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The National Library of Israel Tracks Down Hebrew Manuscripts
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Posted On May 24, 2016
Cooperation is the name of the game for the National Library of Israel as it seeks to meet its ambitious goal of digitizing all of the known Hebrew manuscripts in the world. This project, Ktiv: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts, is a 6-year undertaking that is currently in its second year. (Ktiv is Hebrew for “the written word.”) The Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society is collaborating with the library on the project.

Ktiv’s aim, says Naomi Schacter, the library’s director of partnerships, “is to enable open global access to the public of all the known Hebrew manuscripts. … These manuscripts document, explain, [and] express the cultural, religious, social, and scientific world of the Jews around the world through the ages. … We do not aim to ‘own’ the manuscripts, but rather to facilitate the digitization process that will allow for global open access.”

Because the manuscripts are held by various libraries and cultural institutions, deals have to be struck, and the library has now signed 30 agreements with such bodies. “However, there are still many more partners that must be approached: libraries, archives, cultural and educational institutions, and private collectors worldwide,” says Schacter.

Existing Partnerships

The National Library of Israel has made agreements with the National Library of France (BnF), the British Library, the Vatican Library, the Palatina Library in Parma, Italy, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). On May 26, 2016, it will stage a presentation at the Palatina Library to explain Ktiv and to celebrate the Palatina Library’s completed digitization of its Hebrew manuscripts.

Schacter claims that the agreements in place cover 76% of all known Hebrew manuscripts. The presentation at the Palatina Library “is another opportunity to invite all institutions and private people who are in possession of Hebrew manuscripts or have some interest in the subject,” says Schacter. The Palatina Library holds about 1,600 Hebrew manuscripts.

The agreement with the BnF covers the digitization and shared accessibility of about 1,400 Hebrew manuscripts. These will eventually be made available for free to researchers and the general public through the National Library of Israel’s website. They include many antique biblical texts dating from the 13th century, such as the 1299 Perpignan Bible, as well as literature on philosophy and science. Oren Weinberg, the National Library of Israel’s director general, says, “For the first time, large numbers of researchers, students and other curious members of the public will be able to study these important manuscripts and enjoy their rich content.”

The project with the British Library moved into a second phase of manuscript digitization in April 2016. This phase will focus on the British Library’s Gaster and Samaritan collections, with more than 1,200 manuscripts due to be digitized.

Some 3,200 manuscripts held by the British Library will eventually be fully cataloged and digitized, and 2,110 documents will be made available online via the National Library of Israel and British Library websites. Among the treasures held by the British Library are the First Gaster Bible (9th–10th century) and the Second Gaster Bible (11th–12th century), which contains sections from the Pentateuch ornamented in an Islamic style.

Long-Term Preservation

Naturally, no one would want all this effort and output to be undone by technological deterioration and change, and the National Library of Israel is using state-of-the-art technology to ensure the Ktiv collection is preserved, digitally, for the long term.

Schacter says, “Long term means very long term—and ideally without limitation—such that [Ktiv] can be used throughout the ages. Such is our commitment as the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people. In order to ensure this long-term preservation, we use a combination of materials, programs and policies. The Rosetta software system is used for digital preservation processes. … The software system is installed on a [seven-server] environment, using Oracle as its database. Our current data exceeds [100 terabytes].”

This will contribute to the planned launch, in fall 2016, of the first stage of the Ktiv website. It will feature search and navigation using a Hebrew manuscript-oriented search tool which will, claims Schacter, enable “users to easily and efficiently find manuscripts from different (current and historical) collections, based on their shelf marks, cultural context and style.”

Another tool is “a manuscript oriented viewer, which will identify each manuscript’s current owner, and will enable the viewer to browse a full manuscript in different visual ways, and to perform different actions (such as share, download and print) on single pages,” says Schacter.

Additional Digitization Projects

There are other projects underway at the National Library of Israel, including Historical Jewish Press (JPRESS), the Arabic Newspaper and Journal Digitization Project, and the Israel Archives Network (IAN).

Historical Jewish Press is a joint project with Tel Aviv University that has digitized about 100 newspapers and periodicals published for Jewish communities worldwide from 1783 to 2014. It is composed of about 150,000 newspaper issues, adding up to nearly 1.5 million pages, all of which are searchable. The archive features publications in languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, and Polish.

According to Zachary Rothbart, the National Library of Israel’s partnerships and resource development coordinator, the oldest publication in the Historical Jewish Press collection is Ha-Me’assef from Oct. 1, 1783. “This was the first Hebrew journal and was published in Europe between 1783-1811,” he says.

The Arabic Newspaper and Journal Digitization Project focuses on the digitization of Arabic newspapers and journals published in Palestine during the eras of the late Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, mainly covering the years between 1876 and 1948. This is an ongoing project, which the National Library of Israel calls “an exciting initiative to build the world’s largest and most user-friendly digital collection of Ottoman and Mandate-era Palestinian Arabic newspapers.”

IAN aims to connect archives from across Israel in “a single, searchable, state-of-the-art website, providing access to invaluable materials which chronicle the history of the country, its communities, organizations and leading figures,” according to the National Library of Israel. This work is being carried out with the Israel State Archives and will enable interested parties worldwide to access the combined digitized archives.

Rothbart says IAN has yet to launch officially, “as we are working at increasing the depth and breadth of the content available on the site.” It went online in December 2015, but the interface is currently available only in Hebrew.

Among the treasures available to view is the Rothschild Third Temple book—commissioned in the late 1800s by the then Lord Rothschild—which describes the mythical Third Temple from the Bible’s book of Ezekiel. Also on the site are the manuscripts of Israel’s national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and materials chronicling the country’s kibbutz movement.


John Charlton writes about technology, law, and education for several publications.



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