THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

7 posts categorized "Hebrew"

24 October 2016

Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts: conference at the British Library, 21 November 2016

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You are welcome to join us in a conference celebrating the end of Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP) and the beginning of Phase 2! This conference will take place on Monday, 21 November 2016, at the Bronte Room, British Library Conference Centre (map) – programme is available here.

The first session will be dedicated to the British Library’s digitised collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Ilana Tahan, the Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections, will begin the session with her presentation about the history of the collection and the people who contributed to its creation. Miriam Lewis, the HMDP Project Manager, will then talk about the workflow of digitisation and the different work strands, including conservation, cataloguing, imaging, and online presentation. Closing this session, Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, the project’s Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), will talk about digital scholarship, and will especially focus on how people can access the digitised manuscripts – the images, metadata, content, updates, and how the Library can help.

The second session will look more broadly at what the Library has to offer to students and researchers. Allan Sudlow (Head of Research Development) and James Perkins (Research & Postgraduate Development Manager) will explore the opportunities the Library has to offer to graduate students and academics, such as collaborative research and PhD placements. Mahendra Mahey, head of British Library Labs, will introduce this initiative and how it encourages and supports the innovative use of the Library’s digital collection and data. Closing the session, Digital Curator Mia Ridge will talk about the current platform for viewing manuscripts (Digitised Manuscripts), and the next generation - a viewer based on the Universal Viewer technology.

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Digitised Manuscripts website showing a 15th century Sefer ha-Zohar (British Library Add MS 17745)

During an extended lunch break, attendees will be able to browse through digitised Hebrew manuscripts (or any other digitised manuscripts for this matter!) on Digitised Manuscripts, using laptops set up for this purpose.

The afternoon sessions will cover other projects working with digitised Hebrew manuscripts in UK university libraries as well as the National Library of Israel (NLI). Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections Division at the NLI, and Tsafra Siew, KTIV Project Manager will talk about the KTIV project to digitise and make available all Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. This project follows from the work of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which has been collecting microfilm copies of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world for the last 60 years. In collaboration with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS), the NLI initiated the renewal of this collection. In the framework of this enterprise, tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts will be digitised and made available online. Aviad will focus on the reasons why the NLI sees this project as a priority, why manuscripts as a medium are so significant, and why it is crucial to preserve and disseminate them. Tsafra will elaborate on the project’s short and long term goals.

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Website for KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts

Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Hebrew and Judaica Curator at the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford), will follow with an overview of the Vatican-Bodleian Polonsky Digitization Project. Focusing particularly on Hebrew and Judaica manuscripts, Cesar will explore the scope of the project, the choice of manuscripts to be digitised, the methodology regarding the metadata, the electronic catalogue, the search programme and the project website.

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Website for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

After the break we’ll be joined by Renate Smithuis, Lecturer in Medieval Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. Renate will present the Crawford and Gaster Hebrew collections at the John Rylands Library and the creation of an online catalogue as part of a new digital platform. This digitisation project focuses on codices, scrolls, amulets and other texts in Hebrew script. These are being captured in text (using TEI) and image with the aim of producing a complete online catalogue.

Closing our conference is Gabriele Ferrario from the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library. Gabriele will talk about the Mellon Trust funded project to text-mine a manuscript catalogue for the documentary materials of the Cairo Genizah. The discovery of research material on tens of thousands of manuscript fragments is difficult and time-consuming due to the lack of reliable catalogue descriptions for the greater part of this collection. Drawing on a century of published scholarship on the collection, this project will automate the production of metadata. Gabriele will present the aims, methodology and results of this project and consider possible future developments.

We’re hoping to see you with us on this special event dedicated to Hebrew manuscripts! Registration is free, but please book your place as space is limited: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/digitised-hebrew-manuscripts-british-library-and-beyond-tickets-26408351089.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

03 October 2016

What do you think about our digitised Hebrew manuscripts?

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We’ve been digitising Hebrew manuscripts and making them available on the Digitised Manuscripts website since 2013, with generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. With the recent start of Phase 2 of our digitisation project (funded by the National Library of Israel), we took the opportunity to hear your thoughts! We conducted a survey to find out if and how we can improve access to our digitised Hebrew manuscripts, and whether we can be of assistance with digital research using the collection.

We were thrilled to received 107 responses to our survey, mostly from researchers and academics. They come from a wide breadth of organisations in the UK, Europe, Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and even Uruguay!

Access to data

One key issue covered by our survey was accessibility. Our digitised manuscripts are currently available for viewing through the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. This platform offers search functionality and a smart viewer, with which you can browse images quickly and in very high resolution.

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Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (British Library Harley MS 5698), viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Noc

When asked how access can be improved, most respondents wanted to be able to download images, preferably in high resolution. They asked to make the collection free to use, but also to make it clear when one should be aware of usage terms. Being able to view manuscripts’ thumbnails was another suggestion, as well as that our viewer supports IIIF (IIIF – International Image Interoperability Framework – is a set of standards to promote the interoperability and ease of use of digital images, using standard web protocols). People also wanted to be able to share images of digitised manuscripts, for example through e-mail or social media.

