Italian high schoolers are helping bring secret Vatican archives to the masses

Efforts to make Vatican docs more accessible

Deep inside Vatican City lies a bunker holding a remarkable historical record – a catalog of every word written by every pope over more than 1,000 years. The secret archive holds millions of church documents including decrees and correspondence from every pope dating back more than a millennia.

Lined up, it would stretch more than 50 miles – about the length of the Panama Canal. Today, only academics with special permission can access it; otherwise it's locked away.

Marco Maiorino, a paleographer who studies ancient texts, showed CBS News' Seth Doane the frescoed room where the archives started. Valuable records – including a papal correspondence from the 13th century – have not been digitized and remain inaccessible for most. The document includes obscure abbreviations and are handwritten in Medieval Latin.

Transcribing them is difficult for a human expert, Maiorino said. It's even more difficult for a computer, which needs to identify letters to transcribe and make text searchable. Enter an unlikely group of helpers: hundreds of high schoolers in Rome who are teaching the computers how to read the handwritten Latin. 

"The program doesn't know which of these letters are an 'e' or a 'b' so by highlighting them we can teach the program," explained one of the students taking part in the effort.

The idea to include the high schoolers was Paolo Merialdo's, a professor at Roma Tre University in Rome. Merialdo enlisted 600 Italian high school students to help the computers develop a linguistic artificial intelligence.

"We are providing a sort of 'Google Translate' for paleographers," Merialdo said.

Artificial intelligence can "democratize" these documents by allowing them to be digitized and made accessible beyond the Vatican walls. The technology could also one day be used to decipher ancient manuscripts anywhere. If successful, so many more people will be able to explore the ancient writings that surround them.