Digitized Collections at the Vatican Library: A Brief Legal Research Guide

Digitized Collections at the Vatican Library: A Brief Legal Research Guide

Aaron Dishy is an IPilogue Writer and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Pope Francis’ “pilgrimage of penance” followed the spiritual leader during a week-long trip across Canada. He apologized on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church (the “Church”) for abuse that Indigenous children and communities endured (and continue to endure) at church-run residential schools. The tour, and the global media attention it garnered, confronted Indigenous and Settler Canadians with the ongoing relevance of that Church in informing the lived experiences of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Legal professionals acting on behalf of residential school survivors and their communities may require awareness of the primary sources that drive Church action. Those documents are collected, digitized, and (on some occasions) made accessible by the Vatican Apostolic Library (“VAL”) and its affiliated Archives. Their digital collections encompass millions of manuscripts, printed materials, incunabula, visual materials, and photographs. Although only a small fraction of those records are publicly available - with many records considered secret - the capacity to navigate those resources may be valuable for legal context and understanding for afflicted individuals and communities. 

In-house digitization began at VAL with the launch of the DigiVatLib in 2010. This project looks to digitize VAL’s entire manuscript collection, as well as 80,000 Church codices within 40 million scanned records. Those records are archived for long-term preservation using the FITS file format and PREMIS standard for metadata preservation. VAL’s digitized manuscripts are then organized by fond - archival-speak for a subcollection. Some fonds, such as the “Cappella Sistina Diari”, are brought from collections by smaller libraries and archives within the overall Papal organization. Others, such as “Boncompagni Ludovisi” are donated by persons external to VAL.

Apart from the digital records made available on DigiVatLib, databases outside of the Church also play an important role in navigating VAL’s records. For example, thousands of Latin manuscripts are digitized and made accessible online only through Bibliotheca Palatina Digital of the Heidelberg University. Similarly, the Manuscripta Juridica Database based in Frankfurt, Germany, provides comprehensive information about Vatican records that concern Roman and Feudal law. Further, a valuable service founded by the late Jean-Baptiste Piggin and scholar Aaron Marks, tracks the manuscripts that are added to VAL’s digital collections each week.

Each archival effort helps to develop an increasingly comprehensive account of the documentary heritage of the Church and its detrimental impact on diverse spiritual communities. Legal professionals would be wise to harness these resources when helping individuals and communities understand their own history with the Church.