Asian and African studies blog

08 May 2016

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

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.

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.

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.

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