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Roll over Gutenberg

By Bill Broadway
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Most people will never see a Gutenberg Bible outside a dimly lit display case. They won’t smell the sweet, musty aroma of the rippled cowhide vellum or use a magnifying glass to examine the engraved brass clasps or the strokes of hand-painted letters.

What they can do, thanks to high-resolution digital photography and a new generation of home computers, is explore the 548-year-old work by popping discs into their CD drives. Viewers can use the “zoom” tool to enlarge sections of printed text or the hand-tooled leather binding. And they can search for a word in the English translation and, with a mouse click, go to the original page where the word appears in the Latin text.

Digitizing the Gutenberg Bible — the first book printed in the West on movable metal type — has made the “otherwise unavailable text available, and in ways that before were unimaginable,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare books and special collections division at the Library of Congress.

The library’s Gutenberg is one of 20 complete copies of the 1,286-page text and one of a dozen of 49 existing copies printed on vellum, a fine writing material made from animal skins, Gutenberg scholar Janet Ing Freeman said by e-mail from London.

It was acquired in 1930 as part of the $1.5 million purchase of more than 3,000 items from a German rare-book dealer. Because the Bible is bound in three volumes, just one volume can be displayed in the Great Hall while the others “rest,” in conservators’ terms. They are rotated once every three to four months.

Technicians from Octavo, based in Berkeley, Calif., spent four months last year photographing the Library of Congress’ Gutenberg for its just-released two-CD digital facsimile. Octavo was created six years ago by John Warnock, who co-founded Adobe Systems 20 years ago and helped develop such commonly used text and graphics software as Acrobat Reader, Photoshop and Illustrator.

Warnock chairs the boards of Adobe and Octavo, but the two companies “have no legal connection,” said E.M. Ginger, Octavo’s executive editor.

Warnock, an avid book collector, started Octavo after realizing the computer technology he helped design could reproduce rare books digitally and affordably, Ginger said. He began photographing 16th- and 17th-century scientific texts from his personal library. The company has since published more than 40 rare texts on CD in architecture, literature, art, geography, mathematics and other categories, she said.

The Gutenberg Bible was the eighth project that Octavo completed in partnership with the Library of Congress, including a treatise by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio and a 19th-century collection of rose paintings by French artist Pierre Joseph Redoute.

Four years ago, Octavo set up an imaging studio off the rare-book reading room, where imaging specialist Arthur Brown is photographing English poet Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” (1820), engraved and hand-colored by William Blake. The project is scheduled for fall publication.

The Gutenberg Bible was photographed in a different location under strict supervision of a conservator and rigorous environmental controls.

Octavo has worked with more than a dozen other libraries and collections, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, the New York Public Library, Chicago Botanic Garden and the Bridwell theological library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Most of the world’s major libraries are digitizing texts and “there’s probably more being done in biblical studies ... than in any other field,” said Kent Richards, executive editor of the Atlanta-based Society of Biblical Literature.

The society has developed a universal typeface called “unicode” that can be used to e-mail or print texts in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, which without a standard font are not easily transferred from one computer to another, he said.

It also is working with the Freer Gallery of Art here to digitize — and provide free on the Internet — facsimiles of biblical codices and other texts in the Freer’s collection. Richards said scholars and librarians are debating whether digital facsimiles should be free to anyone with Internet access or sold on compact discs, the way Octavo is doing it. “I’m not saying making products to make money is a bad thing,” Richards said, but noted everything possible should be done to make the material “freely accessible.”

Ginger, of Octavo, said her company “has yet to make a profit.” Octavo’s goal is to make the Gutenberg Bible and other rare books accessible to as wide an audience as possible and “to keep the price as low as we can.”

The two-CD Gutenberg set is $65, but the price will go up to $80 in October — about what a moderately priced art book would cost, she said. (A research facsimile with massive image files is available on 28 CDs for $1,500 now, and $1,950 in the fall.) Ginger said all Gutenberg images can be viewed on Octavo’s Web site but cannot yet be magnified there as they can on the CD.

Dimunation said the Library of Congress long ago committed to providing easy Internet accessibility for the public interested in rare material. Over the last nine years, in a “major undertaking” separate from the Octavo book editions, the library has digitized more than 8 million books, films, baseball cards, photographs, audio recordings, letters, posters and other objects, he said.

All are available on the Library of Congress Web site, making it possible for anyone in the world to see materials they once had to visit the library to see or hear.

For researchers, digitization is “opening up a whole new level of scholarship,” Dimunation said. Researchers at Princeton University, for example, studied digital photos of a Gutenberg Bible there and determined that Johannes Gutenberg possibly made his metal type using molds made of packed sand rather than metal — a significant theory in the development of printing, he said.

And scholars using the magnification capability of digital images might compare binding methods and decorations of books of the same approximate age to determine where — perhaps in what shop — various volumes were bound.

For the first three centuries or so of Western printing, bindings, decorations and text illustrations typically were done by someone other than the printer, Dimunation said. The library’s copy has “rubrications” — hand-colored letters indicating the beginning of chapters and verses (numbered verses came later) — but fewer marginal illustrations than some copies, he said.

Gerald Wager, head of the rare-book reading room at the Library of Congress, said the library’s copy — like most of the 160 to 180 Gutenbergs believed printed — originally was bound in two volumes. But in the 16th century, it was broken into three, most likely because the weight of the vellum made it difficult for the Bible to be moved about by the Benedictine monks who used it regularly in daily monastery life, he said.

One of the 13-by-17-inch volumes weighs 18 pounds and the other two each weigh about 14 pounds, Wager said. He pointed to slight discoloration in the Book of Psalms, suggesting the text had been handled frequently — more so than most of the rest of the library’s copy. When not on display, the volumes are kept in a vault at a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the digital imaging project, a special cradle was made to hold the Gutenberg Bible horizontally as each volume was photographed from above with a high-resolution digital camera, said Arthur Brown, one of the project’s photographers. Cool metal halide lights kept the temperature of the vellum under the maximum 1-degree increase allowed, and each exposure took up to 15 minutes, he said.

Although most consumer digital cameras are rated at two to four megapixels — a measure of how much detail the camera captures — Octavo’s camera is rated at 130 megapixels, Brown said. To say it another way, while most consumer cameras cannot produce sharp prints larger than 11-by-14-inch images, Octavo’s imaging system can produce 6-by-9-foot prints without loss of quality, he said.