Q2: What’s not working and how can we fix it?

27 Jul Q2: What’s not working and how can we fix it?

From tablet to tablet – we ask experts about convergences between Jewish Studies and digital humanities. Yesterday’s question was What has changed?

Question 2: What are the major practical and theoretical challenges in digital humanities, specifically when we consider the field of Jewish Studies? How could they be tackled?


Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and Co-director of the Footprints project

There is still a significant amount of skepticism toward the digital humanities, especially when it comes to professional advancement.  Digital humanities projects and work are not yet applied to most promotion and tenure considerations, and the emphasis on a printed monograph as the key output for scholarship is limiting the field.

Another fundamental challenge is the divide between ideas and capabilities.  Many scholars have fantastic ideas for digital projects, but do not have the means (either financial or technical) to pursue them.  My Contact List for Jewish DH attempts to bring together technically skilled people with people who might have interest in building digital projects, but it is very ad hoc and the members are self-identifying.  It is also a difficult thing for one person to maintain, and I have not been able to be as active as I would have liked in connecting people via that list.In my most successful project, Footprints, I found that working with talented developers, regardless of level of Jewish Studies knowledge, was key to the creation of our project.  This requires extensive funding, however, and we have applied for various grants to support the project on an ongoing basis.  A formal organization to support and guide DH projects in the field of Jewish Studies would be an incredible asset to the field.

A third problem (which would also be addressed by a centralized organization) is the plethora of silos and duplication (mostly in digitization, but also in other areas) that have been created over the years.  Most projects are institution-based, and thus focus only on materials from a particular institution.  An example for potential international collaboration is the documentation of materials surrounding the Dreyfuss Affair (examples exist at the Bibliotheque Nacionale in Paris, Brandeis University, the National Library of Israel, and the University of Pennsylvania).  Two of these institutions (UPenn and NLI) had created exhibitions around the topic; the other two created finding aids with links to digital objects.  The physical distance between the owning institutions has, until now, precluded any kind of collaborative commitment, but an embrace of the digital (and extensive communication) could bring the four collections together in an incredible way.  With the new IIIF technology, collaborative digital exhibitions should be a clear plan for the future of Judaica collections.


Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania

The most important practical and theoretical challenges to Jewish Studies digital humanities are technological and human restrictions on data.  The more open the data, the more vibrant will be the field and themore opportunitiesthere will be for innovation.  At the same time, unrestricted open data approaches constrain locally developed practices with customized functionality.  The ability to navigate and balance the competing claims of open access, the aspiration to curate and present data locally in customized ways, legitimate concerns about intellectual property theft, apprehension about diminished market value of privately owned materials through the availability of digital surrogates, fear of negative consequences due to potential misuses of open data,all need to be confronted and addressed.  The Creative Commons model of levels of open data one carefully developed approach which seeks to address many of these concerns.  Pushing owners of Jewish cultural content, whether held in institutions, communal organizations, or in private hands, to familiarize themselves with these approaches and to seek their cooperation to make their data as freely available as possible is a desideratum.


Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge University Library

The principal problems that we have faced in working up digital humanities projects have been: a lack suitably qualified members of staff, and the difficulty of recruiting in this field; a mismatch between vision and what is actually achievable wthin a limited budget (it is expensive to create and maintain digital resources); and, most important of all, the problem of how to sustain content/tools that are produced in the long term – this is crucial: much earlier innovative work in this field will be lost, because the technologies are too expensive to maintain (and translate to new platforms) over time. The Library has an important role to play here: it can advise on the appropriate formats to ensure long-term sustainability/accessibility of material; it can archive the archivable-bits of projects (principally the content), ensuring work is not wasted even when websites/innovative tools cease to function; it can, if suitably funded, take in and sustain websites/databases/tools that have proven to be of use (thinking, for instance, of the long-term future of the Friedberg Genizah Project website and similar, which have been produced independently of any publicly funded body).


Sinai Rusinek, The Van Leer Jerusalem Insitute

RTL! i.e., the challenge of right to left script. Now that script encoding is pretty much solved with UTF-8, it is the main obstacle in the development of Jewish DH.  The technical solutions are there, but they have to be implemented, and the problems are 1. that RTL are of interest to even less people on the globe than encoding was and 2. It is quite difficult to convey to a developer who is not RTL-literate how RTL interfaces should work. How could this problem be tackled? Easily:by a very small, short term, traveling mission(perhaps a DH person and a developer) who would translate, convert, and educate tool developers by explaining how to adapt their tools to RTL languages.

Personally, I would of course like to see some dedicated government funding to DH in Israel (and not just Digitization of Heritage which is quite advanced). However, even in countries where such funding is available, an importantpractical challengefor Jewish Studies is the national structure of funding agencies. Funders in the field do not normally dedicate funds for internationally collaborative DH work (The Israeli Ministry of Science Maimonide grant is a rare and fortunate recent exception). Also, when a DH application is judged it is either by ‘traditional’ humanists or by computer scientists, who are just as ignorant of the standards and needs of the field. Evaluation and accreditation need to be rethought in order to enable the kind of innovation that DH brings forth.

To a more technical point: the need for an open and customizable collaborative annotation environment is great. This is, however, a general challenge not endemic to Jewish studies.

Finally, perhaps what the field could profit from more than anything is expert consultancy in DH, which will be available for funders, projects and scholars.


