Text Searchable Database

When Goitein died in 1985, the field of documentary Geniza studies was still fledgling and fragile and, to some, looked as though it might come to an end with him.

Then two things happened. Goitein had bequeathed his “geniza lab” of 26,000 index cards and thousands of transcriptions, translations and photocopies of fragments to the National Library of Israel (then the Jewish National and University Library). But Mark R. Cohen and A. L. Udovitch arranged for copies to be made and kept in Princeton. That was the birth of the Princeton Geniza Lab. 

Then, fate intervened in the form of the digital revolution.

In the early days of personal computing, IBM had granted a fleet of PCs to Princeton University to foster what we would now call digital humanities. Udovitch proposed taking advantage of the new technology by creating Hebrew and Arabic fonts for transcribing Geniza documents and making them searchable. Udovitch convinced Princeton University to set aside space for the Lab.

The implementation of his vision fell to Cohen, who directed the Lab starting in 1986. Cohen recognized the potential of digital technology to transform Geniza research, and set about creating a corpus of searchable transcriptions.

Under Cohen’s direction, the Lab developed the Princeton Geniza Browser, which made thousands of transcriptions searchable and, eventually, available online. To Goitein’s corpus of 2,200 unpublished transcriptions, Cohen’s team added hundreds of published text editions and commissioned new transcriptions. Two dozen graduate students and other team members contributed to this expanded corpus under Cohen’s direction. When Cohen retired in 2013, there were 4,320 transcribed documents in the corpus.

Three men sitting, reading at a table
(Left to right) Lev Weitz, Oded Zinger and Mark Cohen reading geniza fragments in 2014.