On 5 May the European Space Agency (ESA) tweeted about one of those curious and exciting cross-fertilisations in science and culture that you may not have seen coming. In 2016, ESA and the Vatican Apostolic Library signed an agreement, of which they are now presenting the preliminary results. They are now using the same method to manage their respective long-term data preservation projects, and spoke about the new initiatives this created.

For more than 500 years, the Vatican Apostolic Library has been a repository for books and manuscripts of immeasurable cultural value. It has been pivotal in preserving, protecting and restoring the written words of centuries. And now, benefiting from today’s technology, it is digitalising its entire collection – which includes over 80.000 codices, mostly from the Middle Ages and what ESA calls the ‘Humanism Period‘. The aim of the Library’s project, which started in 2010, is the creation and storage of high-resolution images, to be made available freely online through a digital library.

Meanwhile, ESA was trying to do pretty much the same. Through its Heritage Data Programme, for example, ESA is ensuring the preservation of, as well as the access to, archived Earth observation satellite data. The Vatican-ESA cooperation is now benefiting both institutions deal with similar issues. As Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes says:

The Library is now preserving their manuscripts digitally by using data formats that were originally developed in the space domain. We are now seeing how both ESA and the Vatican can benefit from the advances they have made.

The Library’s preservation project uses the Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) format, which stems from radio astronomy and was developed in the 1970’s by ESA and NASA. Development by the Library of procedures, file formats and tools demonstrates how using this format is facilitating their digitalisation project, and also its suitability for the long-term preservation of ESA satellite data and information. Meanwhile, in a proof of concept for multidisciplinary cross-valorisation, technology used to exploit satellite data has been applied to cultural heritage assets from the Library.

In commenting on the results, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church, said that:

“ESA and the Vatican Apostolic Library share a long history of pioneering work in their respective fields and long-lasting collaboration aimed at the preservation and worldwide accessibility of the respective patrimonies of data and information holdings. The Joint Declaration between ESA, the Library and the EC fosters synergies between the expertise, know-how and resources available through the three institutions, and paves the way for concrete collaboration for the benefit of humankind.

Director of Aerospace, Maritime, Security and Defence Industries within the European Commission’s Directorate General Enterprise and, Philippe Brunet added that:

It is important to make heritage assets in terms of data and knowledge widely accessible and exploitable to stimulate innovation and growth in Europe. The Joint Declaration will enable concrete steps in that direction.

More synergies are hoped to be achieved, in evaluating and benchmarking formats, and in piloting emerging technologies by further collaboration. The processes for the preservation and use of data and knowledge to be gained, are applicable to a broader community. For the meantime, FITS format standardisation and demonstration of multidisciplinary applications through the use of heritage data and information from ESA, the Vatican Apostolic Library and the European Commission will be addressed soon.