Our respondents’ interest was not only in the digitised images, but also in the metadata – our catalogue records. People requested that we make our metadata available for download. In addition, they asked that we update and correct our metadata, or create a framework to crowdsource this task. It was also considered important that the visual appearance of metadata on our viewer is improved. Enhancing search functionality was also a very popular suggestion – people want to find manuscripts of interest more easily. And another prominent request was that we provide a list of all digitised Hebrew manuscripts.

We’re happy to say that we have either addressed or in the process of addressing all of these issues! To start with the latter suggestion, we have made available a list of manuscripts to download as a spreadsheet from the Hebrew Manuscripts website. We have also made our entire set of TEI XML metadata records available for download as a ZIP file (with open license CC-0). We’re also aware that Digitised Manuscripts offers limited search options, and we’re in the process of replacing this viewer with a new one (see below). In the meantime, searching this spreadsheet (e.g. in MS Excel) or filtering the data by column would make it easier to find things and get to manuscripts of interest.

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A catalogue records viewer, created by Alex Mendes, enabling to display and export the project’s metadata

Downloading high quality images was indicated as a key necessity among our users. Following the approval of an internal British Library group (Access and Reuse), we are now able to release our images for free as 300ppi JPEGs. We are in the process of preparing those for British Library Labs data.bl.uk website (to be launched in November 2016). This involves assigning the right usage term statement to each manuscript, converting the project’s TIFF files into JPEGs, and compressing these JPEGs – while keeping them in very high quality.

Preparing our collection for free and easy access will also address the suggestion to release our material as open data. Our material will be released as Public Domain, although some of it is technically still in copyright (according to UK copyright law). As this is a very low risk, it will be released for use as Public Domain, but with an appropriate disclaimer. We will make clear which manuscripts fall under which licensing category.

Many suggestions for improvement will be addressed with the transition from the Digitised Manuscripts platform to a new viewer. The new viewer is based on the Universal Viewer technology, an open source project in which the British Library is a partner. The new viewer is replacing legacy viewers for accessing digitised collection items.It will bring together manuscripts, printed books, born digital and sound content. Some of the issues mentioned above will be addressed by this viewer’s functionality:
1.    Features such as Download, Print, Share and Embed.
2.    The Universal Viewer is IIIF compliant.
3.    It enables thumbnails on a side panel, allowing for a quick browse of the manuscript. These can be expanded throughout the whole page (Gallery view), and enlarged or reduced in size as needed.
4.    Better quality viewing experience for digital collection material and metadata.
5.    It will enable the insertion of text transcriptions alongside digitised images of the manuscript represented. The full text would then be searchable.
6.    It will also indicate the relevant license and usage terms for each manuscript.

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A sample item on the Universal Viewer, demonstrating the viewer’s functionality. Noc

Digital Research

Another goal of the survey was to get an idea of the types of digital tools and techniques used by researchers to analyse digitised Hebrew manuscripts.  Most researchers indicated using digital tools for their work, the most popular being image/script comparison tools, annotations and data visualisations, followed by text mining, image analysis tools and crowdsourcing.

It is clear, however, that we can do so much more to facilitate research in this respect. Several people suggested that the project should be more geared toward research and enable a dedicated platform for some or all tools mentioned above. Special emphasis was made on the need for transcriptions, translations and annotations – and a platform to crowdsource them. These features would not only help promote research in general, but also open up our collection to non-Hebrew readers.

Other suggestions related to the creation of relationships with other digital resources such as catalogues and databases, for better discoverability. These included using Linked Open Data (LOD) to express relationships with other resources in other languages, and creating connections to the web catalogue of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (IMHM) and to other databases in Jewish studies. It was also suggested that we create API access to search our digitised collection via other platforms.

We are very grateful for these ideas – they are definitely something for us to explore. Whether we create something from scratch, or leverage on platforms or tools that were developed or are in the process of development – these useful suggestions will be examined in terms of priorities and potential future projects.

It was encouraging to see the level of survey participation and feedback, and hopefully we will keep improving our resources for the benefit of our growing audience!

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow)  Ccownwork

19 September 2016

Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Phase 1 completed

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The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project has been digitising the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection since 2013. The Library’s collection is one of the most important in the world, and this project has enabled us to make the manuscripts freely available to view online, transforming access for scholars and the public worldwide.

Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we have now completed Phase 1 of the project, with 1,300 manuscripts available to search and view online. The digitised collection includes medieval and early modern codices, single sheets, charters and scrolls, as well as an oak board (Or 6302). The oldest item we have digitised is Or 4445, the London Codex, a copy of the Pentateuch from 920-950.

This phase has taken 3 years, 435,307 image captures and 37TB of storage space, an incredible achievement by a dedicated team of conservators (including a specialist textile conservator), photographers, cataloguers and quality control officers, with expert support from Lead Curator Ilana Tahan, and enriching digital scholarship including the creation of our website and 3D models. See this video for an overview of the project and the different stages of the digitisation process.

