Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Book of Life" Goes Live?

Recently, I had to make one of the few book-purchases required for the office: the worldwide church's annual directory, the Annuario Pontificio.

Total cost, with shipping: $158. Not something to be terribly enthused about, of course, which is why the bullet gets bitten only every third year 'round these parts.

Completely in Italian -- well, except for the translation guide in the first pages that's a triumph of brevity -- what's been nicknamed the "Book of Life" lists everything from the world's dioceses (residential and titular) and everything you'd ever want to know about each (e.mail addresses/private numbers included); the full lists of the Curial offices and their staffs, the religious communities, pontifical universities, diplomatic corps both accredited to and by the Holy See, episcopal conferences and every other sort of ecclesiastical institutions under the sun -- in other words, a lot of stuff you still, even these days, can't find online... including, as a historic courtesy in the index, the entire Papal Chapel (i.e. every monsignor on the planet... i.e. the "Purple Tsunami"...).

For one of the most strait-laced books you'll ever see, the Annuario's evolved notably even over recent years. Even now (as "Just One Look" hums in my head when recalling the moment), I can distinctly picture seeing it for the first time -- many moons ago in the famous Ancora bookshop at the edge of St Peter's Square -- when its dimensions ran closer to a thin phonebook. By 2002, as a "space-saving" move, the page-size was reduced to something closer to a pew-missal or breviary... which, in classic Italian style, ended up ballooning its thickness to well past 2,500 pages.

Despite the sticker-shock, the "Book of Life" always ends up getting very dated very quickly, given the scope it covers. Though the '08 Annuario only had its editorial "close" this past 31 January, CNS' John Thavis notes that 26 pages of updates have already been issued.

While that's nothing terribly new, what is is Thavis' brief that the Everest of Reference Books is on the verge of... going online:
The other day I phoned Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, head of the Vatican’s Centrla Office of Church Statistics (p. 1,294 in your Annuario) and asked him why they haven’t made the whole thing available electronically. As it turns out, Vatican higher-ups have been working on such a project since 1997 and, after a meeting in mid-April, are very close to making it happen.

Msgr. Formenti assured me that his office has had the technical means to offer an electronic version for some time. But he said the project also includes a proposal to offer searchable archived material — a major undertaking, since the Pontificio Annuario [sic] has been in print since 1839. The Vatican has to decide which office handles the additional work load, which server hosts the programs, how much to charge and how much historical information to include.

Msgr. Formenti said he expects the online version to be up and running by next year. Knowing how slowly carefully the Vatican proceeds when it comes to the Internet, I think that may be optimistic.
Here's hoping that, whenever the Annuario in Vivo gets around to dropping, it'll be a bit easier to find -- like clockwork, every late February sees a flurry of e.mails from chanceries and other offices asking how to simply nab a copy.