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Gutenberg Bible Goes Digital
High-Tech Photos of Library of Congress Copy Allow Web Scrutiny

Listen Listen to Robert Siegel's story on the Gutenberg Bible's high-tech imaging project at the Library of Congress.

Digital Camera photographing the Gutenberg Bible

A high-resolution digital camera takes pictures of the Gutenberg Bible one page at a time.
Photo: Jon "Smokey" Baer, NPR

Feb. 19, 2002 -- The Gutenberg Bible has long been part of an elite group of works of art many consider priceless. There are at least three perfect copies still in existence, and even incomplete or flawed copies fetch top bids at art auctions. Forty-eight of the original 160 to 180 copies Johannes Gutenberg printed have survived to the present day.

But the book's larger significance derives from what it represents. Gutenberg is credited with inventing a system of moveable type that ultimately allowed for the quick and efficient printing of books -- making them inexpensive enough for the common man to purchase and read in the comfort of his own home.

Ironically, copies of the Gutenberg Bible that have survived the ages are now too precious for all but the most privileged and select to handle. The Library of Congress has one of the "perfect copies" printed on vellum -- a fine-grained animal hide -- but library patrons can only view it, dimly, through a thick sheet of protective glass.

Gutenberg did not use page numbers, adding another challenge to the project.
Used by permission of Octavo

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Now a new technology is expected to allow the curious to see each page in meticulous detail -- a technology every bit as revolutionary as Gutenberg's moveable type: computers, and the Internet.

Martha Blegen, who takes high-resolution digital images of rare books for a company called Octavo, is hard at work at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., photographing every single page of the library's three-volume Bible.

And even then, as she explained to All Things Considered senior host Robert Siegel, she's not allowed to turn the pages to take the next picture -- that privilege belongs to Maria Nugent of the library's conservation lab. And she can do it only with gloves on.

Blegen's digital camera mounted directly above the Bible scans each two-page spread separately. Each high-resolution image is sent via the Internet back to Octavo in Oakland, Calif., where Blegen's colleagues can see it instantly. Each page spread takes six-and-a-half minutes to scan.

Gutenberg Bible print detail

Text detail from Library of Congress Gutenberg Bible.
Used by permission of Octavo

view photo View larger picture.

High-resolution digital imaging has already prompted some re-evaluation of Gutenberg's technique. Paul Needham, the Scheide Librarian at Princeton University, along with physicist Blaise Aguera y Arcas, have already studied high-resolution images of Princeton's copy of the Gutenberg Bible, printed on paper.

Needham says letters that were long thought to have been made from pieces of type punched from the same mold lacked a degree of consistency you would expect -- and may in fact have been created using a more complex and less efficient method.

It is possible that this near-microscopic inspection of the text will lead to a re-evaluation of Gutenberg's invention -- that perhaps it was not the defining breakthrough we have long supposed it was.

Other Resources

• Beginning in March 2002, Octavo will update their Web site with new images of the Gutenberg Bible as they become available.

• The Rare Book and Special Collections reading room at the Library of Congress has many online offerings.

• The British Library in London also has a "perfect copy" of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum.

• The third "perfect copy" of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum belongs to the Bibliothèque Nationale in France.