EAJS Programme in European Jewish Studies 2016/17
Turning the Page: Jewish Print Cultures & Digital Humanities
An EAJS Roundtable
6–7 February 2017
Universiteit van Amsterdam
Convenors: Dr Andrea Schatz (King’s College London), Professor Irene Zwiep (University of Amsterdam), Professor Emile Schrijver (Jewish Historical Museum)
In recent years, major digitization projects focused on digital imaging and new forms of text editions. They made texts widely accessible and reshaped approaches to the study of Hebrew manuscripts. However, there is less cooperation between Jewish Studies (JS) and the Digital Humanities (DH) with regard to printed texts. The Roundtable aims, therefore, to provide time, space and structure for a pioneering attempt to synchronize research agendas in Jewish Studies and the Digital Humanities with regard to early modern and modern Jewish print cultures. Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities scholars as well as librarians and curators are invited to discuss opportunities and challenges arising from the new technologies for the textual, cultural and social analysis of Jewish printed sources. Building on the international conference On the Same Page: Digital Approaches to Hebrew Manuscripts (King’s College London, 2015), the Roundtable serves to support the formulation of research agendas in Jewish Studies that are informed by ongoing developments in the Digital Humanities, and encourage research in the Digital Humanities that responds to new directions in Jewish Studies.
Irene Zwiep (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and Andrea Schatz (King’s College London) welcomed the Roundtable participants and thanked the European Association of Jewish Studies and the Amsterdam School of Historical Studies for their support. Zwiep pointed to an earlier joint initiative that brought together scholars from diverse fields to forge new contacts and exchange: the conference Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge in Jewish Enlightenment Discourse, which led to an early Open Access publication (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences/Chicago University Press, 2007). Zwiep also mentioned the conference On the Same Page: Digital Approaches to Hebrew Manuscripts (2015), which the Roundtable complements by focusing on early modern print cultures and the specific questions associated with them, e.g. regarding Jewish multilingualism, geographical space, the linking of various disparate library and archive collections, and methods, scales and techniques of textual analysis. Schatz added that Jewish Studies have benefitted immensely from large-scale digitization projects that transformed access to sources, but – due to the challenges that sources and scripts present to OCR – the vast majority of early modern material consists of images. As a result, the range of digital approaches to textual analysis developed in Literary Studies remains largely unexplored in Jewish Studies. Historical approaches tend to work around this by focusing on metadata (e.g. Footprints), but new initiatives are needed to support textual analysis and the transition from the digital display to the digital discovery of knowledge.
Both organisers hope that Jewish Studies and DH scholars as well as librarians and curators (from the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Ets Haim/Livraria Montezinos and Jewish Historical Museum) will share in the end a better sense of questions, initiatives and tools developed in the DH, and of questions and challenges that Jewish Studies scholars would like to approach. They announced the launch of an EAJS Digital Forum (more details on EAJS website) to support exchange and emerging future collaboration.
Note: Links to all digital projects and websites mentioned at the Roundtable will soon be provided in an Appendix of ‘Digital Humanities Resources’.
I) Digital Approaches to Print Cultures: Current Research & New Challenges
Joris van Zundert (Huygens ING – KNAW Amsterdam) situated his reflections in his work on computational algorithms for textual analysis, which includes his involvement in CollateX (used in Daniel Stoekl’s Mishnah project) and e-laborate. He pointed to the numerous ways in which the Digital Humanities have changed textual scholarship, as they opened up new perspectives on texts and transformed uninteresting/unresearchable into interesting/researchable questions (e.g. via stylometry, metaphor mining etc.). At the same time, several issues have been identified that deserve more attention:
- It is misleading to speak of ‘big data’ in the DH, as they are neither ‘big’ nor, strictly speaking, ‘data’. Joanna Drucker’s concept of ‘capta’ seems rather more accurate, as it points to the imprecise, ambiguous, situated, always already interpreted character of data captured in the DH.
- The computational rhetoric of speed, scale and objectivity, too, should be interrogated: code does not need to scale to be useful; and it is never neutral. What is required is ‘literate computing’: a new literacy of reading and writing code that recognizes its specifics as text [cf. Joris J. van Zundert/Tara L. Andrews, Qu’est-ce qu’un texte numérique? – A new rationale for the digital representation of text, DSH (08/2017)].
