The Digital Turn

After 2000, the advent of affordable, high quality digital photography transformed the world of manuscript studies. 

Taking advantage of the changing technology, the Friedberg Genizah Project began inventorying and digitizing all extant Cairo Genizah manuscripts in 2004. This monumental undertaking led to partnerships with more than forty libraries in fifteen countries, and resulted in 739,868 digital manuscript images. In 2005, the Cairo-born, Israel Prize–winning computational linguist Yaacov Choueka (1936–2020) joined the FGP as its Chief Computerization Scientist. Over the next decade, Choueka, his team and his library partners completed the digital imaging of the entire Cairo Geniza.

At the heart of the FGP’s vision was its ambition to reunite the entire Geniza digitally, treating each fragment as a potential source of irreproducible information—even the fragments that contained no writing, or that scholars considered useless. “Many times we received advice not to process fragments from this or that domain because it ‘was not important,’” Choueka recalled. “We ignored all of this advice; one never knows what great surprises a fragment can present until one actually identifies and analyzes it.”1

FGP also funded the identification, transcription and translation of geniza fragments in teams by domain. This included the documentary geniza team at Princeton, which FGP supported between 2000 and 2005. FGP eventually incorporated searchable transcriptions. The documentary transcriptions were supplied by PGP.

Other digital projects have come to dot the Geniza landscape, including the Cambridge Digital Library. The Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, directed by Stefan Reif until 2007 and by Ben Outhwaite since then, has contributed tens of thousands of digital images and descriptions to CUDL. An earlier prototype of the same idea had emerged in the 1990s at the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Images and Texts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. SCETI combined detailed descriptions of its Geniza fragments with detailed descriptive data.

The Princeton Geniza Lab’s role in this landscape remains unique. PGP is the only project devoted exclusively to documents. We have maintained this focus for more than three decades because each documentary fragment is unique and contains a text that exists in no other copies. The documentary corpus is a small subset of the greater Geniza, but it is the largest known cache of documents from the medieval Islamicate world, or from any Jewish community before the advent of moveable type in Europe.

1Yaacov Choueka, “Computerizing the Cairo Genizah: Aims, Methodologies and Achievements,” Ginzei Qedem 8 (2012): 9–30.