ESA and the Vatican join forces to save data in the digital age

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Representatives from ESA and the Vatican Apostolic Library signed a declaration to continue collaboration at a ceremony held in Vatican City on 4 November 2016, followed by a tour of the Library. Copyright ESA

4 November 2016 At a ceremony held in Vatican City today, ESA and the Vatican Apostolic Library have agreed to continue their years-long cooperation on the preservation, management and exploitation of archived information.

The declaration follows a five-year activity by the Vatican Library to digitise its ancient collection using the ‘FITS’ flexible image transport system format, to ensure that future generations will have access to the books. ESA and NASA developed FITS in the 1970s, stemming from radio astronomy.

“Our collaboration is based on the common intention by our two institutions to promote the long-term preservation of images in electronic format,” said Monsignor Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library.

He noted how the recent seismic events in Italy has further highlighted the importance of the preservation of information, drawing attention the need to affront changes in the technology of information storage.

“Thanks to our cooperation with ESA, the Vatican Library has found the courage to make an innovative choice to use the FITS format for long-term storage.”

Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation Programmes at ESA, highlighted that the two institutions are facing very similar issues in relation to data assets preservation and exploitation and can achieve mutual benefit in cooperating and complementing each other lessons learned and experiences.

“The Vatican Apostolic Library and ESA are two examples that attest to the approach of collaboration for global benefit,” Mr Aschbacher said.

“While ESA provides global information about the state of our planet through satellite observations, the Vatican Apostolic Library offers a unique source of wisdom that has contributed to the development of our society and culture.”

Founded in 1475 and one of the world’s oldest libraries, the Vatican Library houses tens of thousands of manuscripts and codices from before the invention of the printing press – some are 1800 years old. In addition to preserving and restoring its collection, the Library has a mandate to ensure free consultation for scholars around the world.

In addition to making the contents more accessible, the FITS digitising has helped to preserve the original documents. Pressed against a plate of glass, the old pages can be distorted, but scanner software developed for the Vatican’s project automatically calculates the different angles, resulting in an accurate, flat image.

The format’s instructions for reading and processing the data are in a text header tacked on top of the data. In a century, when computers will presumably be very different, all the information needed to decode the data will be found within the same files.

FITS can always be read without the need for conversion to another format, which could lose information or be incompatible with future systems.

Since 2008, ESA has been addressing the preservation, accessibility and future exploitation of its heritage Earth observation data assets through the Long Term Data Preservation Programme. ESA plans to use FITS to ensure that both old and new satellite data and associated information are available for scientists, policy makers and value-adding companies.

Future collaboration between ESA and the Vatican Library will allow both organisations to better evaluate digital formats and emerging technologies. The collaboration also aims to facilitate multidisciplinary applications through the use of archived information from ESA and the Vatican Library.

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