The Vatican Secret Archives is one of the grandest historical collections in the world. It’s also one of the most useless.
The grandeur is obvious. Located within the Vatican’s walls, next door to the Apostolic Library and just north of the Sistine Chapel, the VSA houses 53 linear miles of shelving dating back more than 12 centuries. It includes gems like the papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther and the pleas for help that Mary Queen of Scots sent to Pope Sixtus V before her execution. In size and scope, the collection is almost peerless.
That said, the VSA isn’t much use to modern scholars, because it’s so inaccessible. Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.
But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time. If successful, the technology could also open up untold numbers of other documents at historical archives around the world.