The goal of Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place is a database to track the circulation of printed "Jewish books" (in Hebrew, other Jewish languages, and books in Latin and non-Jewish vernaculars with Judaica contents). Much information about the movement of early printed books exists, but in scattered form: individual copies, catalogs from libraries and booksellers, estate inventories, subscription lists, and other kinds of archival documents. All of these individual pieces of data can connect to each other in order to build up a composite view of the movement of Jewish texts and ideas from place to place and across time.

Growing out of discussions of the Lillian Goldman Scholar’s Working Group on the Jewish Book that met under the auspices of the Center for Jewish History in New York from 2009-2013, our project aims at adding to our knowledge of the role of books and reading in the history of Jewish culture by following the movements of particular books from the printing press to the hands of readers across space and the transmission of books through time.

Despite important and growing research on the history of individual printers and authors, the fortunes of individual books, and the modes of reading among Jews, historians of early modern and modern Jewish culture have only a partial picture of the social and cultural dynamics at work in producing, disseminating, and reading Hebrew and other “Jewish” books. We still know little about major patterns of cultural and intellectual exchange among Jews of different regions and between Jews and their neighbors, about the reading habits of Jewish communities and the roles of geographic hubs in directing print culture. We suggest one major reason for this is practical: the evidence for the trade and non-commercial exchanges of such books among scholars and within the wider reading public consists of data fragments scattered throughout libraries and archives and often found in the individual books themselves.

Our project works to close this research gap in the history of Jewish book circulation by building a large database of information related to the circulation of copies of printed editions of Hebrew books, books in other Jewish languages, and books in Latin and non-Jewish vernaculars with significant Judaica content. This database will serve as the backbone for collaborative research projects (see below) and will be a significant resource for individual researchers, teachers, and students in Jewish history and the history of the book in the West.

The definition of “Jewish” book is complex. Most Hebrew books were printed for a Jewish audience, but there are imprints aimed at Christian students of Hebrew and scholars of the Bible and Judaism. Books printed in other languages, sometimes in Hebrew script (Yiddish and Ladino, e.g.) and sometimes in Roman script, were also aimed at Jews. Although our project primarily tracks Hebrew-language and Hebrew-script books, we have opted to be as inclusive as possible when deciding which editions to track. For now, our focus is on tracing the movement of imprints produced from the invention of the printing press ca. 1450 through the early nineteenth century, roughly corresponding to the “handpress” era before the rise of mechanical presses and to the early modern period in cultural and intellectual history. However, a few footprints of later imprints have been entered as part of the pilot project. The platform allows for tracing movement of manuscripts and these can be incorporated at a later stage.

Footprints uses a PostgresSQL database (open source; code is available on Github). PostgreSQL is an object-relational database system. It has more than 15 years of active development and a proven architecture that has earned it a strong reputation for reliability, data integrity, and correctness. The Footprints application interacts with its data via Django's robust Object Relational Model.

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Types of Evidence

Evidence for the movement of books goes beyond provenance metadata that some library catalogs capture for particular holdings (although that information is certainly important our project).
Data that we are collecting includes:

  • owner’s signatures and bookplates in extant copies
  • handwritten notations of sales or transfers of books in books or in archival material
  • references to exchanges of books in correspondence of scholars or merchants
  • references to circulation of books in references to efforts at censorship and expurgation
  • unpublished booklists found in manuscripts, archival documents, or copied in the flyleaves of books, including estate inventories and auction catalogs
  • references by authors of prefaces and introductions and other paratextual material to how they encountered the texts being produced
  • printers’ colophons and other information from title pages and paratexts indicating who was involved in the production of a printed edition
  • subscription lists and lists of approbations in printed editions, indicating backers or patrons of the books who presumably received a copy of the product.

A controlled vocabulary for types of evidence as used in the database can be found on our Github wiki.

Evidence for a footprint is not always evidence for ownership: for example, the signature of a Church censor indicating that he has expurgated a particular copy of an imprint can serve to establish the location of a copy at a particular time, but does not indicate who the owner of the book was. We have many “actors” connected to books in our database including owners, subscribers (who may have immediately given away a copy sent to them), booksellers, censors, dedicatees, and so forth. A controlled vocabulary for actor roles can also be found on the Github wiki.

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2012-2014: Following a series of roundtable discussions at the Center for Jewish History in New York, the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, and the World Congress of Jewish Studies, the four project directors developed a conceptualization of the project through consultation with a wide range of historians, librarians, digital humanities specialists, and others.

