A center that will house thousands of ancient biblical manuscripts has been opened at the Southern California School of Theology at Claremont.

The facility, located in a new wing next to the school's library, already houses about 2,000 documents collected since last summer.

"The center's primary purpose is the preservation of photographic reproductions of ancient biblical manuscripts and related documents in order to make them available for use by current and future generations of scholars," explained James A. Sanders, the facility's executive vice-president.

Working with space scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the center is also able to offer computerized image enhancement techniques that allow scholars to read characters that have faded or were covered by stains or other obstructions.

At least one copy of selected manuscripts from throughout the world will be stored, "in a specially constructed, climate-controlled vault," according to Sanders.

The center has no intention of trying to obtain original manuscripts because the facilities to preserve the delicate texts are not available, he said.

The founders hope that a repository like this will further biblical research by gathering documents from all over the world in one spot.

"We want to be able to operate a place where a scholar can come and not have to run all over the world," Sanders explained.

Its collection will include reproductions not only of biblical manuscripts, but also of ancient Near Eastern tablets, papyri and inscriptions, manuscripts connected with Old Testament and Septuagint studies, manuscripts related to intertestamental literature and history and the hellenistic and Roman worlds.

The center's materials will be available to any qualified person interested in making use of them, but no translations will be provided.

"We're just in operation for the scholar who can read the [various] languages," Sanders said.

However, Sanders acknowledged that many scholars are reluctant to part with the information contained in manuscripts they hold for fear of being "scooped."

Another purpose of the center will be to acquire and preserve artifacts and memorabilia that the board of trustees judges to be directly related to the manuscripts and documents being preserved at the center.

Plans also call for the center to sponsor workshops and seminars covering topics directly related to its collections and to publish periodical reports and lists describing the reproductions housed there.