Haaretz: Yaakov Choueka Leads the Geniza Project

We met Yaakov Choueka some thirty years ago at Bar Ilan when he was leading the Responsa digitization project there. Haaretz reports that he is now directing the efforts to digitize the Geniza.
...Choueka already has participated in several projects of this type. One of them, the Responsa Project - the largest electronic collection of Torah literature - was the first in Israel and one of the first in the world to combine computerization and the humanities. Yet Choueka feared that digitizing the Geniza would be almost impossible, and hesitated for a long time before committing to it.

The first main challenge was the fact that Geniza documents were scattered in collections and libraries around the world. No fewer than 75 public and private libraries now have parts of the Geniza. The first stage of the project, which took about two years, was preparing an inventory of Geniza pages wherever they were. The list was painstakingly compiled from libraries across three continents in cities including Jerusalem, London, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, New York and Philadelphia, in addition to Cambridge.

"For the first time after 120 years, when the Geniza was scattered, we succeeded, with the libraries' help, in preparing a complete list of Geniza documents," said Choueka at the time. The final list is a comprehensive online catalog that includes the call numbers of about 350,000 fragments from scrolls, pamphlets, pages and books. The list includes books of the Bible and the Talmud and their commentaries, passages of prayer and piyyut (liturgical poetry ), midrash and mussar (ethical teachings ), philosophy and sciences. It also includes personal and business correspondence, financial records, recipes and formulas for medicines, engagement and marriage contracts and writs of divorce, and even handwriting exercises. Along with the catalog, the website also offers bibliographical information compiled from dozens of sources.

The second stage of the project, which will be completed by the end of next year, involves creating high-quality digital copies of all the Geniza material. "This is a tremendous revolution," says Choueka. "Until now scholars had to search for manuscripts in libraries all over the world, or peruse microfilm that is not always of good quality. This revolution will let any scholar, anywhere in the world, access the entire Geniza via computer at any time."

This will not only spare scholars the need to track down the physical documents, it will also give them a higher-quality version than the original. The documents were photographed at a high resolution, enabling users to enlarge them on their computer screens to the point where they can see details of letters, marks and colors that are not evident in the original to the unaided eye. For many scholars, this is an unprecedented improvement.

Some 300,000 Geniza documents have been copied so far. The researchers are copying 10,000 documents a month at the Cambridge University Library. When the work is completed, another 250,000 images will have been added to the database. By the end of 2012, it will have 550,000 images of Geniza documents, 99 percent of all existing material, promises Choueka. "They will be accessible free of charge," he says. Before the project began, there were only 1,000 Geniza documents available in digital form....

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