Penn Libraries News

Penn Libraries’ Innovative Digital Humanities Collaboration, “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza,” Enters a New Phase

Fragment from the Cairo Geniza.

This spring represents an exciting advancement in our Judaica Digital Humanities group’s innovative collaboration with Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal, that brings the Cairo Geniza to a mass audience online. “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza,” a project that classified and sorted over 10 percent of the entire Cairo Geniza in its first phase, will soon launch its second phase. This second phase, which begins on March 6th, 2019, is a bold undertaking that will have a worldwide network of #genizascribes transcribing fragments.

Phase one of the “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza” project began on August 8, 2017 with approximately 30,000 fragments. Volunteers sorted fragments into Hebrew or Arabic, and then identified if the text was formal or informal. Each subject (a front and back of an image of a fragment) had to be classified (meaning a series of questions had to be answered) 5 times, each time by a different sorter, before a subject was retired (complete). The Judaica Digital Humanities group found themselves amazed, humbled, and energized by phase one participation.

The Zooniverse volunteers greatly surpassed Penn Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza” Project Director Laurie Allen’s wildest dreams for project participation. “Knowing how many people are fascinated by these fragments, and how many ways they have already contributed to this research has been incredible,” said Allen. “We knew we needed phase one to help sort the documents, but we had no idea how involved people would become. Now that we know that the sorting systems works, we can’t wait to see what the #genizascribes can do now that we’re finally ready to start decoding these scripts into letters and words. Let the transcribing begin!”

The project group will be launching two transcription tracks on March 5th: Easy Hebrew and Easy Arabic.

The talented team at Zooniverse built a custom interface for transcribing the Cairo Geniza fragments that provides multiple keyboards and markups for the project. Ultimately, the project group has intentionally designed an interface that allows someone with no experience with or expertise in these languages to transcribe a fragment from the Cairo Geniza. However, because so many of the #genizascribes are native speakers in Hebrew and Arabic the group has provided translations of project instructions for those languages.

“While the transcription interface and additional components are complicated because of the complexities of the Geniza corpus itself as well as a trilingual interface (Modern Arabic, Hebrew, and English), we are looking forward to seeing how they run with the new tools in the transcription tasks,” says Allen.

Other exciting changes in phase two include the addition of over 15,000 fragments from the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester to Zooniverse for sorting and the hiring of Emily Esten to the position of Judaica Digital Humanities Coordinator. Esten brings considerable experience using digital approaches to help people engage with history and scholarship. In addition to earning a B.A. in history and the digital humanities from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Master’s in public humanities from Brown, she worked at several museums and cultural heritage sites before arriving at the Penn Libraries.

Esten is thrilled to step into this role at the Penn Libraries to not only support scholarship and research of the Cairo Geniza, but to explore public engagement with these archival materials for the University community and beyond. “There is an amazing group of volunteers, researchers, and institutions working to decipher these fragments every day, and I’m learning right beside them. In phase two, I look forward to seeing the rich conversations in all languages that develop during transcription,” said Esten.

Curious about how you can help the “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza” team? According to Esten, the project needs all hands on deck. The group needs people to not only transcribe the fragments but to also try their hands at identifying Hebrew or Arabic by sorting images. “We’re especially looking for volunteers who read Hebrew and Arabic script to assist with this phase, as well as answer transcription/translation questions on our talk boards.” said Esten.

To learn more information about the project and to volunteer your time, please visit the “Scribes of the Cairo Geniza” website.