The digitised manuscripts can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. The viewer is searchable by keyword or shelfmark, and manuscripts can be viewed as single pages or in ‘open book’ format, and can be zoomed in to provide high levels of detail on illuminations, micrography, and the grain of the paper or parchment. A full list of all of the manuscripts digitised by Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (and all of the catalogue records) can be found here.

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The viewer of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website showing an open-book view with zoom of folios 5v-6r from Add MS 11639, ‘The Northern French Miscellany’, France 1277-1324. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. Noc

Digital access to manuscripts not only saves much time and effort spent travelling to the Library, but also makes the content much more visible. We have already seen how this has increased access, research, and opportunities for innovation using the Hebrew collection. It has also enabled us to reveal illegible and hidden text and images. For some of the more over-sized items, such as the scrolls, digitisation provides a unique opportunity to view them opened out fully, which would be impossible with the physical manuscript due to their size and fragility. As more institutions begin to digitise their collections and publish them online, manuscripts from the British Library’s Hebrew collection can now be compared with manuscripts from the collections of other institutions, from all over the world.

I’d now like to share with you three of my personal highlights from the Hebrew collection, now all available to view online.

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Detail from ‘Kaifeng Torah Scroll’, China 1643-1663. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Add MS 19250  Noc

This is a Torah scroll from the Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng (Add MS 19250), one of the seven ancient capitals of China. This scroll may have been made between 1643–1663. It is 42 metres long, which is very long for a Torah scroll, but not as long as the collection’s longest scroll, which is over 52 metres long. The Kaifeng scroll is made of 94 strips of soft sheepskin, sewn together with silk thread (usually Torah scrolls are sewn together with animal sinew). As well as being incredibly rare and beautiful, this silk-route scroll tells a really interesting story about a remote Jewish community.

There is evidence of Jews in Kaifeng from as early as the first century CE. The community’s everyday activities incorporated customs unusual for China (such as abstinence from pork), as well as traditional Chinese practice (such as binding of feet). Jesuit missionaries came across the Jewish community in Kaifeng in the 1600s, and were particularly intrigued by their Torah scrolls, as they hoped that due to the community's isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, their scripture would be ‘uncorrupted originals’ of the Old Testament, shedding new light on Christian interpretations. In the 1800s, in response to the growing interest in their Torah scrolls, the Kaifeng community obliged collectors by selling them several copies. The contents of these Torah scrolls turned out to be identical to that of conventional scripture. This scroll was bought by missionaries in 1851, and presented to the British Museum in 1852.

The full scroll can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Letter of Jacob Rafael of Modena, Italy 1530. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena. British Library, Arundel MS 151, f. 191r Noc

At first glance the Hebrew manuscript shown above (Arundel MS 151) may not look like much, but it demonstrates a less well-known but fascinating aspect of one of the most famous events in English history – the divorce of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1533. This manuscript is bound in a volume called 'Letters and Papers relative to the divorce of Henry VIII', which also includes correspondence from Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, and the King himself. So where does Hebrew come into it?

Catherine of Aragon married Henry VIII in 1509, after his brother Arthur had died. The Jewish law of levirate marriage was one of the ways that this strategically advantageous marriage was justified (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Years later, Jewish law was also used to try and justify their divorce. The king had teams of scholars study Jewish law, and thought that there might be a loophole due to a prohibition against marrying a sister-in-law (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). This ‘sin’ is punished by childlessness, which Henry may have felt was reflected in his own situation (with only a daughter).

The king sent a delegation to Italy to discuss this loophole with learned Jews (Jews had been expelled from England in 1290). This letter is the reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena, who did not give the answer the king was looking for. He stated that the law of levirate marriage overrode the prohibition in Leviticus, and therefore Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid and could not be annulled on those grounds.

The full letter (folios 190r-191v) can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library,  Or 1047  Noc

This beautiful illuminated scroll of the Book of Esther is from Germany from the 17th century (Or 1047). It is just under 4 metres long. This scroll needed a lot of conservation work before it could be digitised, as at some point in its history, it had been backed onto material when damp. This had caused a lot of crinkling and contractions as it dried, risking flaking the illuminations and tearing the scroll. The conservation process was incredibly painstaking, involving very carefully removing the backing as slowly and carefully as possible.

This scroll is illustrated with the story of Esther, read by Jewish people during the festival of Purim. The illuminations show the whole story, from the beauty contest for the new queen at the beginning, the political machinations of the main characters, to the violent and bloody ending. It includes some of the exegetical interpretations of the story within the illuminations and the text: the hidden presence of god in the story is emphasised with god’s name highlighted in the lettering. It also includes contemporary images of people enjoying the revelry typically associated with the festival of Purim, a graphic circumcision scene, a Venetian galleon, two elephants and a rhinoceros.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Or 1047 Noc

The full manuscript can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

Phase 2 of the Hebrew project, in partnership with the National Library of Israel, began digitising the remainder of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript in April 2016. This phase will include the digitisation of the manuscript collection that belonged to Moses Gaster, and the Library’s Samaritan manuscript collection.

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

20 May 2016

Can’t judge a book by its cover? Perhaps you can!

