In August 2016, when Noemi Di Segni was just appointed president at the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), we planned a meeting with Sally Berkovic, Chief Executive for the European projects at the Rothschild Foundation – Hanadiv Europe. The purpose of the meeting was not the sole interest that the foundation showed in the Jewish cultural heritage in Italy, which are considered important and relevant for Judaism all around the world.
The Chief Executive also complained about the scant ability of presenting comprehensive projects by the communities to the point where it was not possible to offer financial contributions to start initiatives in Italy. President Di Segni decided then, along with the author of this article, to lead a network consisting of all the Jewish communities, and also involving the Foundation for Jewish Cultural Goods in Italy (FBCEI, in Italian) and the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation (CDEC, in Italian). Time has passed since then, but we have made progress.
The first task was to deal with the book heritage owned by Jewish institutions and communities. Then, we followed up with a survey about the condition of the communities’ libraries to understand their size, the presence of antique books, the presence of catalogued material and expert librarians. While a group of people filled out the questionnaire, another group attended a workshop that took place in the National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem. Also Andrea De Pasquale attended the workshop. He is director-general at the Central National Library of Rome (BNCR, in Italian), who was already directly involved in European projects about the Jewish heritage.
In fact, many libraries own ancient books that are written in Hebrew, such as the Palatina Library in the city of Parma, which preserves unique prestigious materials and almost all the editions produced by the Soncino family. Another example is the National University Library in Turin, where a large collection of printed books can be found – among which some certain come from the Savoy Royal House. The collection represents a great source of useful material apt to study the history of Jewish typography. The Braidense National Library, in Milan, has a collection that was donated by the Lattes brothers. The Casanata Library and the Angelica Library, both in Rome, contain a significant number of printed books from the 16th century.
We look forward to the participation of all these libraries to the project. From the job done in Jerusalem with the experts of the NLI the idea of an extremely important project came to life, a project we would have never assumed, let alone think possible, as it seemed so complex and utopian. We thought of realizing a collective catalogue of all printed books in Hebrew held by the Italian libraries, both state libraries and those belonging to the Jewish communities. It is essential to point out that we’re talking about the first printed books in history from the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450 to the present day, even though the NLI limited the research to the year 1960. B
ut let’s track back the route that brought us to the realization of this big project’s first step. In April 2018 we had a meeting in Rome, attended by members of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, experts of the National Library of Israel, of the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation , of the Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage in Italy and of the Central National Library of Rome with a representative from the Rothschild Foundation to tackle the issues and define a working process to submit a call for contributions.
The collective catalogue of printed books in Hebrew, as one can imagine, is not the sum of the individual books, given that the vast majority of written books in Hebrew, both in communities’ and state library, has not always been catalogued due to the lack of trained personnel in cataloguing or in the knowledge of the Hebrew language. Cataloguing in Hebrew needs transliteration and even this step is not so elementary as it may seem to a first approximation. Even though in the last few years a correspondence has been noticed between the Latin alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet for the Italian language, the actual transliteration throughout the whole western world is the one based on the English language. The main aim became therefore using the bases established by the NLI and the BNCR. Due to lack of expert cataloguers, positions to apply for this job have been created. The cataloguers will receive digital photographs of the various libraries’ books. From these photographs, they will run a search on the central catalogue of the NLI. If present, they will fill the fact sheet in Hebrew and then verify the transliteration on the worldcat website, which is a bibliographical catalogue registering the collection of more than 72,000 libraries from 170 countries. Cataloguers will combine these two fact sheets, both in the Latin and Hebrew alphabets, and the whole, together with the photographs, will be sent to BNCR.
Here it will be possible to research a volume, see the important pages such as front, title page, colophon with all necessary information on the print, date, editor and possible previous owners.
The first months of 2018 were used to write the project together with experts from the NLI and the BNCR. During this occasion, given the enormous amount of work and the complexity of a much invasive intervention, we decided to suggest a stage called “Pilot”. We just started with a tiny section of the communities’ libraries of Turin, Genua and Florence, then a collection held by the CDED and another one by the Bibliographic Center of the UCEI. While the team of photographers and cataloguers work, some of us study and detect the difficulties we faced in our path, and prepare to gather material and information to submit a new call for contributions which is due to fifteen days after the end of the Pilot stage, i.e. April, 15th 2019.
There’s nothing for it but to wish everyone good luck, soon scholars and students throughout the world will have access to the volumes while the communities will have in mind the historical and cultural heritage they own.
*Gloria Arbib is the secretary-general of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities. Translated by Simone Simonazzi and revised by Rachele Ferin, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.