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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 044-174(WS)-E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group:Library History in association with the Association of Jewish Libraries, Judaica Librarians Group, and Hebraica Libraries Group: Workshop -Session 2
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 174
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

Recent trends in describing Hebrew manuscript collections

Roger S. Kohn
Oberlin College
Ohio, USA
E-mail: roger.kohn@oberlin.edu


After briefly reviewing the shifting standards of descriptive cataloging, I compare two recent catalogs of Hebrew manuscripts, one in Oxford, the other in Cambridge, and show how they differ in their approach to descriptive cataloging of medieval (non-Hebrew) manuscripts. I also attempt to chart how cataloging of Hebrew manuscripts will have to adjust to these new standards and where it needs to differ from them.


In order to establish the standard description for medieval manuscripts, in order to establish what are the various elements which should be included without fail in any bibliographic notice of a medieval text, the cataloger or the bibliographer turns toward the already published catalogues of manuscripts. Both Consuelo Dutschke in her Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.: The Library, 1989) and Barbara A. Shailor in her Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984) refer to the four volumes work by Neil Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (Oxford, Clarendon Pressses, 1969). Ker's work serves to establish what are the necessary elements which should always appear in any bibliographic notice describing a medieval manuscripts. Iter Italicum; a Finding List of Uncatalogued or Incompletely Catalogued Humanistic Manuscripts of the Renaissance in Italian and Other Libraries, published in London (Warburg Institute (1963-1997) by Paul Kristeller, Paul Oskar, 1905-1999) could have made a very good case for being the descriptive bibliographer vade-me-cum. Its publication which took over thirty years and its focus more on Renaissance disqualified from becoming the accepted standard for professional rare medieval and early modern manuscripts. An added reason for Ker becoming the standard is that in a few pages, he listed sixteen clear and precise elements which should always be part of any description of manuscript. As he stated in his introduction, In the descriptions of manuscripts which have not been catalogued before... [Ker] gives:
  • first, a short title and date;
  • secondly, a list of contents and, in smaller print under each item, information about it and bibliographical references, if any; and
  • thirdly, in two paragraphs of smaller print, the number of leaves and other codicological details about the manuscript and what is known of its history.(p. vii)
With this, Ker has described his standard layout of the bibliographic notice. Is it typical British understatement or negligence which lead him not to indicate that his short title is preceded by the classmark (US call number) of the holding repository? More likely, Ker considered it extraneous to what he contributed as a descriptive cataloger. In any case, call number, short title and date listed first in the notice save time to the researcher, allowing his or eyes to locate quickly the object of interest. The same visual distinction between the size of the font of the letters allows the reader to distinguish the contents from the information about the contents. An even smaller print deals with the paleographical and codicological details. Please note the positively, undoubtedly British fascination for the unsaid which permits Ker to distinguish between paleography and codicology by stating that the first part contains "two" paragraphs.

Call number, short title in Italics, and date, all on one line isolated by blank space, description of contents with two size characters, even smaller ones used for technical details, all this sophisticated layout creates a hierarchy of relevant description which guides our eyes to the important elements of the notice. Having established the main articulations in the bibliographic notice, Ker goes on listing sixteen (16) elements which he considers should be part of any description of a medieval manuscript. Again, there is order there, first codicology, then paleography, to finish with the binding. There is no point is repeating here what Ker said so succinctly and accurately in his Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, but we will use these 16 points to compare how two recent catalogs of Hebrew manuscripts follow or diverge from Ker's model.

Before, we should note two points right here. Firstly, Ker is not a perfect standard. Two examples will make the point: for one, regarding the contents in a manuscript, Ker limits his discussion to the Bibles; the structure of no other classical work, liturgical or other, is presented. For two, on the subject of manuscripts on paper, he does not describe the watermarks, and does not compare them to the standard reference tools in the matter. Wit this caveat, we can nevertheless state that Ker's sixteen points provide almost all the corroborative and relevant information necessary to allow the reader to assess independently the accuracy of the tentative datation and location found in any bibliographical notice. To fully permit the reader to track down the references, may be even challenge the conclusion of the descriptive bibliographer, is the sign of a real researcher. In this sense, Ker is the current, perfect standard.

As I indicated, my purpose in this presentation is to compare how two recent catalogs of Hebrew manuscripts follow or diverge from Ker's model. The Hebrew manuscripts described are both kept on the British soil, at these two famously rival universities, Oxford and Cambridge. In my research for two articles I wrote reviewing these two catalogs in detail I found many references to the rivalry between these two institutions, even in scholarly publications, that I am not surprised anymore that the cataloging of their Hebrew manuscripts collection can be the arena for Oxbridge.