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If you look at how museums choose to digitally engage with their audiences, especially in the past few years, it is evident that 3D technologies have become standard practice within their larger digital outreach. There is an increasing tendency to utilise 3D models and prints to enhance online resources featuring collection items, or as exhibition materials in galleries. Some museums still have limited experience of utilising 3D technologies, while others do it on a large-scale and on a regular basis. Overall, the 3D trend has already had a great impact on the cultural heritage sector as a whole. However, while a museum is more of a usual suspect for these novel technologies, libraries are perhaps less so. They are perceived to hold books, manuscripts, documents, or in short – compilations of two-dimensional text. But nothing physical that a library holds is in fact two-dimensional, and some items kept in libraries may be of unanticipated nature. Libraries have more potential to engage with 3D modelling and printing than one would expect. In the following examples, move your mouse over the object to see the item in 3D.

 Silk mantle (textile cover) for a Torah scroll, date unknown (British Library Or 13027)

What does it actually mean, to 3D model and print items? A 3D model is a full representation of an object that can be viewed and manipulated by a user in a digital space. There are two main ways to digitise and present real world objects: 3D scanning (or laser scanning) and photogrammetry – image based modelling. While the former method is more expensive and requires expert knowledge, the latter is affordable and easy to implement. If 3D modelling takes an object from the physical into the digital world, 3D printing takes it back into the physical. 3D printing is the process of using a 3D model to create a physical object via a variety of printing methods, such extrusion of plastics, resins, and other materials. One of the ways a 3D printer works is actually similar to how an inkjet printer works, but instead of using ink it uses a filament – laying the filament down and slowly building up a 3D structure.

3D technologies used in the cultural sector have many benefits. 3D models and prints can be supplemental tools for visualisation, enhancing the experience of viewing an object. They can be used in physical as well as virtual exhibitions online, as well as enhance a 2D collection catalogue hosted online or feature in other online content. In this way, curators and educators can use 3D data to tell a story, online visitors can explore the collections in a new and stimulating way, and there is a potential to engage the larger, international public. 3D prints can be displayed at touring locations, used in education systems as sustainable objects for teaching and training (instead of the real items), and used as event giveaways. There is also a commercial potential for prints, as replicas of objects can be sold, full scale or in miniature and in different materials and colours. In short, 3D technologies change how people access and engage with cultural resources.

All this is hardly news for the museum sector. What’s innovative here is that the British Library is joining the game too. It makes perfect sense for such a large library to re-examine its traditional approach to the delivery of information and to keep seeking novel means of public and scholarly engagement – especially in light of the huge variety of items it holds. Aside from the more predictable formats (books, newspapers, documents, maps), the Library’s physical collection spans from inscribed bones, seals, scrolls, wooden cases, fine textiles, and folding books with covers embellished with gold and jewels, to wooden cabinets, chests, ship models and even rifles! Some collection items such as manuscript chests cannot be called up by readers from the Library’s basement – they are too heavy and too fragile. And as most of the Library’s collection items are not on display in one of its galleries, 3D digitisation affords the opportunity to bring these items into the virtual light.

In the past year I’ve been involved in creating several 3D models for two British Library projects: the Hebrew Manuscripts and the Oracle Bones digitisation projects. The former digitised 1,300 Hebrew manuscripts – codices (manuscripts in book format), scrolls, charters and loose folios spanning 1,000 years from the 10th to the 20th century CE, mainly from Europe and the Middle East. This rare collection of manuscripts represents all the areas of Jewish knowledge, whether religious or secular.

Pentateuch from Italy, dated to 1486 CE (British Library Add MS 4709)

The latter project digitised more than 480 Chinese ‘oracle bones’, dating between 1600 and 1050 BCE (Shang Dynasty). These are the oldest objects in the Library, including mainly shoulder animal bones and some tortoise shells’ fragments, bearing the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. Used in divination rituals, the bones were inscribed with questions posed to ancestors, the answers to which were interpreted from cracks formed in the bones when heated. The digitised Hebrew manuscripts and oracle bones can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. 

Inscribed oracle bone, dating to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BCE; British Library Or 7694/1595)

The method that we use for 3D modelling at the Library is photogrammetry – creating a 3D structure from a series of overlapping 2D images. Before the imaging started, the items were called up from the Library’s storage facility, which closely monitors temperature and humidity levels. We benefited from the Imaging Studio’s advanced photography and lighting equipment and our only further investment in equipment was a £6 turntable. In the case of the oracle bones, which are mostly rather flat objects, conservator Karen Bradford created stands for them to be placed on securely, in a way that would allow for optimised photo capture but also protect the bones. Karen was present throughout the imaging process, to make sure the bones were safely handled.

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British Library conservator Karen Bradford stabilising an oracle bone in a foam stand before imaging

The imaging process began with taking photographs of each item from different angles, with sufficient overlap. In order to do that, each object was placed on a turntable and the camera was mounted on a tripod. We rotated the turntable at roughly 5-10 degrees with a photo taken at each position. After completing a 360-degree circle the item was turned to its reverse side and the process was repeated. Once enough photos had been taken, the images were white balanced and then masked ready for the modelling process in Agisoft PhotoScan. When the models were complete, they were published to Sketchfab. The oracle bones were also printed by the 3D expert ThinkSee3D, who made sure the Chinese writing remains as legible as possible.

