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WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Rev. Leonard Boyle : 'GOD'S LIBRARIAN' IN ROME : A Dominican priest is busy bringing the computer to the Middle Ages. Coming soon: the Vatican library on the Internet.


VATICAN CITY — On a bright spring morning at the Vatican, the priest sometimes called God's librarian works at the cusp of historic change.

Seated at a scarred wooden table, Father Leonard Boyle examines a manuscript in Latin transcribed and lovingly illuminated by a decorative artist in Paris about 700 years ago. Boyle uses the table because a technician has commandeered his desk to fiddle with the computer there.

The transmission of knowledge typified by the men who painstakingly completed the manuscript back then, and by the experts who study it now, is a constant that transcends time and place, Boyle is saying in a rich brogue.

"A library like this one will last forever. I say it bluntly and unequivocally. It'll last as long as it lasts," he said.

There is more that the scholar-director of one of the great repositories of human knowledge has to say. But the technician interrupts, well-pleased with his modern feat of intellect. As of this moment, the technician announces, the director of the Apostolic Vatican Library is on the Internet. He rattles off a string of letters and numbers: "That is Father Boyle's Internet address."

The ether purrs. So does Father Boyle.

Why not? Here is a student of history who comfortably abides at the challenging if sometimes disconcerting junction where old, printed meets new, electronic.

Wry, sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, Boyle is a catalyst to the encounter, a 71-year-old Dominican priest and medieval scholar who is revolutionizing the library that he has headed since Pope John Paul II appointed him in 1984, succeeding a cardinal in the job.

Boyle believes in access to information. He is bringing the computer to the Middle Ages and the Vatican library to the world. The library's catalogue is now accessible through the Internet. And starting this fall, about 20,000 manuscript pages and the stunning miniatures painted on them should be electronically available to scholars around the world as part of a project funded by IBM.

"I think, 'How the blazes did we do without computers?' I'm more than comfortable with them. As an information access, they're invaluable, and at times unbelievable," Boyle said. But he reveres the ancient source material as well. "Is computer information a substitute for the source from which the information comes? No, no."

Around him in hushed library halls, about 200 visiting scholars are parsing ancient manuscripts penned in languages no one speaks any more. Many of the researchers have brought laptop computers on which to take notes. They have come from all over the world to touch and savor history under Boyle's approving gaze.

"There is a qualitative difference between any digitalized copy and hard parchment or paper which has its own watermarks and discolorations as testimony to its own history. A manuscript copy is a living thing, the annotations, the slightly different text. True scholars will never be satisfied with digitalized copies alone," said the man who protects more manuscripts than anybody.

Tucked behind stout Vatican walls, a library founded under Pope Sixtus IV in 1475 is as distinctive as its director: Its lifeblood is 150,000 manuscripts, most in Latin, some in Greek, all handwritten, most from the Middle Ages but some dating to the first centuries after the death of Christ.

There are about a million books as well, including priceless collections put together across the centuries by Popes and European noble families. But they are not what matters most, in Boyle's view: "This is a manuscript library which happens to have an appendage of printed books; they are there to provide backup for manuscript researchers."

The manuscripts, usually between 200 and 400 pages, are often mini-libraries themselves, containing the transcribed wisdom of 10 or 15 different books. It will be long decades before scholars know fully what all the manuscripts contain, but the collection is both catholic and eclectic.

"The myth is that the Vatican library is an ecclesiastical library. It's run by the church, but it's a library of the human race: poetry, music, art, history, science, literature, law, medicine, geography, anything," Boyle said.

Church documents are stored next door in the separately administered Vatican Secret Archives.

Leonard Eugene Boyle, a specialist in medieval manuscripts, first came to the library as a young researcher among the aged documents he now oversees. Born in Donegal, Ireland, on Nov. 13, 1923, he joined the Dominicans when he was 20 and was ordained six years later in 1949. In 1956, he earned his doctorate from Oxford in England.

Boyle taught theology in Rome until 1961, then moved to Toronto, where until 1984 he was professor of paleography and diplomatics, official documents, at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, becoming a Canadian citizen.

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