Interactive display at Library of Congress makes Bible come alive
September 23rd, 2009
By Chaz Muth
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Separation of church and state is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution but that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be admired and appreciated by a public or government institution.
Take the Library of Congress in Washington. It has an immense Bible collection, one augmented with modern technology.
The interactive equipment available in the Library of Congress is making the Scriptures accessible to a high-tech generation, said Robert M. Sokol, project manager for the “New Visitors Experience” program at the largest library in the world.
The most celebrated Bibles in the collection are the Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz – proudly featured in the library’s Great Hall.
The Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles of Europe and it represents hundreds of years of work disseminating the word of God, according to the library’s Web site.
The Gutenberg Bible is the first great book printed in Western Europe from movable metal type and it marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world, the Web site reads.
To give the public greater access to the enormous glass-encased – and centuries old Bibles – the Library of Congress installed the interactive system in 2008, allowing visitors to use a touch screen to flip through the pages and read the text.
Sokol, the library’s lead expert on the interactive equipment, told Catholic News Service the technology not only teaches visitors about the history and artistry of these books, but also gives the public closer access to them, since actually touching the volumes is out of the question.
“When we show manuscripts and printed material, especially in book format, you can only see two pages at any given time,” he said. “So the first thing we wanted to do with the interactives was allow people to be able to virtually turn the pages and flip through to see more.”
The interactive machines placed by the historic Bibles allow visitors to use a touch screen to see the pages, zoom in, get detailed information about the text, and really inspect the artwork, type and handwritten passages on the historic manuscripts.
It would be impossible to connect all the library’s Bibles to an interactive machine, since the facility’s collection contains thousands of Bibles in more than 150 languages, about 1,500 of which are considered significant editions for their rare or historic value, said Mark Dimunation, chief of the library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
However, modern technology has allowed the library to give the public greater access to all kinds of books, research materials and archives – as well as the Scriptures – but it’s also provided curators with a tool to better preserve historic editions for future generations.
“Any kind of artificial light will, over time, damage them, so we have to have very low light settings on them, which also affect accessibility in a way, because you can’t really see that much,” Sokol said. “The interactives, obviously, being backlit, show a great deal more. Plus, within the interactive, you can zoom in, you can really examine the details, which highlights things like the illuminations.”
Though Dimunation told CNS the interactive and digital technology is a fascinating aspect of the library’s collection, he said researchers and book enthusiasts are more attracted to the beautifully bound Bibles in these collected works that date back to the 13th century.
Some of those rare books include the Bible collection of the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson. The first Bible printed in America is also housed in the Library of Congress, as is the Lincoln Bible – the same book used to swear in Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president, the first black man to hold that office.
The excitement generated by the high-tech apparatus next to the two famous Bibles in the Great Hall is exactly what library officials hoped for when they first set them up last year, said Erin Allen, a staff member in the Public Affairs Office of the Library of Congress.
Visitors tend to react differently to the Bible interactive displays, depending on their age, Sokol said.
“The younger people usually go to the interactives first, and then check out the actual Bibles,” he said. “And the older people tend to check out the actual Bibles first, and then go to the interactives to learn more about them.”
From September 25, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.