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British Library senior imaging technician Neil McCowlen imaging oracle bone Or 7694/1595

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Neil made sure the bones were in focus and the script was sharp and clear

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ThinkSee3D founder Steven Dey holding the print of oracle bone Or 7694/1595
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3D modelling at the British Library is still in its early stages, but the potential is immense. It suffices to make your way to Asian and African Studies on the third floor in the British Library building at St Pancras, and look at the current exhibition outside of the Reading Room, called ‘More than a Book’. Southeast Asian manuscripts come in different shapes and forms, such as an Indonesian divination manuscript inscribed on a bamboo container, or 19th-century wooden or bamboo Thai title indicators, which helped identify and retrieve manuscripts stored in large numbers in wooden cabinets in temple libraries (see for example Or 16555). Thai manuscripts were stored in boxes, chests or cabinets placed in Buddhist temple libraries or in palaces, and often decorated in red and gold and carved with beautiful designs. The Library holds six such magnificent items from the 19th century, some of which are displayed inside and outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and others – in the basement (e.g. Foster 1057 – weighing over half a ton!).

Fig5
Divination manuscript inscribed in Karo Batak on a bamboo container, Indonesia (British Library Or 16736)
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Fig6
19th century Northern Thai manuscript wooden box, decorated with gilt and lacquer (Foster 1056), displayed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room
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The Southeast Asian exhibition offers just a small taste to what the department of Asian and African Studies has to offer to 3D enthusiasts. The department has three tiny printed Qur’ans. Due to their very small size, the text is almost illegible which indicates that these Qur'ans were probably not intended to be read. They may have been owned as protective talismans (hama'il) since one comes with a locket to be worn around the neck. Another possibility is that they were ornamental, much like a similar example found in Queen Mary’s Doll House in the Royal Collection.

Opening up these tiny books and turning their pages in order to digitise their text could put pressure on their bindings and would therefore be harmful from a conservation point of view. Modelling these delicate Qur’ans may present a safer way to display these online – and to some extent a more engaging one. Other interesting three-dimensional items from the Arabic collections are three ox bones bearing magic Arabic inscriptions. These have undergone multispectral imaging by Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy, and have an unmistakable potential to be viewed in 3D. And when going back to the collection that initially inspired us to do 3D modelling – the collection of Hebrew manuscripts – there are so many more candidates: codices with interesting bindings, or intriguing scrolls such as Scrolls of Esther, telling the story of rescuing the Jews of Persia from an annihilation plot.

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Two tiny Qur’ans, one from 1882 Delhi (left, British Library O.R.70.a.4), the other from 1889 Istanbul (right, British Library O.R.70.a.3)
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Ox bones with Arabic inscriptions (British Library Or 9667)
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15th-century liturgy from Italy in pre-1600 CE binding, made with red velvet and clasps (British Library Add MS 16577)|
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16-17th-century Scrolls of Esther: with wooden roller and silk cover (British Library Add MS 11834; top); made of leather, wooden core with carved ivory roller mounted with brass, from Italy (British Library Or 1086; bottom)
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These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what the British Library has to offer, 3D-wise. Some of its most famous and unique items (outside of Asian and African Studies) which would be wonderful to view in 3D include Elizabeth I prayer book, a rare item with its original 16th-century binding and embroidery, and the 8th-century St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book. I’m very hopeful that the existing models and prints will inspire an increased use of 3D technologies at the British Library as well as other libraries worldwide.

 

Thank you Annabel Gallop, Christina Duffy, Daniel Lowe, Emma Goodliffe, Jana Igunma, and Steven Dey for providing materials for this blog post.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow) for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project 
 cc-by-sa

08 May 2016

Lights, Camera, Action! Filming for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

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In late 2015 I was planning a short video to introduce the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project. This project, which started in 2013, has been digitising about 1,300 manuscripts from the British Library’s significant collection of Hebrew manuscripts. So far, almost 800 manuscripts have been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts website, and the rest will be uploaded within the next few months. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, this project allows Hebrew manuscripts to be freely available online for scholars and the general public. It manages the complex task of manuscript conservation and imaging, catalogue creation and the online presentation of this unique collection.

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Two of the Anglo-Jewish charters stored at the British Library, the former granting the general release by Mosse son of Jacob, and Jacob son of Mosse, to Peter de Bending, 1236-7 CE (British Library Add Ch 16384, Cotton Ch XXVI 29)   noc

Bearing this in mind, I asked myself: how should we capture and communicate such a large-scale project in just a few minutes? Thinking of our key messages, the main goal of our digitisation project, and why it is so significant, the first video for the project was conceived.

Aside from describing the different stages of manuscript digitisation, we thought it would be interesting for viewers to have a taste of some of the challenges that we’ve been facing. In consultation with the Lead Curator of Hebrew and Christian Collections, Ilana Tahan, we decided not to focus necessarily on the most famous or popular items, such as illuminated Haggadahs, but instead to make viewers aware of other, perhaps less known manuscripts.