The first catalogue, the Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library is in two volumes. The first volume, published in 1994, is a facsimile reproduction of the 1886 work of Adolf Neubauer (1831-1907), with a Supplement of Addenda and Corrigenda by Malachi Beit-Arié (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). The second, published three years later is the Hebrew Manuscripts at Cambridge University Library: a Description and Introduction by Stefan C. Reif, "assisted by Shulamit Reif and incorporating earlier work by S.M. Schiller-Szinessy, H.M.J. Loewe, and J. Leveen, and including palaeographical advice from E. Engel" (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Before measuring the two catalog to Ker's yardstick, we need to note what unite them and what differentiate them. Which one has the better layout, is easier to browse, but also which one has the most valuable contents and will best resist the test of time.

What do Oxford and Cambridge collections of Hebrew manuscripts have in common? Both collections are in England and have similar origins, having started with a nucleus of Hebrew books collected by Christian hebraists in the 17th and 18th centuries, complemented with massive purchases in the 19th century, two large collections for Oxford, many purchases from a few German and Austro-Hungarian bookdealers for Cambridge. Both catalogs follow the same arrangement for the description, starting formally with the Bible, then commentaries on the Bible, Talmud, liturgy to end with various smaller categories in no specific order.

This being said, there are many more difference in the collections and in the catalogues describing them. First, we should note that we are not comparing two collections of similar sizes. There are three time more Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleiana than at Cambridge. Oxford holdings almost doubled with the acquisition of two libraries: in 1829 of the library of Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664-1739), of Prague, and in 1849 of Heiman Michael, from Hamburg. These libraries contained around eight hundred Hebrew manuscripts each. With "only" a thousand manuscripts, Cambridge collection is more manageable by one bibliographer; Reif's catalogue, however, is the first published for the entire Cambridge collection, although such a project started officially in 1825! In Oxford, Adolf Neubauer took eighteen long years to complete his published catalogue while his contemporary at Cambridge, Rabbi S.M. Schiller-Szinessy, took twenty-seven years to describe only seventy-two Bible manuscripts. The Bodleian catalogue which is nothing short of a nightmare to navigate, because Neubauer kept on updating his catalogue. Although 90% of the manuscripts are described in the main body of the work, there are seven additional chapters. There are so many indexes that they are totally useless. Neubauer had planned five main ones, but the published catalogue contains no less than twenty-eight different places to look for the name of a work or a person!

Malachi Beit-Arié worked on and off for a decade over his Supplement of addenda and corrigenda to Neubauer's catalogue. His Supplement follows the format of Neubauer's. His comments and corrections to Neubauer are based on over thirty years of experience deciphering Hebrew manuscripts all over the world, as one of the most, if not the most prominent Hebrew paleographer in our time.

Even if the collections and their catalogs are so different between Oxford and Cambridge, we are still justified, I think, to evaluate the structure of and the quality of the information in the bibliographic notice describing each individual manuscript and to compare it to the model structure of a bibliographic notice offered by Ker. At the top of his notice for each manuscript, Neubauer gives us what became a "Neubauer Catalogue Number," relegating the official shelfmark to a bracketed place at the very end of the description. As we noted, Ker does not consider the shelfmark as central as I would, but I do fail Neubauer on this. Neubauer provided then an accurate title, often in Hebrew characters, but he placed the dating of the manuscript toward the end, after the description of the contents and the technical information. This is not as strange as it may sound, if we consider that the date is often inferred from other evidences rather than given plainly in a colophon.

Reif starts like Ker, with the one and only valid call number, but soon abandons the Ker's model. Reif has the paleographical and codicological elements preceding the short title of the work. He differentiates between the contents of the manuscript and the bibliography, not by the size of the point of the type, rather one follows the other. Additional paleographical information, on the colophon, mentions of owners, censors are sandwiched here, before the binding and the provenance. Despite my efforts, I fail to see a clear logical order to this enumeration.

Neubauer provides a more coherent and organized structure to his description, although the information appears to us crowded on the page while Reif's layout is clear and pleasing to our modern eyes, no question about it. Although neither follows closely Ker model, Neubauer is closer to it, while Reif scores on readability.

I would like now to tackle the problem from the other angle, attempt to compare the two authors of our catalogues on how they establish their credentials for suggesting a date and/or a location for a manuscript, the underlying concept of Ker's sixteen points of description.

