Page 2 of 2

Updates: Batches, Presentations, Conferences

We are pleased to announce many updates to Footprints website and to the project at large.  The database has been growing in leaps and bounds (about 700 Footprints at last count), with promising directions for further expansion. Our talented developers at Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning have completed a function for “batch upload” of provenance data to the site–the large scale uploading of material based on extant library catalogs.  We invite you check out the recent developments in the site by visiting the following link:

We have shared the first fruits of this endeavor at international scholarly conferences, where the project was well-received.  We presented the project at last summer’s Association of Jewish Libraries meeting, the December meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, and the January meeting of the American Historical Association, and we will be participating in this summer’s Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Bruges.  At these conferences, our work featured alongside other projects in the Digital Humanities, where we learned from their respective successes (and setbacks).

Footprints has garnered interest in the scholarly community, and generated opportunities for institutional collaboration.  We have recently uploaded records from Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and are working with the librarians at other institutions to replicate this process.  We are preparing hundreds more Footprints to add to the site for the batch upload, and we are constantly seeking more!  We are cultivating connections with other librarians around the world who have provenance data in their catalog records, with an eye towards our goal of reaching the critical mass of 10,000 footprints by summer 2017.  If you are interested in submitting your data as a batch, please contact us at for more information about batch specifications.

Footprints will achieve its goal of advancing the state of the field in Jewish Book History when it impacts the nature of research.  We are working on an event surrounding the 500th anniversary of  first publication of Daniel Bomberg (Rabbinic Bible, 1517), to coincide with the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem next summer.

We look forward to sharing new developments with you as they continue to occur!

From the stacks of Spertus College Library, Part II

As described in a previous post, we were very fortunate to have Tali Winkler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, work with the books in the library of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, entering Footprints from its storied collection.  Tali describes her experience further below (images courtesy Tali Winkler).

In my earlier post, I described the excitement of learning about people, both known and unknown, from marginalia in the books.  The second piece that stood out for me in my Footprints work was how we can learn about how books traveled from place to place. Sometimes it is even possible to identify multiple books belonging to the same collection, which had therefore been traveling together, perhaps for hundreds of years.

A pair of books in the Spertus collection illustrates the second exciting aspect of the Footprints enterprise. The first book is a collection of responsa authored by David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589), also known as the Radbaz, and published in Livorno, Italy in 1652. I was able to find four footprints for this book. The first inscription I was actually not able to decipher at all; the second I was able to decipher the name “Binyamin” (see image, left). imageThe third footprint was a stamp in purple ink indicating that the book had been owned by Rabbi Mendel Walman of Viroshov in Jerusalem, at some point in the 19th century. Finally, Spertus had acquired the book before the year 1970 (though I do not know specifically what year.)

About a month later, I encountered another book of responsa, Bet Yehudah, written by Judah ‘Ayash, a 17th century Algerian rabbi. The edition was also published in Livorno, in 1746. As I tried to decipher an inscription on the title page, I recognized the same “Binyamin” (see image below) from the responsa of the Radbaz, and excitedly realized that the title page also sported a stamp with the name of Rabbi Mendel Walman, albeit in blue ink. And finally, this book had also been acquired by Spertus before 1970.image

These two books, both books of responsa and both printed in Livorno, albeit about a century apart, had thus been traveling together since at least the 19th century, if not earlier, and had at least three owners in common!

These small discoveries I made over the summer were really exciting for me at the time, but the broader implications of this method are perhaps even more exciting. Using owner inscriptions, scholars can potentially track the travels of individual books, reveal interactions between individuals in the context of the exchange of books, and even recreate the libraries of various individuals throughout time.

Finally, one of the most fundamental elements of the Footprints project is its collaborative nature. I could not read the rest of Binyamin’s inscription, for example, but hopefully someone else, looking at the picture uploaded to the footprint record, will be able to figure it out. So please, dear reader, give it a try and see if you can help!

From the stacks of the Spertus Institute Library, Part I

Footprints is open and ready for entries!  This summer, we were very fortunate to have Tali Winkler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, work with the books in the library of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, entering Footprints from its storied collection.  Tali describes her experience below (images courtesy Tali Winkler).

