Vatican and Oxford University Share Ancient Texts Online

June 3, 2012

The Oxford University and Vatican libraries are to jointly digitise 1.5m pages of ancient texts and make them available free online.

The libraries said the digitised collections will centre on three subject areas: Greek manuscripts, 15th-century printed books and Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books.

The areas have been chosen for the strength of the collections in both libraries and their importance for scholarship in their respective fields.

With approximately two-thirds of the material coming from the Vaticanand the remainder from Oxford University’s Bodleian libraries, the digitisation effort will also benefit scholars by uniting materials that have been dispersed between the collections for centuries.

“Transforming these ancient texts and images into digital form helps transcend the limitations of time and space which have in the past restricted access to knowledge,” Sarah Thomas, director of the Bodleian Libraries, said on Thursday.

“Scholars will be able to interrogate these documents in fresh approaches as a result of their online availability.”

The initiative has been made possible by a £2m award from the Polonsky Foundation.

“The service to humanity which the Vatican library has accomplished over almost six centuries, by preserving its cultural treasures and making them available to readers, finds here a new avenue which confirms and amplifies its universal vocation through the use of new tools, thanks to the generosity of the Polonsky Foundation and to the sharing of expertise with the Bodleian libraries,” Holy See librarian Cardinal Raffaele Farina said.

The original article appeared in The Guardian.

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People of the Byte from JewishIdeasDaily

December 19, 2011

by Alex Joffe

Jews have long been the People of the Book.  But as computers replace books and possibly libraries, museums, and universities, will they soon be the People of the Byte?  If so, what will happen to their understanding of their history?  These were the questions raised by a recent two-day conference at the Center for Jewish History titled “From Access to Integration.”  At the sessions, librarians, archivists, and scholars explored the cutting edge of the Jewish digital world.  They outlined the immense technical challenges involved in creating databases for scholarly and public use and described the digitization projects that are steadily surmounting these challenges.  They also addressed the puzzle of “integration,” which may be harder to solve.

It is astonishing to see how far technology has come in making Jewish information available.  Tasks that are impossible for the human eye to perform—like reuniting the hundreds of thousands of dispersed fragments of the Cairo Genizah in New York, Cambridge, and elsewhere—are being done by computer algorithms.  The diversity of Jewish sound—hazzanut, Israeli folk songs, Borscht Belt comedy routines, Torah chanting from Lithuania to Morocco—can be preserved and disseminated to anyone in the world with a computer.  Jewish newspapers from Israel and Arab countries, Ottoman-era photographs of the Holy Land, and archives of Jewish communities living and dead, especially documentation of the vast life of European Jewry—all of these are or will soon be available.

Yet technology, which can make two- and even three-dimensional representations of the past available again, cannot make them alive.  How will these streams of data flow into the individual and collective processes of creating a historical memory with texture and feeling?  Will the human relationship to the material remains of the past be reduced to “output”?   Read the rest of this entry »


School Replaces Books with iPads

September 4, 2011

It’s a sign of the times.

Middle school students at Meyer Jewish Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida start class Wednesday with brand new Apple iPads in hand.

Ben Reitman says he has been waiting for this day for two years.

The eighth grader is heading back to class using a piece of technology that seems to be second nature for him and his classmates.

“This is Safari, it gives you your internet, this is your mail, it gives you your email so you can email your friends,” Reitman explained.

For the first time ever, the private school is requiring its middle schoolers to use the iPad in and out of the classroom.

The students either lease it or buy it.

“We’re allowing the students to be able to utilize the things that make sense to them,” said Nammie Ichilov, the school’s headmaster.

Teachers will incorporate the computers into their lesson plans.

And as far as teaching the students how to use the iPads, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue.

“In today’s world, technology is something that they live with, it’s not a tool, and we are simply providing them with that product to go and move forward with,” said Ichilov.

Original online article.


Is the Sefer History?

June 20, 2011

by Gil Student

imageThe future of the Sefer, the Jewish book, is currently uncertain, but not for the reasons you might think. Jews have been traditionally called the “People of the Book.” We maintained a culture of literacy even before public education became a societal goal. My non-Jewish business colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that my children learn to read Hebrew before English. Reading, particularly religious texts, is in our blood and our culture. In contrast to the Catholic Church’s pursuit of heresy among early translators of the Bible into English, Jews have generally treasured translations into the common language. We are commanded to read the weekly Torah portion with a translation, and we have an ancient tradition, albeit largely abandoned today, of reading the Bible in synagogue each week accompanied by a translation of each verse.1 Everyone, not just rabbis, must be well versed in the Torah.

The Talmud (Gittin 60b) says that, originally, only the Bible was allowed to be written. We must retain the oral nature of our other traditions. However, due to the danger of forgetting these sacred ideas, the Sages eventually permitted us to write them down. This led to the publication of the Mishnah and Gemara, Midrashim, and all subsequent Torah books. While there is a dispute today whether someone who publishes an unnecessary book violates this prohibition, everyone agrees with the vital importance, the national necessity, of publishing original Torah insights.2 So important is the publication of Torah books that we are told to set aside this prohibition rather than risk losing these ideas.