- A digitized edition is not a digital edition: a digital edition requires the representation of text expressed in code or as a graph, i.e. as a network of connected words.
Emile Schrijver (Jewish Historical Museum, Universiteit van Amsterdam) identified a number of issues that need to be addressed no matter whether the focus is on manuscripts or printed sources:
- Collections: (re-)defining collections: interconnecting material, while overcoming artificial distinctions between libraries, archives, museums and private collections; finding a consensus on standards in terms of cataloguing and metadata
- Platforms: identifying compatible and sustainable platforms for dissemination
- Websites: Developing shared standards for presentation and navigation (OCR? Searchable metadata?)
- Metadata: traditional cataloguing should be preserved to support the quality of metadata
- Sustainability: on the one hand, what is not digitized may disappear; on the other hand, the sustainability of digital collections is a major issue
- Synchronizing agendas: libraries prioritize digitisation to preserve and showcase their collections; academics need researchable digital material.
Aviad Stollman (National Library of Israel) referred to the NLI’s legal task to collect, preserve and make its items accessible. This involves the physical availability of documents, the availability of metadata, simple online availability (via plain images) and sophisticated online availability (e.g. including OCR), the provision of tools for dissemination and connectivity, and the mediation of texts – digitally and culturally – to wider audiences. Difficult questions present themselves when the quality of presentation (e.g. OCR) and quantity need to be balanced in terms of costs, and when the Library needs to decide what tasks to take on and what to leave to the scholarly community. Responding to these dilemmas, the NLI has decided to pursue an Open Library strategy, exposing its data to search engines in linked data format, and to provide APIs (Application Programming Interface) to make data easily usable by other parties. The further development of OCR for various scripts is a major desideratum that the Library hopes to tackle with the scholarly community.
Marek Tuszewicki (Jagiellonian University Krakow) reported on the process of digitalization of Judaica in Poland, which appears both dynamic and inconsistent. It is propelled by various independent initiatives, mostly unrelated with Jewish Studies. At the same time, an increasing number of specialised portals are dedicated to the preservation of Jewish-Polish heritage, covering archival databases, digitized press and books as well as photography. As a result, Digital Judaica are already used by a number of Polish and international scholars, yet navigating the scattered data poses challenges. In addition, there is the issue of the preservation of Jewish books in private ownership. New initiatives to cooperate and connect collections would be highly desirable.
Débora Marques de Matos (King’s College London, Universität Münster) emphasised the interconnection between building tools and interpreting text in the Digital Humanities. As an example, she presented SephardiPal, (an offshoot of DigiPal), which allows for new levels of quantity and quality in the comparison of manuscript groups via the modelling of script and decoration. The tools can be transferred to early modern printed texts to ask new questions, e.g. about the salient features of prints from a certain press or the characteristics of specific type used beyond its place of origin, e.g. ‘otiot Amsterdam’.
Alicia Montoya (Radboud University Nijmegen) presented the ERC-funded project MEDIATE – Middlebrow Enlightenment Disseminating Ideas Authors, and Texts in Europe (1665–1820). Focusing on readers rather than writers, this bibliometric project will create an interoperative Open Access database including a) all known printed auction catalogues for private libraries, and b) all books listed in a selection of these catalogues. The project is also interested in the rhetoric of the catalogues and will work not only with transcriptions but also with a mark-up scheme. Sustainability is addressed through the cooperation with the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL).
Joshua Teplitsky (Stony Brook University) offered an introduction to Footprints – Jewish Books Through Time and Place, a project that seeks to trace the dissemination and circulation of Jewish books since the inception of print. ‘Footprints’ refer to extant copies as well as ‘ghost books’ whose ownership is attested to in the past without any known extant copies. Footprints are gathered manually, via batch upload and via trusted crowd-sourcing. The project allows researchers to investigate ownership and readership of books beyond the circles of authors and scholars; it contributes to the ingathering of scattered sources by forging new collaborations and tools; and it supports case studies of transnational and transcultural exchange. As it is an open source project, its technical architecture can be used by other initiatives. While there are a number of aspects that have not yet been pursued (e.g. the inclusion of manuscripts that are not based on books, or the linkage to authorities lists such as VIAF and the Bibliography of the Hebrew Book), some major challenges are of a different nature: DH research projects are not yet subject to an agreed format of peer review, and their role in tenure procedures is unclear.