We started filming in the Asia & Africa Studies Reading Room early in the morning, before opening time. One topic that we focused on was the Jewish charters from 13th-century England. These unique documents, written in Hebrew or a combination of Hebrew and Latin, attest to the Jewish presence in England before the expulsion of 1290 CE by King Edward I. These include different types of contractual transactions between Jews and Gentiles, such as transactions with Jewish moneylenders or debt acquaintances. Four of these charters were on display in the Magna Carta exhibition, as two clauses of the Magna Carta, created in 1215 CE, dealt with debts owed to Jews.

Another topic which we thought would be interesting to showcase was the censorship of Jewish manuscripts, and how it reflected the life of Jewish communities under Christian domination. The Church attempted to control the dissemination of Hebrew books and manuscripts, therefore Christian censors examined Jewish texts and, if found disrespectful or blasphemous, they erased words or whole passages. Often, these censors were converted Jews, who could read Hebrew and were familiar with the content of Hebrew books. Many of our manuscripts were present in Italy, mainly during the 16th and 17th centuries, and include evidence that they were examined by censors there in the form of erasures and signatures of expurgators.

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Matt Casswell filming Lead Curator Ilana Tahan browsing through a 15th-century censored manuscript (Arba’ah Ṭurim by Jacob ben Asher,  British Library Add MS 27150) in the Asia & Africa Studies Reading Room  noc

Another filming location was the Library’s Conservation Centre, where some of our manuscripts needed treatment prior to digitisation. In order to be safely digitised, each manuscript was inspected by a conservator, who determined whether any conservation measures were needed. Most manuscripts were in good condition, but some had to undergo repair and stabilisation in Conservation Centre. While most of our collection is comprised of codices (bound manuscripts), we have items in other formats: scrolls, charters, loose leaves – and several mantles as well, which were used as textile covers for scrolls. To showcase the variety of conservation challenges, we filmed conservators Ann Tomalak, Liz Rose and Jenny Snowdon handling some of our collection items.

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Conservators at work at the British Library Conservation Centre (from left to right): Ann Tomalak unrolling our longest scroll (16th-century Pentateuch, British Library Or 1459), Jenny Snowdon with an Esther scroll (British Library Or 13028), and Liz Rose stitching a Torah scroll mantle (British Library Egerton 610)  noc

After conservation assessment or treatment, the Hebrew manuscripts arrive at the Library’s Imaging Studio for digitisation. They are photographed cover-to-cover using high resolution cameras. The digitisation of scrolls was especially challenging – and we wanted to demonstrate this in our video. Alex White and Kristin Phelps were filmed handling, imaging and post-processing an Esther scroll. Each of our scrolls required the Senior Imaging Technicians to work in pairs, following strict guidelines. Scrolls had to be removed from their box, rolled and unrolled in very specific ways. In addition, sufficient overlap between photos was necessary, so that the scrolls could be digitally stitched for online presentation.

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Matt Casswell filming Kristin Phelps, former Senior Imaging Technician, handling an Esther scroll (British Library Harley 7620)  noc

Next in the digitisation process is quality assessment (QA) of the digitised manuscripts – making sure that the resulting images comply with the project’s standards. Our Project Support Officer, Catherine Cronin, was filmed examining a 16th-century Karaite manuscript from Egypt (British Library Or 5064) which has a tight binding, resulting in some potential text loss in the gutter. In cases such as this, she needs to check whether it’s possible to get the manuscript photographed without losing any of the text. Our former cataloguer, Agata Paluch, carefully went over each manuscript and wrote detailed descriptions, creating metadata records. We filmed her flipping through a 14th-century book of Nevi’im (Prophets; British Library Add MS 11657), while creating a record in the Library’s cataloguing system.

When this process is completed, the digitised images of the manuscripts are ready to be uploaded to the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website. When online, the manuscripts are available in high resolution for anyone to research and enjoy. The manuscript that we show at the end of the video is one of the most unique items in our collection – the North French Hebrew Miscellany (British Library Add MS 11639), penned and illuminated in France between 1278 and 1298 CE.

   

The resulting video gives just a small taste of the British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts and of the extensive digitisation project that has been making many of them digitally accessible. For those who’d like to learn more, we have created a website dedicated to our digitised Hebrew manuscripts. Featuring articles written by leading experts, we aim to cover some of the themes emerging from our collection: the Hebrew Bible, illuminations, Jewish communities, kabbalah, science and more. The website also offers a glimpse into digital technologies that could be applied to manuscripts, either for research purposes or for an enhanced digital experience. We are hopeful that our digital collection and the website’s expert articles could spark interest and curiosity in the British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts, as well as inspire further research.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow) for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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18 April 2016

The Polonsky Foundation and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project at the British Library

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To celebrate Passover 2016 and the launch of our new website 'Hebrew Manuscripts', Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies, writes about the Polonsky Foundation and its role in the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

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A family celebrating Passover, from the Barcelona Haggadah.  Service book for Passover eve. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 28v noc

Philanthropy plays a vital role in our modern world. When the resources of arts, heritage and cultural organizations are limited, the gaps can sometimes be filled by those who have the means to do so; in this way, the contributions of benefactors and philanthropic bodies have done much to advance and improve the business, culture, education and welfare of many communities around the globe.

