By STEVE LOHR

New York Times

The Vatican Library, founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V, housing 1.5 million books and 150,000 manuscripts, including the oldest known manuscript of the Bible, is visited by only 2,000 scholars a year.

But IBM, as part of a new business push announced Monday, intends to help the Vatican open its archives to the computing masses.

``All these wonderful books are only of use if they're read,'' said the Rev. Leonard Boyle, prefect of the Vatican Library. He said the IBM project would put the library's manuscripts and texts in digital form as a way of broadening the library's reach.

IBM, meanwhile, intends to expand into a field of information technology that focuses mainly on large corporations, universities and cultural institutions.

The technology initiative, called the IBM Digital Library, is the big computer corporation's effort to carve out an early, profitable niche on the so-called information highway.

IBM's approach with this move appears to be focused on specific, near-term ventures instead of opportunities like movies-on-demand, which could be a huge business but only years from now.

``This isn't a vision,'' said Steven A. Mills, general manager of IBM's software solutions division. ``We're not pointing toward the stands. These software tools are all available now.''

At a press conference at the New York Public Library, company executives discussed a series of projects already under way to assist companies and institutions transform text, art, films and music into digital form that can be transmitted electronically over computer networks anywhere in the world.

The projects include ones with the Vatican Library, the Los Angeles City Public Library, Indiana University and Telstar Holdings, a British company that markets copyrighted music.

Some of the Vatican manuscripts are likely to be available on the Internet, the worldwide computer network, and IBM is also working on software that offers copyright protection for rare materials.

IBM faces plenty of competition in the field of multimedia data bases from rivals like Oracle, Microsoft and Sybase.

Hank Leingang, chief information officer of Viacom Inc., says IBM seems to be taking a sensible, step-by-step approach to software for the information highway. At Viacom, Leingang said, each of the company's publishing, movie and music businesses, including Simon & Schuster, Paramount and MTV, will convert material to digital form at its own pace.

``The speed at which the business units move toward the ultimate solution -- being fully digitized -- will depend not only on what is technologically possible, but also what is commercially viable,'' he explained.

With its software initiative, IBM is presenting itself as a company that offers all the tools for digitizing an information business -- storage, data base searchs, rights management and distribution. But analysts say IBM must be careful to make sure each of its software tools works with industry-standard hardware and software, especially personal computers.

In the past, IBM has been hurt by trying to sell its proprietary software, even when lower-cost alternatives that run on personal computers were available. IBM executives insisted that the company would not make that mistake this time.

``We're committed to delivering these solutions on any platform, from PCs to mainframes,'' Mills said.

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