Vatican's Magnificent Library Restored After 3 Years, $11.5 Million Restoration

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The magnificent Vatican Library, one of the oldest and richest in the world, was unveiled today after a three year and $11.5 million restoration.

Faced with sagging floors and major restructuring work, the Vatican decided in 2007 to shut down the library completely for the first time in its 500 years of existence and do the job properly. The Apostolic, or papal library was founded by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475, and did not even shut down during two world wars.

Researchers Can Use the Library, But Only the Pope Can Borrow a Book
SLIDESHOW: Vatican's Magnificent Library Restored

Amid protests and skepticism from scholars the world over, who scrambled to do last minute research before doors were shut, the Cardinal Librarian Raffaele Farina promised that the the library would re-open in September 2010. In a crowded press conference in the spectacular reading room known as the Salone Sistino (after Pope Sixtus V) Farina proudly announced today that his promise was kept and the job was done.

While it was shown to the press and officials today, it will be opened to researchers Sept. 20.

Farina explained that the unusual decision to close the library came from having done previous work with the doors open and realizing that the job they faced was huge, invasive and noisy, and would "compromise that atmosphere of busy tranquillity that is typical of our library."

The Vatican library houses what is considered the world's largest collection of manuscripts – books written by hand – 75,000 of them in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and more. In addition, there are almost 2 million printed books and serials, including over 8,000 incunabula - the earliest printed books. It also has a collection of some 100,000 prints, engravings, maps and drawings, and over 300,000 Greek, Roman and papal coins and medals.

The Vatican library specializes in the humanities: theology, law, philosophy, history, and science. "You aren't likely to find a book on economics here, " said one librarian.

It is also a library with a mission, said library Prefect Monsignor Cesare Pasini, in the spirit of service, humanism and universality. At its closing, Pope Benedict the XVI described the library as "a welcoming home of science, culture and humanity that opens its doors to scholars from every part of the world, without distinction of provenance, religion and culture."

The Pope Is the Only Person Who Borrow a Book From Vatican Library

According to Farina, the Pope followed the progress of the work closely. "Every time I saw him in the past three years, he asked me 'How is the library going? Will it really be finished on time?"

It is also not a public library. Only post-graduate researchers and scholars are allowed to consult the precious tomes, none of which can be checked out., except by the Pope himself.

"Occasionally, he has requested specific volumes," Pasini told the Catholic News Service in July, and they are promptly delivered to his office. "It's the pope's library."

With the exception of a modified entrance, special high-tech entrance turnstiles and two new elevators, little of the restructuring is visible to most visitors. The majestic frescoed reading rooms lined with leather-bound books on wooden shelves remain the same, while a new modern tower has appeared in the 16th century courtyard to accommodate another elevator which will safely bring manuscripts from the vault 12 feet underground into the manuscript reading room.

Known aptly as "bunker," the bomb-proof manuscript vault is at the heart of the Library's collection and purpose. The lighting, temperature and humidity are carefully monitored (cold and relatively damp) using the best technology available to preserve the delicate and finely illustrated jewels on parchment or even papyrus.

Along with restructuring comes improved security. Library cards issued to scholars and researchers – 4,000 to 5,000 a year come to study - will now have an electronic chip which will keep track of their movement within the library and alert if they enter a restricted area.

And while a crew of at least 30 construction workers a day hammered away at 24,000 square feet of the library's surface for three years, librarians inside were kept busy cataloguing the over 1 million volumes the technological way – by inserting a microchip in each book, with basic information about each volume, such as title, author and shelf location. Most importantly the chip will help locate the book at all times and prevent theft. In 1995 an American scholar was caught trying to peddle two 14th century manuscripts that had been stolen from the library.

Magnificent Vatican Library Reopens After $11.5 Million Renovation

On their return to the library scholars will also find a new internal wi-fi connection to the library's catalogue and the library's website has been updated.

Perhaps one of the biggest and most striking change readers will notice is coming very soon. The magnificent Salone Sistino, the 16th century reading room built by Pope Sixtus V and decorated with frescoes from floor to ceiling, will revert to its original purpose.

Until January 2009 it was rented to the Vatican Museums and was part of their galleries. Now it will be once again furnished as a reading room, courtesy of famous Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi, and the noisy excitement of tourists will be replaced by quiet turning of pages.

The rent from the museums was a major source of funds for the $11.5 renovation of the Library. "We saved the money the museums gave just for the occasion," Farina said. Other money came from a variety of sponsors, and from the regular coffers of the Vatican City government.