As a graduate student enthusiastically following the progress of Footprints since its inception, I was eager to participate in the process myself. This summer, I had the opportunity to work with the rare book collection of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, IL. The library has an extensive collection of Hebrew printed books, many of which contain handwritten treasures on the margins of their pages.

There are two aspects of this discovery process that I find most exciting, the first of which is described here.   (The second will be described in a later post.) The marginalia in an individual book can teach us an immense amount about the book, its owner(s), and how the book itself was used. Often we can identify an owner from other historical records, in which case it adds a new dimension to what we already knew. On the other hand, often the owner is not otherwise known or identifiable; utilizing this type of primary source thus allows us to hear the voices of those individuals that may not otherwise have been preserved.

A book titled Korban Netanel exemplifies this first exciting aspect of Footprints. The work was written by Nathaniel Weil (1687-1769), a scholar who worked in Prague as the head of a yeshiva and was eventually appointed as the Chief Rabbi of the city of Karlsruhe, Germany in 1750. He remained in this position until his death in 1769. The work is a commentary on Asher ben Yechiel’s writings. It was published for the first time in Karlsruhe in 1755; according to a note in the catalog record at Spertus, this was the first Hebrew book to be printed in the city of Karlsruhe.

An inscription on the title page of the copy owned by Spertus provides a brief window into the “life” of that specific copy of the edition. The inscription was signed by two individuals: Tiah (Jedidiah) Weil (1721-1805) and a Rabbi Eli. Tiah Weil was the son of Nathaniel Weil; he succeeded his father as Chief Rabbi of Karlsruhe after his father’s death, and he too served in that position until his own death. I have not been able to identify Rabbi Eli.

Tiah Weil wrote the majority of the inscription; in it, he explains that he was selling this copy to Rabbi Eli, rabbi of the city of Salzburg. He wrote the inscription while in Salzburg, and Rabbi Eli signed his own name beneath Tiah’s inscription.


This short inscription captures a distinct historical moment of an interaction between two men, both leaders of Jewish communities in different cities. This moment encapsulates an exchange of scholarship, a physical object (i.e. the book), and presumably money or some other form of payment. It also reveals a great deal about the dissemination of books in this period; while conventional trade routes were presumably used as well, those involved in the printing of a work could take a more active personal role in the marketing of the book. Conceivably Tiah Weil travelled with copies of his father’s book, with the intention of selling them to scholars he encountered during his travels. Perhaps there are even other extant copies of the Korban Netanel with inscriptions written by Tiah documenting sales to other scholars he encountered in his travels in Europe, waiting for the next Footprints contributor find them!

Teaching with Footprints: List College Students at JTS Contribute to the History of the Jewish Book

This past spring (2015), while in the process of working with the Columbia Center for New Media, Teaching and Learning on preparing a pilot database of Footprints: Jewish Books through Time and Place, undergraduates in JTS’s senior capstone seminar modeled the ways in which this database can provoke enriching learning experiences.

The sense that we are living through a revolution in reading practices driven by technological change, coupled with my first-hand experience regarding the way that the digital humanities and library science are transforming the way we amass knowledge, prompted me to pick the history of the Jewish book as the theme of this past spring’s capstone. While each book that the students have studied as majors in various fields of Jewish Studies at JTS has required them to think about its origins and the reasons for its inception, I intended for this course, like our database, to personalize the Jewish book. I wanted my students to think not only about the histories of individual book copies, but also about how they personally connect to that history. By holding class in the library and having them work with books on the shelves as well as rare books in the rare book room, I wanted them to think about books as owned by individual people, who bought, sold, gifted, inherited and collected them. Why and how did they wind up at JTS? How did they move from one place to another? The discovery that 16th-17th century Hebrew rare books, for example, printed in one city, which had stamps inside in Russian, as well as signatures in French, not to mention inscriptions in Italian, languages which many of our students knew, personalized the experience of book ownership. As one student commented,

“I remember when my study-partner and I spent half an hour looking at an Ein Yaakov in the rare book room, and amazingly enough, all of our time was spent examining the marginalia, cover art, and inscriptions we could find. Suddenly, the book wasn’t just a book of Jewish text; it was a personal artifact, an object that belonged to individuals and was passed down across generations and across various European countries!”

