ST. LOUIS — The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Library), in Rome is closed for renovation, and Diane Touliatos, like many others, won’t be able to access its treasures until 2010. But she has already found a good alternative, right in her back yard.

It’s the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library at St. Louis University, and it’s the reason she already sought employment in the St. Louis area.

Because of the closing of the Vatican Library, St. Louis’ Vatican Film Library is preparing for an influx of visitors.

Touliatos is director of the Center for Humanities at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She’s an expert in ancient Greek and Middle East Byzantine chant, and has gone to Rome several times to do research.

Her current project, a long and tedious yet rewarding one, is cataloging Byzantine musical manuscripts. No one has ever attempted to do this before.

“The notation is phonetic and extremely difficult to read because it’s not on a staff,” she explained. “It’s difficult to know what is text and what is music.”

“I’ve made five trips to Rome for this project,” she said. “At the Vatican, there are literally thousands of people waiting in line to use the library.”

“Here, I can get right in and get what I need,” she said. “Plus, the people at the Vatican Film Library are wonderful.”

“This was a sudden decision on the part of the Vatican, which you don’t see often,” said Vatican Film librarian Gregory Pass. “But the need was great, as the building was constructed in 1475 and badly in need of structural renovation.”

That surprised scholars worldwide and left them floundering in their research efforts. The Vatican Film Library hopes to accommodate as many as possible. It has already launched a website, is increasing access to its microfilm database, and has begun cataloging online, including manuscript descriptions.

It also intends to increase the number of fellowships offered in order to accommodate more researchers. There’s also a possibility of augmenting the physical facilities.

The mission of the Vatican Film Library is to promote research and teaching in medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies through its collections and public programs. Today, the library houses some 37,000 such manuscripts — roughly 75% of those found in the Vatican Library.

Created in 1953 through the efforts of Jesuit Father Lowrie Daly and with the financial support of the Knights of Columbus, the library is used by a wide variety of people, mostly scholars from the United States. The founder’s objective was to preserve and make available to North American scholars the manuscripts of the Vatican Library.


Not Just for Scholars

Getting there was an ambitious undertaking. The Vatican houses one of the world’s vastest libraries, containing one of the richest medieval and Renaissance manuscript collections in the world — 70,000 manuscript codices. It’s also one of the oldest continuous libraries in Europe, originated by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455). Later, Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) officially established it in a papal bull. Such an extensive collection was a challenge to duplicate on microfilm.

The project began in 1950. During its most concentrated period — 1950-1957 — about 12,000,000 manuscripts comprising 30,000 codices were microfilmed by the Vatican Film Library filming crew. The efforts continue now, although to a much smaller degree. Since its initial stage, the library has acquired microfilms of Arabic, Ethiopian and Hebrew manuscripts.

Although its focus is on microfilms of Vatican Library manuscripts, the Vatican Film Library also contains extensively filmed Jesuit archival material related to activities of the Society of Jesus in the New World from the Central Jesuit Archives in Rome and from provincial archives in North and South America and the Philippines.

The biggest advantage the library can offer its patrons is ease of use. It’s open longer hours than its Vatican counterpart, allows scholars to view more manuscripts at once (eight or more, as opposed to five), has a more spacious and accessible reading room, and isn’t subject to long lines and seasonal fluctuations.

Touliatos pointed out that the Vatican Film Library isn’t just for scholars. It contains beautifully illuminated manuscripts that are part of our Christian heritage as well as those on topics that range from A to Z.

“Whether you’re into architecture, astronomy, Church doctrine, geography, history, philosophy, politics or even the Zodiac, there’s something here for everyone,” she said. “You don’t have to be an expert to view and appreciate these treasures.”

Phil Gavitt, associate professor in the St. Louis University History Department, has never used the Vatican Library. He has never needed to; he has an indispensable resource literally at his fingertips. Like Touliatos, Gavitt chose the St. Louis area in which to live and work because of the library.

“The Vatican Film Library is almost unparalleled for people interested in the intellectual and cultural history of the Middle Ages,” he said. “The library gives visitors the opportunity to see documents as people in the past actually wrote them.”

The library’s resources were an impetus for Gavitt’s founding of the St. Louis University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in 1992. His purpose was to help others to realize the rich resources housed in the Vatican Film Library.

Just this week, scholars both nationally and internationally had the opportunity to gather and discuss their work with colleagues at the annual Saint Louis Conference on Manuscript Studies. The Oct. 12-13 conference, called the Manuscripta Conference after the Vatican Film Library’s monthly newsletter, Manuscripta, has no set theme and serves as a general forum for manuscript scholars.

“It’s the only meaty conference in the United States for medieval studies,” said Pass. “It’s an important event for assessing new research and learning more about medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.”


Marge Fenelon is based in

Cudahy, Wisconsin.


For more information about the Vatican Film Library, go to: slu.edu/libraries/vfl