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‘Jewish Google’ makes manuscripts accessible

Berlin, State Library of Berlin, Ms. Or. fol. 1212, f. 381a
Israel's National Library
Launch of world’s biggest Hebrew manuscript archive fulfills Ben-Gurion’s vision

Throughout history, the Jews have traditionally been called the People of the Book. Now, thanks to a new project, they are also the people of the digital manuscript.

Earlier this week, Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem launched Ktiv, the world’s biggest online collection of Jewish and Hebrew manuscripts.

“It creates a virtual collection of all Hebrew texts in one place,” Dr. Tsafra Siew, the Ktiv Project Manager at the National Library of Israel, told i24NEWS.

The name Ktiv, after Hebrew for “the written word”, attests to the special significance writing has long held in Jewish culture.

Israel's National Library

It is estimated that roughly 85,000-100,000 Jewish manuscripts exist throughout the world. Of those, the National Library holds roughly 85 percent, written in Hebrew letters in a wide range of Jewish languages, such as Ladino, Yiddish and Judeo-Greek.

For decades, researchers traveled the world, collected them and scanned them.

Thanks to the latest technology, these high-resolution images are available online for everyone to see, making it possible to record and preserve collective memory for generations to come. The “Jewish Google” is how one of the managers of the Ktiv website colloquially refers to it.

“We are aiming to digitize and make accessible all the Hebrew manuscripts, which were microfilmed in the past, including new findings of manuscripts that were not known until today,” Dr. Siew said, noting that the digitization process was ongoing and would eventually include “everything that Jewish people put in writing throughout history.”

It’s an idea that goes back to the birth of the State of Israel.


Israel's National Library

One of the core ideas of the Zionist Movement was the Ingathering of the Exiles: the return of the Jewish diaspora to the Holy Land, a dream fulfilled for many with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

But for David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, the ingathering of the exiles of Jewish knowledge was equally important.

“It is the duty of the State of Israel to acquire and gather those exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora,” he said in 1950.

That year, he helped establish the Institute of Hebrew Manuscripts, with its stated goal being to gather Hebrew microfilms scattered across libraries and private collections in dozens of countries.

In 1963, the institute joined the Jewish National and University Library, which eventually became the National Library.

Israel's National Library

As for the Ktiv website, it features manuscripts that go back centuries, from Jewish prayer books and biblical texts, to illuminated literature and even scientific writings.

“The reactions are amazing,” Dr. Ziew affirmed. “It’s actually a groundbreaking project in the sense that it puts together hundreds of collections, and it allows scholars or anyone who’s interested [to look for] texts that were written throughout history in every geographical region.”

Israel’s National Library hopes to complete the monumental task of digitizing the rest of the world’s Jewish manuscripts in the coming years, ultimately connecting the world in which the manuscripts were written to today’s digital age.

“We aim to make the texts themselves searchable so that it will truly be a Jewish Google,” Dr. Ziew said.

To see the Ktiv website, click here.

Maya Margit is i24NEWS’ Culture Correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @mayamargit for the latest on the cultural scene in Israel.

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