An open letter to the Ambrosian Library in Milan

I have today written to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, as follows.

Dear Sir,

I believe that Notre Dame University in the USA have a set of microfilms of the manuscript collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana:

But they say that “Notre Dame is no longer able to supply microfilms or photographs from the Ambrosiana. Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, has stipulated that all such requests be sent directly to the library.” (and in writing on paper).

Is this true?  If it is true, may I ask why?  It makes the library look bad.

I went to your website, which is in Italian only.  Few English-speakers know Italian well.  I was unable to find any way to order copies of manuscripts.  I was unable to find any manuscripts online.

This is the age of the internet.  Surely it is morally wrong to make it difficult for scholars to access manuscripts?

Yours sincerely,

Roger Pearse

It would be unfair to criticise a library without giving them the chance to respond, of course.  It will be interesting to see if I get a reply. 


6 thoughts on “An open letter to the Ambrosian Library in Milan

  1. Dear Roger,

    Thanks for your wonderful dry wit:

    “It makes the library look bad.”
    [read: “It makes the library look worse than it already is.”]

    “This is the age of the internet. Surely it is morally wrong to make it difficult for scholars to access manuscripts?”

    Don’t be surprised if their response is no response.

    In addition to your Bloodsucker Award, why not compile a list of the Worst Libraries for Scholarship? Would the list be too long? Would the project be too time-consuming?

    Robert Bedrosian

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I won’t be surprised to get ignored; indeed I expect it. If the Biblioteca Ambrosiana is a greedy, witless organisation which is abusing its position, then that will be the response. We know that many very prestigious libraries seem to be run by time-servers with puffed-up ideas of themselves, and no regard for their collections or readers. These stooges will all die, and their policies will be discarded, not without contempt, by the younger generation who don’t remember a world without the internet.

    But the Biblioteca Ambrosiana may not be one of them. I don’t know what they are like to deal with. I’ve never tried to do so. I can see that they have done something which injures scholars in the USA. But perhaps they have a reason, which was not articulated on that web site. If so, they will say so.

    I know. You’re thinking that I’m being too generous. But I try to be fair. It’s a difficult time for libraries, as the technology is changing so fast. We need to pepper them with emails demanding change, when they get greedy or stupid. We need to remind them that they have a duty to the public. So I’ve done a little bit towards that with my letter. If they don’t respond… then I will feel justified in letting them have it with both barrels.

  3. I will be watching developments with keen interest.

    In my opinion, obfuscation is not solely a learned or acquired trait. It can be transmitted genetically from one generation to the next. Consequently, having a new generation that only knows the Internet does not necessarily mean a reduction in obfuscation. User-hostile GUIs, links that are “virtual oubliettes” and a hundred and one other “modalities” are available to this new generation as it expresses its inner potential. This is even before they erect the outer walls: charging exorbitant fees for everything alive, dead, or in-between.

  4. You’re right, of course. The culture of many of these institutions rewards obfustication. This won’t change. But the cruder kinds of obstruction will give way. More and more stuff will go online.

    That said, there seems little sign of large-scale digitisation of unique holdings, such as manuscripts. There does indeed seem to be an tendency to try to exploit these for money.

    The British Library used public money to digitise 18th century newspapers. It then erected a firewall and barred the public from accessing it. Only those in full-time education can see the stuff. This kind of obscenity will continue unless we can find an answer.

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