Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries can be traced to a visionary gift made in 1996 by Laurence J. Schoenberg, C'53, WG'56, a Penn alumnus and Penn Libraries board chairman. Thanks to his generous support, the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI) was established. Its mission was to explore and realize the enormous potential new technologies presented for humanistic research, particularly in the field of medieval manuscript studies. New equipment, space, staffing, and other resources were committed to the transformation of original physical holdings of cultural heritage into digital formats. Methodologies and best practices were developed, such as imaging standards, searchable metadata and encoded displays, and dynamic web presentation, in order to enhance access to primary sources.
Thanks to a gift from another Penn alum and Penn Libraries Board member Jeffrey Keil, W’65, the Penn Libraries embarked on a pioneering partnership with the Cambridge University Library in the field of Genizah Studies, referring to the hundreds of thousands of medieval manuscript fragments that are currently dispersed around the world. Historically, the term genizah commonly refers to an informal storage area where fragile Jewish documents, considered religiously significant, but ritually unfit, are put away until they are brought to a cemetery for a dignified burial. The trove of over 200,000 medieval manuscript fragments once held in the attic genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo, dating from the 9th cent. CE, is the most famous and important of the extant collections. Its contents - so-called Cairo genizah fragments, which came to light during the 19th century - subsequently were scattered around the world. Some appeared on and then disappeared from the antiquities market; the largest segment went to Cambridge University, where they became the object of intensive scholarly study. This second, cooperative phase in our digitization program at the Penn Libraries represented a pioneering step in the development of integrated search and discovery of relationships among physically dispersed and otherwise unlinked Judaica resources. By partnering with the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Lab at the Cambridge University Library, and later with the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, we were able to demonstrate how digital technologies may serve as discovery tools to identify matches among a global diaspora of thousands of fragments of medieval manuscripts.1
With a start-up gift from the Gershwind-Bennett families and the generosity of the Jesselson and Kaplan family foundations, the Penn Libraries were able to apply the methods and best practices learned from our initial foray into Genizah studies to the field of Atlantic Jewish history. The Jesselson-Kaplan American Genizah Projecttook form as an international initiative to integrate digital technologies into the way we study Atlantic Jewish history. Its primary goal is to create an open access digital repository or “genizah” of physically dispersed primary sources that document the development of Jewish life in the western hemisphere and around the Atlantic from the 16th-19th centuries. We were able to show how digital technologies also could be utilized to enhance access to dispersed archival documents and indeed produce dynamic forms of discovery through full-text searchability of transcribed hand-written documents, encoded in TEI, periodicals and other printed works.
Now, thanks to a new start-up gift from the Gershwind-Bennett Families, the Penn Libraries are introducing a robust program of Judaica Digital Humanities (DH) research and development in order to think in new and creative ways about what we can DO with data that we have produced. To be clear: our understanding of DH as “what we can do with data” is not limited to specific applications like text-mining but to an unlimited potential number of ways in which to recycle and play with data.