Monday, October 11, 2010

Digital Humanities

Last week, the National Library of Israel hosted a two-day workshop by InterEdition. The first day was open to the public, and a fascinating cross-section of National Library regulars was in attendance. The second was only for pre-registered participants, of whom I was lucky to be one. I won't try to give a full account (especially because domestic matters forced me to miss several sessions) but I have a few thoughts (and links) that I wanted to share.

Prof. Dirk Van Hulle illustrated the range of functions that a digital edition can fill (as laid out by Peter Shillingsburg in 'From Gutenberg to Google') through screen shots of existing projects, mostly modern writers and thinkers. Good examples were the website dedicated to Proust, and the beautiful Woolf Online. Another cool example we saw the next day was medieval.

The next day we got down to the nitty-gritty, with a session on XML and the Text Encoding Initiative, followed by an exercise in transferring two transcriptions of a text into XML, to be displayed on the Versioning Machine. It was while slogging through this encoding that I finally started to realize what this workshop was about. It was not about analyzing the textual data. That's what I had expected, and so had some of the other Talmudists in the workshop that I spoke with. The data was already there, ready to be analyzed, and the Versioning Machine was simply displaying it. I'm not even convinced it was easier to look at it in that format. The main point (which is probably obvious to many) was that Digital Humanities allows access to a wider circle of readers and scholars.

That realization helped me to start thinking about what use I, and the field of Jewish Studies, could make of these applications. For my part, I think I'm working on texts that are too short and too minor to justify putting special effort into placing them online in any kind of sophisticated way. The scholarly community that would be interested is too small, and my resources are definitely too limited.

But this approach works well with a canonical text that people all over the world want to use, in different ways. A text that is complex, multi-layered. In short, the Talmud. And much work has already been done to place Talmudic resources online. Several of them are listed in the sidebar of this blog. But they're not linked to each other in any way. If a larger project (and these digital projects are usually large) could bring together:
  1. the raw images of Talmudic manuscripts from the National Library website and from the Friedberg Genizah Project
  2. the transcriptions of those same texts from the Lieberman Institute
  3. the lexicographic analysis of the words of the Talmud from the Hebrew Language Historical Dictionary and from Michael Sokoloff's Aramaic dictionaries and the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon
  4. and the commentaries from's Talmud portal
then, without needing to create any new content, a vast network of information would be readily available to anyone studying the Talmud.

But for medieval Halakhah, I think there's still a long way to go.


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