2014-2015: In the 2014-2015 academic year, the project went through a pilot phase in cooperation with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), now the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). A small grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation administered at JTS allowed us to hire a research assistant to begin researching and adding data. CTL project managers, database designers, and web designers developed a back-end and front end data-entry system, constructed the database, and began work on a searchable public interface. In November 2014, a “research-a-thon” sponsored by the Center for Jewish History offered librarians, students, and collaborating scholars a chance to preview the interface and enter test data using the back-end data entry system. In the spring of 2015, students at JTS (in a senior capstone seminar on the history of the Jewish book taught by Marjorie Lehman) and at the University of Pittsburgh (in a Jewish history survey course taught by Adam Shear) entered data based on their research in the JTS library and collections in Pittsburgh.

2015-2016: The data began to grow, and the project directors developed a "trusted crowdsourcing” model to allow a wider range of scholars and students to contribute to the project. The Schneerson Library (Moscow) joined our project, and began to add provenance specific data from their collection. The implementation of batch upload allowed for direct upload of many footprints from various library catalogs, including Columbia University, Leo Baeck Institute (New York), and Washington University (St. Louis).

2017: CTL worked on a "booster development project" to upgrade our search system, incorporate moderation into the site, and smaller upgrades for enhanced clarity. Footprints successfully received a grant in partnership with Marsh's Library (Dublin) to catalog their rare Hebraica and enter it into Footprints. The project directors continue to apply for grants to support various aspects of the project. Two sessions at the World Congress of Jewish Studies (organized by the Footprints directors) will focus on books and their movement

Goals for the future include:

  1. Continued collaboration with libraries with major holdings in Hebraica and Judaica: including promotion of use and interactions with the database; entering footprints locally in the course of cataloging, and hosting staff from the project (graduate student research assistants or post-docs) to search collections for footprints.
  2. Enhanced database design, programming, and web development as well as on-going technical support.
  3. Development of an expanded project team. We envision a workshop in the summer of 2017 to train graduate students, younger scholars, librarians, and others in the project and to use such a workshop to develop a network of researchers.
  4. Development of machine language processing of digitized texts that would perform computer-aided searches for references to book exchanges that human researchers could then enter into the database.
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Research Directions:

Early modern Jewish cultural and intellectual history has not neglected the role of printing or the role of books in the spread of ideas: scholars have pointed to the spread of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) through printing as critical to changes in popular religion and the emergence of messianic movements, to the standardization of Jewish liturgy and ritual practice, and interpretations of Jewish law, as a result of print leading to broader trans-regional Jewish identities; and to the rise of vernacular literatures and their intersection with changing gender and class roles in a range of Jewish communities. But almost all of this scholarship has been based on individual scholars tracing the movement of ideas on the basis of acquaintance with only a small subset of the vast output of the printing press. More importantly, no scholar has been able to really trace broad trends in distribution of ideas and culture through a wider sample of books.

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Descriptive Statistical Analysis and Qualitative Discussion

Based on evidence of particular editions found in particular places, the user will be able to offer qualitative discussion and statistical description of the movement of a particular book or the books circulating in a given area. This is an area close to traditional forms of historical analysis and would allow individual researchers and their projects to use our database as a tool for research.

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Inferential Statistical Analysis

When the dataset is large enough to be a valid sampling of all Hebrew books in motion in the early modern period, statistical analysis might be able to offer probabilities that a given title could be found in a given area (within confidence intervals). We might also be able to see whether books on certain subjects, in certain genres, or with other characteristics were more or less likely to be sold over a wide geographic area or whether books with certain characteristics are more likely to be found in particular areas. In this area, cultural historians and statisticians would leverage their mutual areas of expertise to offer a statistical analysis that takes into account social, cultural, political, and economic contexts.

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Network Visualization

Using hard evidence for movement of particular books from one geographic location to another and probabilistic analysis of other possible movements, it should be possible to visualize networks of book movement showing connections between places. Using similar techniques, it may be possible to also visualize networks connecting individuals to each other or to other places.

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The model and platform developed here can easily be used to study the circulation of printed books in other languages and to study other cultures and societies. As we implement our data model and our user interface we are in dialogue with other projects in order to share protocols, standards, and methods with others interested in parallel issues.