Indeed, my students could feel Jewish history come alive, as they considered many Jews studying the same Hebrew book-copy in different times and places. Even thinking about its survival until the present day incited them to think about the cultural power of Jewish books. I introduced them to our database, hoping that they would be able to enter footprints even in its earliest iteration. While drawing my students to think about the Jewish book of the past, they also were able to learn about the power of technology to preserve that past.

More significant, however, were the array of independent projects that my students designed, each intending to integrate the course theme with the ideas, texts, history, and culture represented by their majors. Indeed, each and every student chose a project that, in the end, both personalized the Jewish book for them and contributed something new to its history. Inasmuch as the students looked backward using past models including, the biblical story, the commentary, and liturgy, they also looked forward, wishing to critique and to contribute something entirely new. A famous Talmudic story about Honi the circlemaker became a new and creative type of children’s book rooted in child psychology and the development of Jewish values. The student wrote in her final reflections,

“Prior to this class, my definition and conception of the Jewish book was very narrow and was precisely that: that there was only one type of Jewish book.  I believed that in order to be considered a Jewish book, it had to be at least one of several things: written it Hebrew, written about a Jewish subject, written with Jewish people as a target audience, or it had to be the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, or other Jewish text.  This belief has been refuted, reconstructed, and complicated over and over again through my own research and the presentations/projects of my classmates, and to be honest it has only left me with more unanswered questions. But the Jewish book to me overall has become a much more complex genre.  I did not expect to find such meaning in this project, but my own research made me feel not only as if ‘the Jewish book’ was a much more expansive genre than I thought, but that I actually had something to contribute to it.  As someone who has struggled with organized religion and the idea of a higher power throughout my life but especially in college, my project enabled me to adopt the genre of the Jewish book and insert my own spin and my own self into it.  Creating my own Jewish children’s book that aimed to rebel against and be so different from the ones I had grown up reading made me feel as if there was more space in Jewish tradition for me, that I can and should have a stake in continuing to shape the genre of the Jewish book. This course certainly gave me space me think and reflect upon the Jewish book in ways I had not previously done, and therefore relate it to myself in ways I had not previously done.”

Students also used technology to enable prior narratives to speak to the contemporary Jewish world and to its issues and challenges. The creation of a blog by one student, Natalie Telson, written as a commentary on the book of Esther, invited student critique of the narrative as well as direct engagement with the way it has been used in today’s Jewish media. This student enabled our class to participate actively in new iterations of the Jewish book, experiencing the change from print to media, as she writes:

“My experience with my own project revealed to me that I too have a stake in the Jewish book.  My interpretations of biblical texts, in whatever context and from whatever perspective, hold a place in the Jewish tradition.  As a Bible major, I always thought about how biblical texts can be analyzed from countless perspectives and narratives.  However, I never thought about this from a broader perspective myself.  How does my dialogue with these texts, whether in papers, conversations, or my blog, preserve my place in Jewish history, and sustain the Jewish history that I study?  What does it mean to keep books like the Bible alive?”

Our database Footprints is our contribution to innovating research done on the Jewish book so that we can know more about the personal histories of books. And while we encourage our colleagues and students to continuously add footprints to this database so as to widen the knowledge we can glean about the history of the Jewish book, we also encourage professors to teach with the database so as to inspire a new generation of Jewish book culture, actively contributing to its future.


When Isaac Newton is hiding in a library collection

Many of the owners’ marks traced in Footprints are of as-yet unknown people.  I don’t know, for instance, who “Hayyim ben Tsevi Hirsch” is, nor “Yaakov Tsevi ben Dovid Yoel,” but there might be a scholar doing research on either individual on the other side of the country who can positively identify him, or perhaps an additional owner for books owned by him!  This is exactly what happened with a book in the Columbia University Libraries.