In the discussions following these presentations, three points in particular were further explored:
- the close link between building tools and interpreting texts, and issues deriving from the tendency to push interpretation towards quantifiable results
- the status of OCR for early modern Hebrew scripts, whose enhancement and wider application is a major desideratum for researchers: at present, Hebrew OCR is developed mainly commercially; an academic working group, based at the NLI, was considered
- the issue of peer review and relevance for tenure and other modes of research evaluation: the AHA is developing standards, and the AJS and EAJS should pursue this as well.
II) Jewish Print Cultures: Current Research & New Questions
Avriel Bar-Levav (Open University of Israel) reflected on the digitization of books from a ‘history of the book’ perspective. He reminded the audience not only of what was lost in early digitization projects but of a failure to remember the loss: the Bar-Ilan Responsa project, which did much to support early digitally enhanced research, did not include any paratexts, and in doing so, significantly altered the character of the works it presented. It also implied the canonization of a selected corpus of texts that was only gradually questioned and put on the agenda. Similarly, it is important to reflect on the role of textual intimacy in the relationship between reader, text and book, and how it may be affected by digitization and digital approaches to textual analysis. On the one hand, digitization may afford more detailed insights in many aspects of the book, but on the other hand, the differently mediated character of the digitised text with its emphasis on vision cuts the reader off from other sensory experiences. The implications for readers and researchers need to be investigated.
Javier Castaño (Spanish National Research Council [CSIC], Madrid) took as his starting point the ‘Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic Jewries’ dichotomy, which, as a rather simplistic construct, does not take into account constellations of diverse Jewish regional cultures. He suggested that new (digital) projects might ask what happens when such regional cultures are dissociated from ‘their’ historical territories, and when print cultures emerge in contact areas, such as Italian-Iberian, Iberian-North African and Iberian-Ottoman contexts. A further focus might be the interaction of Jewish and non-Jewish agents of print culture, i.e. printers, booksellers, traders, buyers and the authorities involved. A further important area for DH research projects is the recovery of dispersed and fragmented Sephardic manuscripts and books.
Michael Miller (Central European University Budapest) presented briefly the Digital Humanities Initiative at CEU (as of summer 2017 a member of DARIAH-EU) and two associated projects in Jewish Studies: the Salgotarjani Way Jewish Cemetery and Budapest Judaica. He then offered a detailed outline for a digital research project that would investigate legal and actual boundaries between Jewish and Christian domiciles and trace Jewish mobility in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He emphasised the relevance of sociological approaches and material culture for further DH-JS collaboration.
Pavel Sládek (Charles University, Prague) called attention to the important role of manuscripts in the early modern period. Might the Digital Humanities have a role in investigating them and their place in relation to early modern print cultures? Similarly, the Digital Humanities may open up new avenues for the study of paratexts as sources that shed light on reading practices and ‘bibliographical awareness’.
Bart Wallet (Vrije Universiteit / Universiteit van Amsterdam) presented three projects that would benefit from engagement with the DH: a) an analysis of the semantic fields of ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelites’ in Dutch newspapers; b) a reconstruction of the changes in the Dutch Jewish book industry, 1795–1850, and c) an inventory and analysis of the genre of luhot, from the first example printed by Hayyim Druker in 1709 until the 1850s. In all cases the corpus consists of a vast body of texts and a great number of variables, which suggests the adoption of digital approaches.
Andrea Schatz observed that most research projects presented at the Roundtable investigate either the production of manuscripts and books, or the movements of books and people, and they often rely on reading paratexts and metadata. This raises the question how we can digitally reshape the reading of (early modern) texts qua texts. The dualism of (traditional) ‘close reading’ and (digital) ‘distant reading’ is unhelpful in this respect, as it tends to create barriers between ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ scholarship. It might be more useful to consider a wider range of modes of ‘readings’: ‘intensive reading’ identifies and interprets patterns and networks in one text or a small corpus, linking texts to social contexts, and employing digital tools only to visualize results; ‘extensive reading’ uses digital tools to analyse larger groups of texts and to pursue questions that are not otherwise researchable (but the researcher has still read all the texts); ‘distant reading’ employs digital approaches to capture and analyse large numbers of texts. The category of ‘extensive reading’ might be particularly relevant, as it constitutes a link to previous scholarship and defines modest, achievable aims for new digitally enhanced scholarship.