One good start is simply to read the title page of both catalogues. Beit-Arié supplements Neubauer, relies on him so much that the 1994 publication of the Supplement required a reprint of the 1884 catalogue to have on hand to compare with. The Supplement is "compiled under the direction of" Beit-Arié, not by him alone. In fact, in his introduction, Beit-Arié thanks no less than thirteen collaborators, all except one, Israeli professors and scholars. Beit-Arié fully embrasses the principle of collaborative effort required by scientific research, in Hebrew codicology as elsewhere. The title of the Cambridge catalogue is less modest, as it is no supplement, it is the first description -long in waiting- of the entire collection. On the title page, Reif takes full credit for the "description of and the introduction" but acknowledges first and foremost the assistance of his wife and then his use of the descriptions left by three of his predecessors. The last person mentioned in the authorship for the catalogue is Edna Engel. Nowhere in the catalogue would we know that she works at the Hebrew Palaeography Project, housed in the Jewish and National University Library of Jerusalem, an institute founded and still directed by Beit-Arié. Engel is not listed as an assistant, but rather as a consultant giving "palaeographical advice." When Reif thanks the Hebrew Palaeography Project in his acknowledgments, he does not mention Engel by name neither the institution's founder and director. From the title page alone, we can state already that both Beit-Arié and Reif acknowledge the collaboration of others, one more of his contemporaries, the other more of his predecessors. Beit-Arié directed the collaborative effort, Reif authored the catalogue with the assistance of others, living or dead, collaborators.

This prima facie difference of approach is evident also in the details of the notices of the manuscripts as we try to establish who is closer to Ker's 16 elements of description. As we indicated, Ker ultimately wants to allow the reader to assess the accuracy of his tentative datation and location of a given manuscript, as we will now check notices for Reif and Beit-Arié. When identifying a scribe responsible for the copying of a manuscript, Reif simply says "on the evidence of other manuscripts, the scribe has been (tentatively) identified as" and then follows a name, sometime simply a surname, Isaac for example (p. 438, SCR 796). We don't know who made this identification, Reif? Reif's predecessors? Or Engel? It would have been advantageous and also proper scientific practice to give the references to the other manuscripts used in reaching this conclusion (Reif does it sometimes, apparently when only one manuscript is concerned).

Beit-Arié, on the other hand, has for purpose to provide Addenda and Corrigenda to the work of Neubauer and he goes to great length to substantiate his conclusions. First, in an introduction titled "methological and descriptive introduction to the palaeographical identifications," Beit-Arié characterizes seven types of Hebrew scripts and combines these paleographical evidences with codicological ones. Unlike Ker, he examines watermarks in his re-evaluation of Neubauer identifications. To take one example, Neubauer gave 1269 for the date for a copy of a medical work by Maimonides completed in a city he did not identified, for which Neubauer gives only the name in Hebrew characters [ Terits ]. Beit-Arié dates this manuscript from 1369, a century later, because the paper used for the copy has watermarks and the earliest watermarks known in Western Christiandom appear some twelve years after Neubauer's date. Beit-Arié also identifies [ Terits ] with the town of Trets in Provence. Examples abound of such detective work in the Oxford Supplement, but space and time are limited here to show how closely Beit-Arié follows the spirit and goes beyond the letter of Ker's elements of description for medieval manuscripts.

I would like to address in conclusion, even if only briefly the impact I can see of the digital revolution. How the bibliographic standards being development by Northern American catalogers will affect the description of Hebrew manuscripts is still an open question and is the topic for another presentation altogether. It is important to note, even if it is obvious, that the two catalogs we are evaluating are in a book format, the very traditional format until recently for works of this type. Searching a book for a discreet piece of information, via it index or indexes, is very different from searching on the Web, as we are beginning to do more and more. But for the time being, we need to compare the printed indexes of these two catalogues. Although it is not a criteria for Ker for obvious reasons, I would argue that indexes are the most important tool to access relevant information in a manuscript catalogue. Beit-Arié could do little to correct the ineffectual indexes left by Neubauer but he added two more, for dated and for localized manuscripts. Again, it is from the lessons learned from these that the Hebrew paleographer could infer conclusions on manuscripts undated or without mention of a place. Reif provides twelve indexes, some very specialized, some more general, all useful, all legitimately supporting one aspect or another of the scholarly pursuit. I don't think this is the place to review them in details, but I would like to quote from Reif himself about his approach to indexing: "Researchers are advised not to depend on only one index since, for example, an owner may also be suspected of being the scribe or even the author of a piece and his name may thus appear in any of three separates indexes" [p. XV]. Borrowing here from the Neubauer practice to give a "Neubauer number" to Bodleiana Hebrew manuscripts, Reif refers to manuscripts in his indices by a new running number, SCR, which stands for Stefan C. Reif, and is listed at the end of individual notice (and not at the beginning as Neubauer did). Reif took full advantage of the sorting capabilities of the computer and created excellent overall indexes, as he did when he prepared the presentation of his notices. In this, again, he was freer than Beit-Arié who had to contend with the constraints of Neubauer.

In conclusion, these two catalogues show how traditional and cutting-edge skills are and remain complementary. Because of Beit-Arié's superb experience in Hebrew paleography and codicology, his Supplement to Neubauer is a reference tool which goes beyond the walls of the Bodleiana. Reif, by skillfully using all the resources of the modern technology in this catalogue as he did in many of his prior publications, provides us with the first and worth waiting for catalogue to the Hebrew manuscripts at Cambridge, and beyond this, is a model for a printed catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts.


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