Consider this blog post part of a soft roll-out of a new concept here at Footprints HQ:  we are dubbing calendar year 2018 as the “Year of Incunabula.”  (If you read the last blog post from my colleague Michelle Chesner, you already know about some of our efforts in this direction.) Although we will continue to take in data on post-1500 imprints, we  have begun to focus our efforts on adding as many footprints of pre-1500 Hebrew printed books as we can between now and December 31, 2018.  (Stay tuned for the announcement–around this time next year–of 2019’s theme.)

In designing and launching Footprints, we explored many approaches to gathering data..  Some of our colleagues suggested focusing on a particular set of literary works and their editions and dissemination. (A wonderful model of this kind of research is The Archaeology of Reading at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and University of London, with our advisory board member Anthony Grafton as one of the participants.)  Such a project–working from a limited corpus– allows great strides to be made in a limited amount of time.  Others suggested that we look at the output of a particular printer (we could have started by tracking down everything printed by Soncino) or the books printed in a particular city (Amsterdam in the 17th century).  Others suggested that we focus on the formation of particular collections.  

We heard these suggestions but resisted going this route as the project started.  Despite all of the potential in these options, we did not want to limit the scope of the project in the moments of its inception.   By looking at “Jewish” books (including books printed in Hebrew or other Jewish languages; books in non-Jewish languages on Jewish topics; and books owned by Jews regardless of content) printed in different places and times and their movement across time and place without limitations, we were able to explore the possibilities and limits of this new  kind of research project. In the iterative process of digital scholarship, we didn’t want to foreclose fruitful lines of discussion before we even got started.  And while this open approach has had some costs, the benefit can be seen in the architecture and flexibility of our database.  No doubt casting the net widely leads to some inefficiencies but other efficiencies are gained:  if we were focusing on production by Daniel Bomberg only, would it have made sense for me to sit in a rare book room and examine a Bomberg book carefully while ignoring the riches in a Soncino imprint bound with it?  If we were focusing on a set list of books and I found references to these in an estate inventory, should I put aside the books owned by a particular collector not on this list?

That open approach will continue  as we build the database, but we have decided for several reasons to make a special push on incunabula this year. Choosing to focus on incunabula benefits us the most right now for building Footprints in a more systematic way, and also enables researchers interested in who read, owned, bought and sold these books to acquire the most comprehensive view of this area of the history of the Hebrew book as possible. You could say, we want to begin again from the beginning.

Toward this end,  we are joining forces with the 15CBooktrade project led by Cristina Dondi of Oxford University, a long-time advisor to Footprints. Our colleagues at 15CBooktrade have started to see the finish line in collecting information about incunabula in an  ambitious and incredibly rich database, Material Evidence in Incunabula  (MEI). Thanks to a generous grant, 15CBooktrade/MEI will hire 3 dedicated researchers to work on Hebrew incunabula for six months in 2018.  One will be based in Oxford, focusing on collections in the UK and northern Europe; one in Jerusalem, focusing on Israeli collections; and one in Italy, focusing on the richness of Italian and some other European collections. These researchers will enter all of the copy-specific features of incunabula in their areas into MEI and also record the “footprints” into our database.  

Meanwhile, our goal is to cover the major collections of Hebrew incunabula in North America.  We’ll be focused on the rich collections in the New York area, Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Washington DC, Cincinnati, Ottawa, as well as smaller collections or single copies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford, Providence,  Bloomington, IN, and Provo Utah. (I am heading to Chicago soon where I will see the three Hebrew incunabula at the Newberry Library.)  We are especially eager to hear from members of our trusted crowdsourcing community who would like to work on some of these collections.   We are also reaching out to private collectors and encouraging them to join the effort.

As we continue our work with book lists, estate inventories, auction catalogues, and scholarly articles looking for “historical copies” as well as working from extant books in rare book rooms, we will focus our efforts this year on the incunables. As we learn about early modern Jewish owners of non-Hebrew incunabula we will enter those as well. We have 3 first-year undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh eager to get to work in the spring term as part of the successful First Experiences in Research program run by Pitt’s Office of Undergraduate Research and we also intend to hire one research assistant who will input information from the rare book collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary.   We are also looking for interns in the cities mentioned above and faculty supervisors who are looking for hands-on research opportunities for their students.  

Does this mean we are abandoning the “big tent” approach to data collection?  Not at all: we remain committed to the idea that we want to ingest as many footprints as possible. We continue to work with partner libraries, downloading provenance data from catalogs and preparing them for upload to Footprints.  When we embed researchers to cover particular library collections (as we are doing now with the Marsh’s Library, Dublin)  we will ask them to look at the incunabula first but not to stop there! We continue to welcome contributions from crowd-sourcers and we are still happy to serve as a repository for datasets generated by independent research projects.  Surely we are always on the  lookout for other footprints as we hunt down the incunabula.   

We are not choosing  between a specific topic  and an open approach.  (But we are also not just saying “que sera sera” and leaving it at that.) Rather, we intend for the focused approach and the big tent model to co-exist; the focus on incunabula will enable us to concentrate on one area of Hebrew book history while maintaining our commitment to flexibility, which has  been the hallmark of our progress to date.  

As always, if you or your institution or your students want to join the fun, just let us know.  We look forward to hearing from you.