Among the philanthropic organisations the British Library has collaborated with more recently is The Polonsky Foundation, which aims at advancing higher education in the humanities and social sciences, and equally, at promoting the arts in the UK, USA and Israel.  Digitisation of rare collections in major libraries of the world is a signature programme of The Polonsky Foundation and reflects its commitment to the preservation and democratization of knowledge.

I have been very fortunate to meet Dr Leonard Polonsky on several occasions in the past. My first and most memorable encounter took place in November 2011 when he paid a visit to the British Library. Showing guests treasures from the Library’s Hebrew collections has always been an immense privilege, and throughout all the years I have been working for this amazing organisation, I have unfailingly done my utmost to showcase collection items that would not only impress the guests with their illuminated embellishments, but would also generate questions and a lively discussion.

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The Barcelona Haggadah,  service book for Passover eve. Historiated initial word panel with  Barukh (Blessed)  opening the Havdalah benediction (Separation) recited at the end of the Sabbath. Note the lush marginal foliage scrolls, interwoven with humans, birds and hybrids. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 26r)  noc

Dr Polonsky showed genuine interest in what was on display that day – a volume of the sumptuous Lisbon Bible, the intriguing San’a Pentateuch, and the unparalleled Barcelona Haggadah. Following that meeting and the subsequent submission of proposals, the Foundation agreed to support the Hebrew manuscripts project in 2012. This significant three-year project, which started in earnest in the summer of 2013 after dedicated project staff had been recruited (a Project Manager, a Cataloguer and a Project Support Officer), is due to end in June this year. It has focussed on digitizing cover to cover some 1300 unique manuscripts from the Library’s Hebrew collection, making them freely accessible on-line to a global audience.

Delivering the project has been challenging but we have learnt a great deal, particularly how to resolve problems swiftly, meet deadlines, and work efficiently as a team and collaborate with colleagues across the Library. So far we have made excellent progress and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project is nearing completion.   Almost 800 out of the 1300 manuscripts digitised as part of the project, including nearly 70 scrolls, are already available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

A new Hebrew web space will be launched at the end of April and will contain articles and images on specific themes, collection items, items of the week, videos and 3D modelling of selected objects. We are confident that this hub will be a great success and will showcase the gems of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection.

I would like to extend a huge thank you to my colleagues who have been working assiduously to deliver the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and by so doing have facilitated worldwide access to a valuable and unmatched learning resource. This worthy initiative would not have been possible without the immense kindness and judicious vision of The Polonsky Foundation, to which goes our profound and wholehearted gratitude.

Some of my favourites—which I showed Dr. Polonsky back in 2011—are featured below. Click on the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images.

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The San'a Pentateuch. San'a, Yemen, 1469. Section from Shirat Ha'azinu (Give Ear; Deuteronomy:32) the lyrical poem Moses recited in front of the Israelites before his death. The central decoration consists of micrography (patterns outlined in minute script) and medallions inspired by Islamic art (British Library Or.2348, f. 152r )  noc

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Detail of Or.2348, f. 152r,  showing the decorative medallions inspired by Islamic art

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Illuminated borders at the opening of Isaiah, from the Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482 (British Library Or 2627, f. 136v)  noc

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The Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Embellished opening with juxtaposed borders to the Book of Amos. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482  (British Library Or 2627, f. 252r)  noc

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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08 March 2016

A Digital Revolution - hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts go on-line

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Our followers and readers will be delighted to learn that over 760 Hebrew manuscripts have now been uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project aims at digitising and providing free on-line access to well over 1250 Hebrew handwritten books from the Library’s collection. The project, which began in 2013 is due for completion in June 2016, when the full complement of manuscripts will be available to a global audience.

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Festival prayer book,  Mahzor, according to the rite of Provence. Opening of the morning prayer (Shaharit). Sephardic (Provencal) vocalised square and semi-cursive script of the 17th century. (Or. 5466, f. 7r
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The host of digitized surrogates released to-date, represents the vast geographical expanse of Hebrew manuscript production, and offers many interesting examples of handwriting styles. Hebrew and other Jewish languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and others, use an alphabet consisting of 22 consonantal letters, 5 of which are shaped differently when used at the end of words. These are known as otiyot sofiyot, literally, ‘final letters’. The Hebrew alphabet which lacks case letters and is written from right left, evolved from the Phoenician alphabet. Its ancient form (c. 10th to 6th century BCE)  was known as the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet or script.  Around the 6th century BCE, it was replaced by a square form of lettering known as ‘Ashuri’ (a stylized form of Aramaic script) that had allegedly originated in Assyria and has survived to this day. The vowels system (nikud in Hebrew) was developed between the 8th and 10th centuries CE in Tiberias (city located on the western shore of the Sea of  Galilee in the Holy Land), by scholars known as the Masoretes and has been used since then. Initially devised to facilitate the correct pronunciation and transmission of the Masoretic Bible, the Tiberian vocalization system was subsequently extended to other Hebrew texts and writings.