But Jewish book sales are down. On its own, this is unsurprising during a devastating economic downturn. When unemployment approaches 10 percent, it is hard to take a complaint about sagging book sales seriously. Financial difficulties do not restrain people from buying the must-have new book, the publication that excites their imaginations and draws them to bookstores, but such exceptions only prove the rule. Most books today languish on store shelves as cautious consumers spread their limited discretionary income ever more thinly. However, I think that something larger than penny-pinching is occurring. Even when the economy improves, there is a larger trend that may remain and jeopardize the future of the Sefer.

A Tale of Revolutions

A brief history of publishing revolutions can help us see what lies in the future. For centuries, publishing was largely a matter of hand copying manuscripts. During the Second Temple era, scribes gathered in the Temple in Jerusalem and copied books from a primary manuscript. These copies were then distributed and sold.3 This tedious process continued in varying forms, among Greeks, Christians, Muslims and Jews, until the fifteenth century when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press changed the world. Books could be produced en masse and sold at more reasonable prices. Those who could read had access to a much larger library of knowledge.

This technological revolution was the third in a series that changed humanity. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in an impassioned argument for educating the third world, describes the dramatic effects of these three innovations.4 Writing, initially with pictograms, created civilization. It enabled the permanent transfer of information from one person to another. However, reading and writing were limited to the few who mastered the complex written language, who studied as many as twenty years to acquire these skills. The development of alphabets, which encapsulate entire languages in only twenty to thirty characters, opened information to wider classes of people. The alphabet broke down barriers of society. It created the possibility that anyone could acquire the knowledge that allowed for exercising societal power.

The printing press brought literacy to the masses. Within fifty years of its invention, readers had access to more than fifteen million copies of over 35,000 titles across Europe. This spreading of knowledge eventually led to political and religious revolutions. The newfound wisdom empowered the public and gave people the ability to disagree with and overturn the ruling classes. Five centuries later, publishing has experienced another revolution.

The Internet As a Game-Changer

Writing created information. The alphabet spread it. Printing democratized it. The Internet is Read the rest of this entry »


Curling Up With an E-Book on Shabbat?

January 5, 2011

by Rabbi Jason Miller

Tech gadgets have changed our lives. And they will change our lives even more in the future.

For Sabbath observant Jews, tech gadgets pose some lingering questions about their usage on Shabbat. My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — the body that decides matters of Halakhah (Jewish law) for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Nevins has been working on a teshuvah (legal response) regarding the use of an e-book on Shabbat and was quoted on the matter in Uri Friedman’s recent article in The Atlantic, “People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age.”

I remember back in the 1990’s when CD-Roms containing entire collections of Jewish texts were first on the market. I saw a cartoon that in the first frame showed a Jewish library with hundreds of sets books — Bibles, Talmuds, rabbinic commentaries, etc. Each shelf was overfilled with Jewish books from the ancient to the modern. In the second frame, labeled modern Jewish library, was an entire library with empty shelves and one CD-Rom sitting on the shelf. At that time, the common response to the Jewish library becoming digital was that while it’s great to have the Talmud or Midrash on the computer six days of the week, on Shabbat we still want our traditional books.

Today, we’ve moved beyond having to load a CD into our computer to read Jewish books, study Torah, or look up reference material. Read the rest of this entry »


Siddur going digital, but not for Shabbat

December 30, 2010

By Sue Fishkoff

A major publisher of Jewish books is moving into the digital age while trying to strike a balance between technology and Jewish observance.

ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, which calls itself the world’s largest Jewish publishing house, has begun digitizing the first batch of some of its 1,500 titles.

But ArtScroll’s most popular books — its Shabbat and High Holidays prayerbooks — will not be coming out for e-readers like the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle. The reason?

The Shabbat prohibition against using electronic devices is a major barrier.

“The vision of people coming to shul on Shabbat with their e-siddur just doesn’t cut it,” Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, president of the Orthodox-run publishing house, told JTA. Read the rest of this entry »


Bible Reference in the Electronic Age

October 24, 2010

Publishers innovate with new products and Web strategies

By Kristin Swenson

Got questions about how to use turmeric, the mating habits of penguins, or why water still drips out of the faucet when it should come through the filter you’ve attached? If you’re like the majority of the curious today, you’ll turn to the Internet for answers. Questions about the Bible are no different—people go online to find out who Paul was, where the remnants of Noah’s ark might be, what deities the Israelites worshipped that made God so angry, and how many miracles Jesus performed. Says Brian Hughes, senior marketing manager at Oxford University Press, “Search engines are the new card catalogue, and we want our content to be at the top of the search. We are constantly working to improve our discoverability, on campus and off.” Michael Stephens, senior editor at Abingdon, notes, “It’s not enough just to go to particular biblical verses—people need help interpreting what they read. They need some context.”

Not so long ago, it was books—heavy, often multivolume tomes—that were the go-to resource for definitive information. One advantage was that it was pretty easy to determine the credentials of the authors of those books. You could assume that encyclopedias were edited by subject authorities who invited qualified contributors, and that dictionaries were compiled by experts. Bible commentaries laid out their authors’ credentials, and lexica were the product of professional philologists. On the downside, it was difficult for any individual to have all sources at his or her elbow. In-depth research usually required a trip to the library, and it could take a long time to hunt down the answers hiding in one volume or another. We also had to wait, sometimes years, for new editions to incorporate changes in a field of study or to record new discoveries. Read the rest of this entry »