Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place

by Michelle Chesner

25 Nov Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place

The Yerusha blog is launching a series of guest posts on projects whose mission is similar to ours: to unite, through digital means, scattered pieces of cultural heritage. Our first post is by Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and Co-director of the Footprints project.

Through trial and tragedy, joy and opportunity, the Jews have traveled (one might say, wandered) from place to place throughout the centuries.  Books have always been sacred to the Jewish people, and they carried books with them throughout their travels, noting tidbits about their journeys in the margins and flyleaves as they went.  Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place is a digital humanities project that works to collate the movement of these books across centuries and the world.

Footprints’ main goal  is to document the often-ephemeral data about printed books’ provenance (sometimes found in the books themselves, as well as in archives, bookseller’s catalogues, acquisition lists, and more), and to make them available in a searchable database.  Footprints captures all data known about a book from the moment it came off the press until the present day.  We record owners, censors, dates, places, and of course citation evidence about the books.  The data is browsable in a clear format, and we have a search function as well.

Footprints offers an opportunity to raise new types of questions particularly because it is designed as an instrument of inquiry, not a closed set of conclusions.  It can be purposed towards multiple fields of study, for example:

●     Intellectual History:  The works of Rabbi Moshe Alshikh were read in Padua and Algeria, and sold from Amsterdam to New York.  Where else was his work studied?

●     Gender Studies:  A sixteenth century woman named Rahel was interested in medicine, language, prayer, and philosophy.  Were her contemporaries reading similar genres?

●     Migration:  How does a single copy of the Pentateuch leave Amsterdam, where it was used in an old age home for Ashkenazi men, travel (via Offenbach, Germany) to a Yemenite synagogue in Rehovot and come to rest in Seattle, Washington, in the United States?  What wonderful and terrible stories can we learn from following its travels?

●     History of collecting and reading: What happened to the collection of Jacob Emden?  David Oppenheim? Leopold Zunz?  What edition of the Hebrew Bible did Johannas Reuchlin use in his studies?

●     Jewish-Christian relations: What books were prone to censorshipWhere and when did censors operate?

The innovation of Footprints is in the aggregation of multiple bodies of data, such as scattered collections, into a single location.  Collaboration is thus an essential part of the Footprints work.  Data regarding the books from the library of Jacob Emden that are now at Columbia University tell only half of his story; it is imperative that we include records for Emden’s books that now reside at the British Library as well, in order to paint a more complete picture of his collection.  On a much greater scale, many libraries were seized by the Nazis and scattered after the Second World War, but the only way to (virtually) bring these collections back together is by reaching out to the recipients of the books that were housed at Offenbach Depot after the war.  We are thus working with many institutions and individual scholars to continue to add data to the site.

Batch import

Footprints works on both a macro and a micro scale. We are able to upload hundreds of Footprints at a time, based on digital library catalogues or other data sets. Columbia University and Leo Baeck Institute in New York already have uploaded batches of data in Footprints, and we are currently working with data sets from Christie’s and Kestenbaum auction houses, as well from the collections of the National Library of Israel, the University of Pennsylvania, and others.  At the same time, our interface allows an individual scholar to enter a single piece of provenance data found in the course of research.  Like the Footprints in our database, institutional collaborators already span the globe, from Jerusalem to Vienna, Oxford to San Francisco, Dublin to Philadelphia, and their numbers continue to grow.

For more information about the project, to learn how you can add materials to the database, or to provide feedback, please be in touch!

Michelle Chesner, Columbia University

Marjorie Lehman, Jewish Theological Seminary

Adam Shear, University of Pittsburgh

Joshua Teplitsky, Stony Brook University

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