Star images helping to save Vatican books

Dec 19, 2011
Some of the texts in the Vatican library are more than 1000 years old. Credits: Vatican Library

(PhysOrg.com) -- Antique books in the Vatican Library are being digitised to preserve them for future generations using a technique developed through ESA to store satellite images of the sky.

The Library needed a way of scanning the delicate old manuscripts and storing the files so that they could still be read in hundreds of years. The answer was the special file format used by ESA for most of its scientific satellites.  

In the 1970s ESA and NASA scientists developed ‘FITS’, the flexible image transport system format, stemming from radio astronomy. FITS is now used to store data from many space missions.

“Any kind of data you can use for astronomy can fit inside this format,” says Pedro Osuna, Head of ESA’s scientific archives.

That made it ESA’s top choice for storing the mountains of information from almost all of the agency’s astronomy missions. The pioneering Herschel, Integral, XMM-Newton and SOHO space observatories all use it.

In this digital era, finding a storage format for the ages is a big challenge facing researchers, archivists and librarians the world over. FITS is the answer.

“If you have a tool that can read FITS today, you can read FITS files from 20 years ago,” Mr. Osuna says. “It’s always backwards compatible.”

Scanning old texts takes patience, care and high technology. Credits: Vatican Library

Today, the format developed to save images of the stars is being tailored for a very different purpose: preserving one of the world’s largest collections of ancient books.

“Most space missions, like the Hubble Space Telescope, use FITS to store and study scientific data,” says Giuseppe Di Persio of Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics.

Dr. Di Persio is now working with the Library in Rome on a pilot project to scan part of its massive collection, saving it as FITS files to make sure they are available to .

Founded in 1475 and one of the world’s oldest libraries, the Vatican Library houses tens of thousands of manuscripts and codices from before the invention of the printing press – some are 1800 years old.

In addition to making the contents more accessible, digitising will help to preserve the originals.

“It’s very dangerous for the manuscripts every time someone touches them,” says Luciano Ammenti, Director of the Vatican’s Information Technology Center, spearheading the project.

He chose FITS because of its longevity and also because it is open source – not linked to any one company.

The format also lends itself to the fragile, ancient tomes in the Vatican’s collection. Pressed against a plate of glass, the old pages can be distorted, but scanner software developed for the project automatically calculates the different angles, resulting in an accurate, flat image.

The secret of the format is that the instructions needed to read and process the data are in a text header tacked on top of the data. In a century, when computers will presumably be very different, that means all the information needed to decode them is in the same files.

FITS can always be read without the need for conversion to another format, which could lose information or be incompatible with future systems.

As Dr. Di Persio says: “Once FITS, always FITS.”

Explore further: Movie world fears for freedom of speech as N.Korea parody pulled

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Darwin's personal library put online

Jun 24, 2011

Darwin's personal scientific library, the majority of which is held at Cambridge University Library, has been digitised in a collaborative effort involving Cambridge, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the ...

Hylas-1 ready for service

Mar 25, 2011

It’s all systems go for Hylas-1, the first satellite created specifically to deliver broadband access to European consumers. Since its launch in November, Hylas has performed well throughout its testing ...

Cleaning up with space tech

Sep 07, 2011

There’s just about nowhere that state-of-the-art space technologies cannot reach – from the martian atmosphere to those hard-to-clean spots under the couch. The search for space dust is giving us ...

Recommended for you

Report: FBI's anthrax investigation was flawed

10 hours ago

The FBI used flawed scientific methods to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others, federal auditors said Friday in a report sure to fuel skepticism over the FBI's ...

Study reveals mature motorists worse at texting and driving

Dec 18, 2014

A Wayne State University interdisciplinary research team in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has made a surprising discovery: older, more mature motorists—who typically are better drivers in ...

Napster co-founder to invest in allergy research

Dec 17, 2014

(AP)—Napster co-founder Sean Parker missed most of his final year in high school and has ended up in the emergency room countless times because of his deadly allergy to nuts, shellfish and other foods.

LA mayor plans 7,000 police body cameras in 2015

Dec 16, 2014

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan Tuesday to equip 7,000 Los Angeles police officers with on-body cameras by next summer, making LA's police department the nation's largest law enforcement agency to move ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.