- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

First, movable type. Now, the electronic squeeze.
Thanks to the blessings of modern technology, the Gutenberg Bible the Western world's first large-size printed book soon will be available on home computer screens, although in a much reduced size.
Slowly and painstakingly, Octavo, a company in Oakland, Calif., is creating a state-of-the-art digital facsimile in partnership with the Library of Congress, which owns one of three perfect copies in existence.
It is almost certainly the first effort to digitize and make available for public viewing on the World Wide Web all or some of the three volumes produced in the 1450s by Johann Gutenberg, probably in Mainz, Germany, who is credited with using movable or reusable type for the first time.
The entrepreneurial inventor and his aides printed 160 copies of the book, a quarter of them on vellum (parchment made of calf or sheepskin), that he planned to sell. Just 10 remain in vellum form. The library's copy was bought in 1929 from a private German collector with funds Congress appropriated for the purpose.
Normally, the public can see the library's copy of the prized 550-year-old treasure one double page at a time each month and under thick glass and low light in a locked case in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. A police escort accompanies the book whenever it is moved.
"It's tremendously popular," says Mark Roosa, the library's director of preservation. "Whenever we have to take the cases out and service them, we always get a lot of complaints. People will drive here just to see the Gutenberg Bible."
An estimated 1 million visitors come to see it in the library each year, even if it's only a doubtful few that can understand the words printed in a dense Gothic-style Latin script.
Moving the Bible is no easy task. Each volume weighs between 30 and 40 pounds, the equivalent of a large bag of dog food, and, when not on display, is kept in a special temperature- and humidity-controlled storage room (50 degrees Fahrenheit and about 50 percent humidity) along with some of the institution's other top treasures, such as a draft version of the Declaration of Independence.
The only people allowed to touch the Bible are professionals in the library's conservation and preservation departments and then only with plastic gloves similar to those worn by surgeons in the operating room. They do so with great care. The book is in excellent condition and is kept in a specially designed acid-free box, Mr. Roosa says. When moved, the Bible must rest "relax," he says to adjust to its new surroundings.
"The way it is being scanned will provide the most detail possible in a way that I think will convey to people looking at a screen a good part of the essence of what the book is about," he says, adding that this is not an easy book to scan.
Out of its box, a volume sits in what is called a preservation cradle open at an angle that won't put stress on the binding or the pages.
Transforming the book's 1,200-some pages into digital form either all or in part for both the Web and, likely, a CD-ROM product will give scholars and millions of others around the world a chance to see printed pages showing the paper surface in detail and its bindings and decorative hand-tooled pigskin cover. Some test shots are on the Octavo Web sites. A translation overlay will be included, as well, in keeping with the company's other digitized products.
The Bible-scanning project takes place in a small blue-tiled room behind an unmarked door. An ultra high-resolution camera is suspended on a large frame several feet above a platform that supports the book. Three tall 150-watt lights, which do not contain harmful ultraviolet rays, are focused on the book, which is kept covered with acid-free paper when not in use.
The extra-high resolution ensures that all the details will be captured for the resulting images, aided by special software developed by Octavo's founder, John Warnock, the co-founder of Silicon Valley's Adobe Systems. He is an engineer long interested in rare books and materials.
Mr. Warnock is bearing all the costs at the moment, says Martha Blegen, Octavo's imaging manager, who is the technical head of the project. It is expected that the Library of Congress would receive royalties from the sale of a CD-ROM, she says.
"Every book has its own personality and behaves differently, owing to varied physical characteristics," Ms. Blegen says. "This book is different because it has no page numbers and weighs more than most. I can't tell where I am in it because I can't read page numbers and can't decipher the text. This is different, too, because it is a national treasure.
"What's interesting this time, too, is that, because of the speed in certain kinds of technology, we will be posting images I shoot at the end of the day. We capture it with as much resolution as possible so you can zoom in and look carefully at the image. Other people shoot at a certain resolution for a particular outcome. We capture it at once with the idea that some books may never be able to be handled again."
Beginning in early March, whatever work has been done each day can be seen by the public on www.Octavo.com.
There are a total 645 "leaves," or double pages, to scan, in addition to covers and bindings. A viewer looking at them on the screen will see the actual object, Ms. Blegen says.
Each picture takes about seven minutes to scan with images showing up immediately on a large computer screen nearby and transmitted immediately to Octavo in Oakland. She estimates that it will take between two and three months to scan all three volumes and several more months after that to complete the project.
"What we offer the public is never raw data. It will have been cleaned up. We do give raw data for safekeeping to an institution that owns the material, but most of them don't have a computer capable enough of opening it all up," Ms. Blegen says.
Ideally, the entire Bible could be seen in the future on the Internet, but because of its length and the amount of computer memory required, it may not be possible to access all of the work. Developing technology will determine how the Bible project may be made available outside the Web.
"There may be something more accessible and cheaper than CDs," Ms. Blegen says.


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