Conny Kristel, Reto Speck, Tobias Blanke and Daan de Leeuw, European Holocaust Research Infrastructure

Multi-linguality of sources: Holocaust sources are written in many different languages, which renders digital integration and analysis of such sources complicated. In some (limited) cases machine-translation may offer a partial solution to this problem. However, in most cases, competency in several languages and employing digital tools that can deal with multi-lingual data will remain necessary for the foreseeable future.

While the identification of Holocaust-related sources continues apace and increasing amount of sources become available digital, there still exist many “hidden” collections that are currently not widely employed in research. Collections may be “hidden” because they are only insufficiently described or because they are not easily obtainable in a suitable form. In the context of the increasing application of digital methods to Holocaust sources, this situation may become exacerbated in the sense that (digital) research may increasingly focus on a minority of sources simply because they are already machine-readable even if these sources may not be the most suitable to address the research question that is being investigated. Continued funding for source description and source digitisation will therefore be required to avoid this. Particularly important in regard to Holocaust studies is to make funding and expertise available to smaller collection holding institutions, and to institutions in regions with limited access to larger infrastructures (for instance, Eastern Europe or the Balkans) in order to enable them to become fully plugged into the evolving digital landscape of Holocaust studies.

Legal frameworks that govern access to Holocaust-related sources are complex and especially privacy restrictions at times impede sharing and full exploitation.

Similarly, the willingness and ability of collection holding institutions to openly make their (digitised) collections as well as related resources (metadata, thesauri and other knowledge organisation frameworks) available in bulk for the purpose of (digital) research is uneven. Increased advocacy work that aims at demonstrating to collection holders the full benefits of openness and sharing, as well as the availability of guidelines/templates to regulate such sharing could be helpful in this context.

While digital approaches have found a firm foothold among many Holocaust archivists and researchers, there still exists skepticism among some practitioners about the desirability and ultimate results of such approaches. Dissemination, outreach and advocacy activities, and, especially, demonstrator projects that concisely show how digital approaches can and do solve real problems in Holocaust research and archiving are required to overcome such skepticism. Likewise, there is a need to develop frameworks that can guarantee the quality and trustworthiness of digital tools and methods.


Lev Israel and Russel Neiss (Sefaria)

The major challenge is open access. This includes both the practical aspects of access – that a researcher or student be able to see a resource – and the thornier issue of removing legal restrictions – that a researcher or student can do with the data as she wishes.

There is already a vast wealth of resources that have been digitized, but many of them are either hidden from view or frozen by legal restrictions. Existing digital resources need to be made available and reusable. Philanthropic funds should carry the necessary condition that the resulting work be legally placed into the public domain.  In our opinion, the curation of these resources into an open, accessible, and human/computer readable format is a necessary precondition for doing anything of interest in the field in the short- to medium-term.


Jonathan Brent, Executive Director of YIVO-Institute for Jewish Research

Three challenges exist for the history of East European and Russian Jewish history and culture that digitization of primary materials can and should address.

The first is that many important Jewish archival collections were broken up during the Holocaust and its Cold War aftermath.  Digitization provides a means of reuniting fragments of once unified collections, such as the YIVO Vilna Collections, the Bund archives, and the archive of S. Ansky.  In cases such as these, parts of the original archive today may reside in the U.S., Eastern Europe, Russia, Israel, Amsterdam, and Australia.  Therefore developing models of international cooperation, such as that which exists for The YIVO Vilna Collection Project, is essential.

The second is that these archives, unlike those from other parts of the world, are usually in many different languages and, in some cases, dialectical variants of these languages (e.g., Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian) which are difficult for scholarly non-specialists or the vast majority of the English speaking general public to read.  Therefore, in addition processing these often unprocessed materials and putting them online, they need to be translated and significant funds need to be allocated for both selection of materials to be translated and the actual translation itself.

The third is that documents do not speak for themselves, even the most seemingly obvious.  They need to be curated, put into their historical, religious, social, political, and sometimes biographical contexts.  In order for these digitization initiatives to have the desired impact,   scholarly advisory committees need to be formed to curate and explain the materials.

A related practical challenge is encouraging use of materials once the digitization phase is over and the materials are online.  Efforts need to be put into developing digitized documents into pedagogical materials that will be put into place in classrooms, and publicizing scholarly projects that incorporate the materials to ensure that they do not go unseen.  One way of achieving that digital materials are seen by the largest audiences possible is to aggregate them to multiple platforms (e.g., materials digitized by YIVO appear on YIVO’s websites but also in Judaica Europeana and Digital Public Library of America).

A key practical challenge is digital preservation.  Digital preservation is often overlooked but is a crucial component of making sure that the digital projects we pour so much time and energy into will survive a changing digital environment. Stakeholders and funders must be educated about the ongoing financial and infrastructure resources that will be required to maintain digital treasuries into perpetuity.

A more theoretical challenge is ensuring that digital projects developed by different institutions can eventually work with one another.  A set of controlled vocabulary for Jewish Studies could be developed, along the lines of Viaf (Virtual International Authority File), where different spellings of the names of significant people and places could be correlated, making digital projects that utilize different spellings searchable with a single search. One step in this direction is the JudaicaLink, a linked open data (LOD) project, which involves using Jewish reference works as a tool for developing controlled vocabularies.

We would like to know what you think.

Coming up tomorrow: Q3. Who is good?