Irene Zwiep took her inspiration from the ongoing recalibration of the Haskalah movement in reflecting on what has come to be seen as two centuries of Wissenschaft des Judentums (WdJ). Her main working hypothesis is that (a) the WdJ (with the definite article) was an early twentieth-century invention, a shibboleth to which scholars referred while positioning themselves within the broader political field; and (b) that this contested construct cannot be projected retrospectively on previous scholarship. Instead of describing the history of ‘the’ WdJ in terms of monogenesis, wave-like dissemination and supersessionism, she proposes to approach it as an ensemble of national mentalities and practices, loosely (sometimes dialectically) kept together by transnational networks of journals, contacts and correspondence, and by the memory of Zunz’s short-lived Verein. DH techniques and strategies should help us not only to identify concrete networks, but also to point out subtle affinities, constants and differences between the various national traditions.
The discussion highlighted a few central points:
- DH vs. ‘traditional’ Humanities: it was emphasised that the DH should enhance Humanities scholarship rather than replacing its existing approaches; visualization, e.g., can help re-contextualise questions and suggest new questions
- legal frameworks: how is ownership defined? and who defines it? Participants pointed to the role of libraries on the one hand and to commercial sellers (Amazon etc.) on the other; it was emphasised that companies make profit from services rather than data and that ‘data want to be free’, suggesting that the problem might ultimately disappear
- the quality of metadata: initiatives to improve and link metadata are highly desirable
III) Sharing and Synchronizing Agendas
The concluding part was introduced by Robin Nobel (Rothschild Foundation Europe) who pointed to promising aspects as well as pitfalls in the conception of new projects:
- connecting to existing projects (and websites) appears often more productive than creating new stand-alone web presences
- evidence of actual usage is an important criterion for judging pilot projects
- team-building is important (including links to engineers)
- copyright and other legal questions need to be addressed (nationally and internationally)
She also emphasised the need for training options, e.g. via summer schools.
The discussion took up important points from previous sessions to explore them more systematically:
- interoperability and standardization of metadata: it is important to define and recommend standards, but one cannot count on them to be used; a wide range of standards will do as long as it allows for data to be downloaded and processed – ‘engineers are enjoying transformation!’
- the importance of APIs: exposing functions that other machines can read
- good practice: Yerusha has an editorial team to ensure the integrity of data, style etc. and is anchored in the NLI; Footprints has consulted extensively with projects and coders to ensure sustainability: how can code be updated, exported and imported, and not become too complex?
- from data to meaning: presently, projects are good at providing data, but their analysis is challenging and mostly limited to topic modelling; there is still a great gap between questions and their operatization – ‘but there is hope’
- training: students should be encouraged to engage with new methods and DH degree courses; short training workshops may have a place, but long-term supervision and feedback are essential to create transferable skills
- ADHO (Association of Digital Humanities Organizations): JS & DH may want to get more involved and might even form a ‘special interest group’ (SIG); the EAJS could support this
The conference ended with the proposal to set up an EAJS Digital Forum
- to foster contact and cooperation among JS scholars with an interest in the DH
- to support short training courses, workshops, and summer schools on specific topics
- to support PhDs
- to facilitate funding of individual collaborations and initiatives to develop the DH in JS
- to foster critical methodological reflection
- to explore how the DH in JS can lead to innovation in teaching, including in MA courses
- to explore how the DH in JS can shape the interaction between academics and the broader public
- to contribute to the development of recommended standards for peer review and research evaluation
- to offer an interface between Jewish Studies and DH organisations (such as the ADHO) and a point of contact for scholars in various contexts who want to find out more about DH in Jewish Studies.
The EAJS Digital Forum will also be involved in the preparation of the EAJS conference 2018 in Kraków.