Jesuits Work to Preserve Precious Library Collection

Jesuit Father Robert Taft holds a rare book in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Jesuit Father Robert Taft holds a rare book in the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The Jesuit’s Pontifical Oriental Institute has the best general collection in the world on Eastern Christianity, including an extremely rare 1581 edition of the Ostrog Bible – the first complete Bible printed in Slavic. “For the Slavic churches, this is the Gutenberg” Bible, said U.S. Jesuit Father Robert Taft, former prefect of the library and former vice rector of the institute.

However, the Bible and other items in the library’s oldest and most valuable collections are in a serious state of degradation. Rome’s temperatures swings and ordinary wear and tear have taken their toll on volumes that are hundreds of years old.

“Everybody knows that that the only way to preserve material like this is to have a standard uniform temperature with humidity control and climate control throughout the entire year,” Fr. Taft said.

The institute and library are funded by the Vatican, but the portion they receive is only enough to increase their holdings and keep the place running.

The institute’s rector, U.S. Jesuit Father James McCann, said he is looking for outside funding for its preservation efforts. Georgetown University hopes to provide a grant to the library that would pay for a digitizing machine plus a year’s stipend for one person to do the scanning, Fr. McCann added.

While digitizing the collections will save on further wear and tear, funding must still be found for repairing the degraded volumes. McCann said he also wants to look for potential donors outside the church, such as “people who love books or specialists who recognize the value of these materials.”

A climate-controlled system for the library and its collections could cost a quarter of a million dollars, said McCann. Not only would it protect the books from heat and humidity, he said, the library would be able to stay open year round instead of having to close in late summer because of the stifling temperature.

Because the institute attracts religious and lay students and experts from many Christian traditions, it plays a key role in the future of ecumenism, McCann said.

The oriental institute “is not an archival library or a museum library. Our things aren’t here to be oohed and aahed over; they’re here to be put into somebody’s hands and used,” said Taft.

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