America / ARTICLES / United States / USA

The Times of Israel: “Crowdsourced online database traces the global footsteps of Jewish texts”

Are you proud of your collection of passport stamps? They might pale in comparison to the voyages of this collection of ancient texts, many of which are hundreds of years old.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York, as well as Stony Brook University, Jewish Theological Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh, are tracing the lives of books across time and place with the help of the public, and are making the results available online in the first project of its kind.

The crowd-sourced project, entitled “Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place,” aims to create a database of handwritten inscriptions, censors’ stamps, book plates, annotations, and other marks in old books. The project examines everything besides the actual text in order to trace the life of a book from one owner and location to the next, explained Michelle Chesner, librarian for Jewish studies at Columbia and co-director of the project.

“Until now, there was no way to trace the movement of books,” Chesner said. “You won’t know from looking at a library catalogue that a book was owned by a particular person or that it had annotations by a particular rabbi without going to see the collection.”

It is a groundbreaking project not only for Jewish books but for books in general, said Chesner. The only similar initiative is the “Material Evidence in Incunabula” project at Oxford University, which is cataloguing the “footprints” in books — but only in the 15th century.

The “Footprints” project, on the other hand, includes Jewish books that were printed from the appearance of the printing press in the mid-15th century to the mid-19th century, when industrialization resulted in a drastic increase in the number of books produced.

This keeps the project within a manageable scope, Chesner said. So far, about 2,100 book footprints have been collected and can be viewed online.

The project includes both Ashkenazi books printed in Europe and Sephardic books from the Middle East and North Africa, said Chesner. Hebrew books started being printed in Istanbul from 1493, she said.

One of the questions that scholars are trying to answer is what Jewish women were reading hundreds of years ago, said Chesner. For example, according to a list from the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, in 1572, a Jewish woman named Rachel owned the “The Canon of Medicine,” a medical textbook. The book, which was written by a Persian physician in the 11th century, was translated to Hebrew and printed in Naples in 1492.

‘It’s fascinating that something that was a reference text for a doctor was owned by this woman in the 16th century’
“It’s fascinating that something that was a reference text for a doctor was owned by this woman in the 16th century,” Chesner said.

The project is also focusing on the geographical movement of Jewish books. For example, one Hebrew Bible in the database was printed in Amsterdam at the end of the 18th century, then ended up in a Yemenite synagogue in Israel and eventually landed in Seattle, in the United States. The book had been owned by a Jewish old age home for men in Holland and was confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It somehow made its way to Israel after the war.

“We see how far a book can travel,” Chesner said.

In another example, a Talmud that is now at Yale University was printed in Venice in the 1520s, but then ended up in a synagogue in Herat, Afghanistan, before coming to the United States, she said.

Finally, researchers are also interested at looking at the spread of religious ideas among Jews in the previous centuries. For example, Chesner said, it is interesting to find out who was reading Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” where, and when. The book was controversial and was sometimes banned by Jewish communities.

“There are so many questions that we can ask. At this point, we just want to raise questions,” said Chesner. “The website has allowed us to ask questions that never before even could have been asked.”

The project allows libraries throughout the world to add information about the “footprints” in their books, she said. The website is linked to Google maps, theoretically allowing people to make maps of particular books to see how they traveled.

“We really wanted it to be something that is crowd-sourced. Scholars are sitting in libraries. We’re trying to say if you’re one of those scholars, give us the information. It’s a way of sharing data which otherwise would be completely lost,” said Chesner.

Most recently, researchers at Columbia University have been collaborating with the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on creating a database of the “footprints” in the Schneerson Collection, the disputed library of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty which numbers more than 4,500 volumes.

‘One of the things we’re really getting from the Schneerson Collection is a different perspective’
The books were recently scanned and put online, along with detailed descriptions of what kinds of handwritten marks have been found in them. The collection is giving American scholars a glimpse at what Jews were reading in the Russian Empire, Chesner said.

“One of the things we’re really getting from the Schneerson Collection is a different perspective,” she said. “We don’t know so much about what [books] Russian Jews may have owned at an earlier period.”

Another thing that researchers are running across in the Schneerson Collection is censorship. Using the Russian censors’ stamps, researchers can deduce what government censors did not permit in specific places and time periods.

For example, Jewish books that were censored by the Catholic Church — such as the Talmud, which was outlawed in 1553, after the Pope decreed it blasphemous because it was stopping the Jews from converting to Christianity — are different from the literature that was censored in the Russian Empire, said Chesner.

“Not a lot of research has been done on this as far as I know,” she said.

Another goal is to find out who owned the books in the Schneerson Collection before the Lubavitcher grand rabbis obtained them, she said.

For example, it was discovered that one of the books in the Collection, entitled, “The Hands of Aaron,” printed in 1879 in Jerusalem, was owned by the son of the author who wrote the book, Chesner said.

Another book called “Sefer Hasidim,” which was printed in 1713 in Germany, has a handwritten note in it that says that it was given to Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, who later became the sixth Chabad Rebbe, by Yakutiel Zelikson for Purim in 1904.

“The work they’re doing at the Schneerson Collection is unbelievable,” Chesner said. “It exposes the collection in a way that [makes it interesting] to people who might have no connection to the Lubavitch part of it.”


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