The main modes of Hebrew styles of script distinguishable in manuscripts are: square, semi-cursive and cursive. The semi-cursive mode is also known as rabbinic, a misleading term coined by Christian scholars in the 16th century. The principal difference between the three modes lies essentially in the number of strokes required to form the shape of a single letter. The amount of strokes needed to create square letters is higher than that required for semi-cursive characters, decreasing virtually to a single stroke when cursive letters are executed. The speed of writing can also very often determine how many strokes or serifs are needed to create a particular style of script.

Developed in the Orient, most probably before the 10th century CE, square lettering has been formally used for copying the text of the Hebrew Bible, for liturgical works, as well as for Torah scrolls, mezuzot (singular mezuzah - parchment scroll containing Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 & 11: 13-21, placed in a case and affixed to a door post) and tefilin (phylacteries). 

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Page from the Duke of Sussex's Portuguese Pentateuch. Lisbon, Portugal, 1480-1490 CE (Add MS 15283, f. 42r)  noc

The three major modes of Hebrew script were used in most geo-cultural zones associated with medieval Hebrew book production, namely Ashkenazic (Franco-German lands), Byzantine, Italian, Oriental, and Sephardic (Iberian peninsula). Each zone had its own characteristic types and sub-types of scripts that were strongly influenced by trends prevalent in the host environment. For example, Jewish scribal practices that developed in Oriental and Sephardic territories under Muslim rule (i.e. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, as well as Spain from 711 to 1491 CE, Provence), show great affinity with Arabic calligraphy. Likewise, types of Hebrew script that crystalized in the Ashkenazic geo-cultural entity where Christianity was the dominant religion (England, France, Germany, Italy, post-1492 Spain) display similarities with archetypes of Latin script that were prevalent in those areas. A very good example of how Gothic handwriting affected the Hebrew square script is found in this codex made in Germany:

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Festival prayer book, Mahzor , according to the Askenazi rite. Askenazic 'Gothic' square script, Germany, 1st half of the 14th century (Add MS 26896, f. 337v)  noc

The influence of early Arabic cursive writing is clearly noticeable in this 14th century hand-copied book in which the text was penned in a Sephardic current cursive script. The shapes of the Hebrew letters, the order and direction of the strokes, and the general layout of the calligraphic text bear remarkable similarities with Arabic script. Half down the page, a word was written diagonally. This scribal practice intended to keep the left margins aligned, was most probably borrowed from Muslim copyists, and became a fashionable decorative device particularly in Hebrew manuscripts copied in the Yemen.

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Moses Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed in the Hebrew translation of Samuel ibn Tibbun. Spain, c. 14th century (Royal MS 16 A XI, f. 187v)  noc

Local trends determined also the type of writing instruments medieval Jewish scribes adopted for plying their trade. Thus, the quill was the popular implement for copying books in Christian territories, while in Muslim lands the reed was the scribes’ preferred tool. The former tended to produce tapered serifs, the latter more homogenous strokes.

The Persian and Yemenite square and semi-cursive sub-types are exemplified in two 15th century biblical manuscripts, as seen in the images below. It is important to mention that the semi-cursive and cursive modes failed to properly develop in medieval Yemen.

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The Pentateuch, Haftarot (reading from the Prophets) and Psalms in Persian vocalised semi-cursive script. Hebrew & Judeo-Persian. Qom, Persia, 1483 CE (Or. 2451, f. 204v)  noc

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The Former Prophets penned in square, vocalised Yemenite script. Yemen, 1460 CE (Or. 2370, f. 53r)  noc

The Italian Hebrew writing, like its Latin counterpart, appears to have preserved the Caroline style (a Latin calligraphic script used in Europe in the early Middle Ages and during the Renaissance). The rounded shape of the Italian Latin scripts is equally noticeable in the Hebrew scripts from that area, particularly in the semi-cursive style of writing. Our first example comes from a sidur (daily prayer book) written by the well-known scribe, scholar and geographer, Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (1451-1526). He penned the text in a fine square hand. The letters are vocalised and slightly tilted. Note the flourishes shaped as question marks which were added after the Divine name represented by two ‘yod’ letters.

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Decorated daily prayer book according to the Italian rite. Opening of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, declaring the faith in one God. Scribe: Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol.
Ferrara, Italy, 1478 (Add MS 18692, f.37v)  noc

The second example is taken from an autograph manuscript written by the Italian rabbi Mordechai ben Judah Dato (1527-1585), and shows Italian Hebrew cursive script at its best. The rotundity of the characters is particularly evident here.

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Collection of liturgical poems with a commentary by Mordechai Dato. Scribe: Mordechai ben Judah Dato. Italy, 1575-1599 (Add MS 27096, f. 3v)  noc

Our next blog will cover further significant items from the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection which have been digitised since 2013.


Further reading

Ada Yardeni. The Book of Hebrew script: history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy and design. Newcastle: Oak Knoll Press, 2002

Malachi Beit-Arié. The Making of the Medieval Hebrew Book: Studies in Palaeography and Codicology. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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