community partners to create a traveling exhibitweb platform, and series of public dialogues on the base’s history from 1898 to the present.  Student teams worked with individuals who worked, lived, served, or were held on the base, and collaborated across geographical, cultural, and political context to produce this exhibit, opening dialogue on the difficult questions it raises. Each student-community team developed one of 13 exhibit panels, which together are now traveling across the country to each of the communities that created them, with public programs hosted in each place. The exhibit opened in December 2012 at New York University’s Kimmel Windows Gallery and is booked through the end of 2014 at 12 other institutions.

The GPMP team is currently working with Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library to build the publicly accessible Guantánamo Public Memory Project Collection archive, which is housed at the university’s Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research.

The Project’s digital material is housed by the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), a partnership between the University of Florida and Florida International University. The collections include documents, photographs, audio and video interviews, and other material about GTMO, documenting the social history of everyday life on the base at different moments as well as periods of crisis and conflict.  The material is being donated on an ongoing basis by individuals across the country with diverse experience at GTMO.  

About the Internship

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project collections internship is an exciting opportunity to gain hands-on and specialized experience researching, developing, digitizing and cataloging collections. In particular, the GPMP collections intern will work with Project staff to:

  • Build digital collection on dLOC by uploading all Project’s current digital holdings and creating metadata;
  • Build physical archive with Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts library, working closely with Columbia’s Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research Librarians;
  • Identify and liaise with potential donors and oral history candidates from Project database of over 300 people with direct experience at GTMO and incorporate new materials into both collections;
  • Maintain internal archive of Project materials (e.g. photographs, event programs) from each exhibit venue;
  • Promote collections via blog, social media and related digital platforms;
  • Perform additional related research and outreach as needed.


  • Ability to commit at least 10 hours/week for at least one semester
  • Graduate student in library science, museum studies, history, or related field
  • Experience with archival processing and knowledge of digitization standards and technology
  • Background in one or more subject areas related to GTMO’s history, such as 19th/early 20th century American imperialism, Caribbean studies, refugee policy, military history, Cold War
  • Excellent organization skills and ability to work independently and creatively

How to Apply

Please send resume and cover letter to Julia Thomas at with the subject “GPMP Collections Intern” by February 14, 2014.

Please note this is an unpaid position, but can be taken for academic credit if permitted by institution/department.