In Fall 2014, Adam Shear participated in a workshop at the University of Pittsburgh (http://networkontologies.org/) with representatives of several projects concerned with relations between people, objects, and places in early modern Europe. “Mapping the Republic of Letters” (http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/) tracing connections of intellectuals through their letters, at Stanford; “Itinera” (https://itinera.pitt.edu/) tracking grandees on the Grand Tour and their encounters with art, at the University of Pittsburgh; and “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon,” at CMU (http://sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com/) using inferential statistical analysis and machine language processing to map networks of early modern English intellectuals. All 3 of these projects offer us considerable expertise in modelling relations of individuals and objects (in our case books) across time and space. Allison Langmead at Pitt (Itinera) and Christopher Warren at CMU (Six Degrees) have already offered valuable advice and guidance.

As of spring 2017, we are in conversation with varied projects with shared interests about parallel work and possible collaborations.

  • We have received a grant to hire a researcher to catalog and identify footprints at the Hebraica at Marsh's Library (Dublin)
  • Curators at the Schneerson Library (Moscow) continue to add significant data regarding provenance in their collection to our project.
  • “15cBOOKTRADE” (http://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/research/15cBooktrade/) is focused on the distribution of incunabula. We look forward to working more closely with them on our shared goals.
  • MEDIATE (http://www.mediate18.nl/) seeks to trace the circulation of books during the eighteenth century (1665 - 1820) by digitizing a large corpus of private library auction catalogues from the Netherlands, France and Great Britain
  • We have been in contact with representatives of the Claims Conference regarding their attempts to locate books belonging to pre-WWII Jewish collections in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Other projects concerned with movement of books, such as “The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe” (http://fbtee.uws.edu.au/main/), offer us valuable lessons in architecture and data modelling and collection.

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Further Reading

Adams, Thomas R. and Nicolas Barker. 1993. "A New Model for the Study of the Book," in A Potencie of Life: Books in Society, ed. N. Barker. London: British Library, pp. 5-43.

Baruchson, Shifra. 1985. "Findings about the Hebrew Book Trade between Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century" (in Hebrew). Mi-mizrah ume-maarav 5, pp. 63-66.

Baruchson, Shifra. 1993. Sefarim ve-korim: Tarbut ha-keriah shel yehude Italya be-shilhe he-Renasans [Books and Readers: Reading Culture of Italian Jews at the End of the Renaissance]. Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press.

Burrows, Simon et al. 2014. "The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe Database, 1769-1794) http://fbtee.uws.edu/au/stn

Dweck, Yaacob. 2010. “What is a Jewish Book?” Association for Jewish Studies Review 34: 367-376.

Freimann, Aron. 1902. "Daniel Bomberg's Bücher-Verzeichnis." Zeitschrift für Hebräische Bibliographie 10: 38-42.

Hacker, Joseph R. and Adam Shear, eds. 2011. The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gries, Zeev. 2007. The Book in the Jewish World, 1700-1900. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Moretti, Franco. 2013. Distant Reading. London: Verso Books.

Motro, Amihai. 1995. "Management of Uncertainty in Database Systems." In Modern Database Systems. ed. Won Kim, 457-476. Boston: Addison Wesley Longman.

Pearson, David. 2007. "What Can We Learn by Tracking Multiple Copies of Books?" In Books on the Move : Tracking Copies through Collections and the Book Trade, edited by Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote, 17-37. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press ; London : British Library.

Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. 1999. "Print and Jewish Culture Development," in Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, 3: 344-346. ed. P. Grendler et al. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Reiner, Elchanan. 1997. "The Ashkenazi Elite at the Beginning of the Modern Era: Manuscript versus Printed Book." Polin 10: 85-98.

Rothschild, Jean-Pierre. 1991. "Les listes de livres, reflet de la culture des juifs en Italie du Nord au XVe et au XVIe siècle?" in Manoscritti, frammenti e libri ebraici nell'Italia dei secoli xv-xvi, ed. G. Tamani and V. Vivian, 163-193. Rome: Carucci.

Ruderman, David. 2010. Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Shear, Adam. 2010. “Introduction to AJS Review Symposium: The Jewish Book: Views and Questions,” Association for Jewish Studies Review 34: 353-358.

Ullyot, Michael. 2013. "Review Essay: Digital Humanities Projects." Renaissance Quarterly 66: 937-947.

Walsby, Malcolm and Natasha Constantinidu, eds. 2013 Documenting the Early Modern Book World: Inventories and Catalogs in Manuscript and Print. Leiden: Brill.

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