People of the Byte

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jews have long been the People of the Book.  But as computers replace books and possibly libraries, museums, and universities, will they soon be the People of the Byte?  If so, what will happen to their understanding of their history?  These were the questions raised by a recent two-day conference at the Center for Jewish History titled "From Access to Integration."  At the sessions, librarians, archivists, and scholars explored the cutting edge of the Jewish digital world.  They outlined the immense technical challenges involved in creating databases for scholarly and public use and described the digitization projects that are steadily surmounting these challenges.  They also addressed the puzzle of "integration," which may be harder to solve.

It is astonishing to see how far technology has come in making Jewish information available.  Tasks that are impossible for the human eye to perform—like reuniting the hundreds of thousands of dispersed fragments of the Cairo Genizah in New York, Cambridge, and elsewhere—are being done by computer algorithms.  The diversity of Jewish sound—hazzanut, Israeli folk songs, Borscht Belt comedy routines, Torah chanting from Lithuania to Morocco—can be preserved and disseminated to anyone in the world with a computer.  Jewish newspapers from Israel and Arab countries, Ottoman-era photographs of the Holy Land, and archives of Jewish communities living and dead, especially documentation of the vast life of European Jewry—all of these are or will soon be available.

Yet technology, which can make two- and even three-dimensional representations of the past available again, cannot make them alive.  How will these streams of data flow into the individual and collective processes of creating a historical memory with texture and feeling?  Will the human relationship to the material remains of the past be reduced to "output"?  This is the challenge of integration.  Conference participants discussed integration in the technical sense: cooperation among institutions on projects or initiatives such as finding ways to combine databases into larger, searchable wholes.  For these technologically skilled participants, the medium is—quite properly—the message.  But integration in the broader sense is not only, or chiefly, a matter for technicians.

Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, in the conference's keynote speech, took a decidedly mixed view of the prospects for integration in the fundamental sense.  He enthused about the potential of digital collections for scholars but sprinkled cold water on the proceedings by noting some key problems.  One of them was the 800-pound digital gorilla in the room—Google, whose Google Book collection is rapidly becoming one of the largest libraries in the world.  Google's work is frequently shoddy in execution, with everything from blurry fingers marring pages to bizarre and inexplicable restrictions on access to books published decades or even centuries ago.  Ironically, Google's book collection is difficult and sometimes impossible to search properly.

Grafton also noted the lack of reliable guides to the vast, shapeless digital sea.  Wikipedia, though improving, is notably deficient in less-traveled areas and can be downright misleading on politicized questions, not a few of which relate to the Jewish past.  Grafton recalled the great 19th-century Jewish bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider, whose ceaseless toils in the library created invaluable catalogues for future scholars.  But as Steinschneider put it, his audience consisted of "readers who know something."  Would future guides be written by and for scholars?  Students and laypeople?  Computers?

Grafton also noted the dangers of too much or too little specialization.  Jewish studies and Jewish learning, he said, have never been found exclusively in universities and libraries; they have pervaded the Jewish community as a whole, providing intellectual and, indeed, transcendental substance to Jewish communal life.  But with Jewish learning and Jewish community in deep flux, will the new digital ocean be so daunting that individuals who are searching will be deterred from diving in?  Conversely, when any student can access any Jewish idea, text, image, or sound, what will happen to Jewish teachers and schools?  How will they find such resources?  Will they even look for them?

There are other costs and benefits to be weighed as one form replaces another.  Digital remembrances have the advantage of infinite reproducibility and unerring accuracy—provided that the data were accurately entered in the first place.  But who will guarantee the authenticity of digital files?  And what about their survival?  Digital book-burning is, as yet, impossible; but, without readable file formats, some digital texts may be reduced to obscurity in just a few years.

Digitization also represents a profound phenomenological change.  The digital experience sacrifices the uniqueness of the artifact itself—the book, photograph, sound, building, landscape—for an idea, or, more properly, a representation.  The individual loses the sensory experience of the artifact in return for gaining access to vast new bodies of data not yet organized as knowledge.  For lovers of books, there is something immutably sad in the thought of the Jewish world's being reduced to the contents of a hard drive and projected in two cold dimensions on a screen.  Similarly, the fate of the library as a place for study, sharing, and contemplation is in doubt: Many universities are already shipping books to off-campus warehouses and converting their libraries into glorified coffee shops.  But this is more than a matter of nostalgia: Will the change increase users' alienation or enhance integration?  Especially for Jews, who hold books and ideas close to heart, these are not small issues.

And when everything is accessible and all boundaries are blurred, just what is Jewish material?  As sources, influences, and outcomes become searchable down to the level of a few words, brushstrokes, or notes, will Jewish history, literature, art, and music still appear to be things or categories in themselves, or will they seem necessarily embedded in other, larger contexts?  "Jewish studies" have long been at the leading edge of making connections and crossing boundaries.  Perhaps digital Judaica will expand this enterprise and make the Jewish experience timeless in new ways, but only if it can be integrated into our new Jewish digital communities and selves.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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