Columbia’s printed Judaica collection is composed of many different books, each with their own story to tell.  Unfortunately, as of about year years ago, only about 1/3 of the printed Judaica were actually in the online catalog.  To rectify this, the Judaica librarian hired Hannah Vaitsblit, a Barnard student who has been carefully checking every Judaica book in the rare stacks to make sure that they are cataloged and thus accessible and known to any potential users.  One of the things that Hannah excelled at was marking instances of provenance, that is, notes indicating ownership of the book throughout its existence.  One of the books that Hannah found was a Latin copy of Josephus’s De Bello Judaica (Wars of the Jews), printed in Cologne in 1559.  Hannah indicated the presence of the bookplate shown here, noting the  “Philosophemur” Newton plateshield as well as the Case information below it as she entered the record for the book into CLIO.

The record was discovered by Newton scholar Professor Stephen Snobelen, who contacted Columbia asking for more information about the book.  He asked us if there was an indicator of “A3-21,” which was the classmark for this book in the Musgrave library (one of the libraries that owned Newton’s books).

A note on Professor Snobelen’s depth of research: Hannah had originally transcribed the last word in the text on the bottom of the plate as “Barusleer.”  Since Prof. Snobelen is well versed in the travels of Newton’s library (described further below), he asked if it was possible that the text read “Barnsley.”  A careful viewer can see that either reading is possible, but we know now that it was the latter.

After Isaac Newton’s death, John Huggins, his neighbor, purchased the library for £300.  (His bookplate can be seen peeking out underneath the “Philosophemur” plate.)  The collection went from Huggins to his son Charles, and from Charles Huggins to James Musgrave, whose bookplate is seen above, with the family motto, “Philosophemur.” The library remained in the Musgrave family for generations, moving with them in 1778 to Barnsley Park, Gloucestershire, where the new classmarks were added in ink (on the bottom of the plate).  The library was partially sold at auction in 1920, when it is likely that this book entered the market, ultimately ending up at Columbia in 1922.  You can see all of the Footprints for the Josephus here.

Other books from Newton’s library have been found at the Huntington Library (Mede’s Works), at the King’s College Library (interestingly, a Hebrew lexicon), at the University of Michigan‘s library, and at Cardiff University.

(Cross-posted with minor changes from the Jewish Studies @CUL blog)

Provenance and the controversy of definitions

When we first thought about the Footprints project, we had no idea of the complexities we would encounter.  Neither, of course, did we know about how lucky we would be to have Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning take on the entire technical burden of building the database so we would have the freedom to worry about the nitty gritty details.  Like the word provenance, for instance.

According to the third definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, provenance is “The history of the ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality; a documented record of this.”  In a database dedicated to tracing owners, dates, and places, one can imagine that this term would come into play quite a bit.  Two types of printed books can be found in Footprints:

  1. Books which are known to exist today
  2. Books which are not known to exist today

(Well, actually, there are many more types of printed books than that, but for the sake of argument, all the books in the database currently fall under one of the above two categories.)

So the question before us was: according to the definition listed above, could we use “provenance” for the second kind of book?  If provenance is used “as a guide to authenticity…” of a specific, known work of art or antique, this might cause a problem.  After all, one of the records in the database is to a book which might have been owned at one time – it is documented by Yeshayahu Vinograd’s Thesaurus of the Hebrew Book (with a notation of “no known copy”), and not by the National Library of Israel’s Bibliography of the Hebrew Book.  Additionally, the only reference to this imprint is a manuscript copy (including the printers’ mark of the alleged printer) at Columbia University.  Is this an imaginary copy?  Could it have provenance?  Or should we use another term entirely?

Mishle hakhamim ve-hidotam, Lithuania, 1710

Mishle hakhamim ve-hidotam, Lithuania, 1710

A conundrum, indeed.  One of the many that we encountered while working on Footprints.  We look forward to coming across many more as we continue onward!

Newer posts »

© 2018 Footprints Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