The millenary legacy of Hebrew books now available through a digital database

I-TAL-YA Books is the innovative project resulting from the collaboration between the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), the National Central Library of Rome (BNCR) and the National Library of Israel (NLI) to create, for the first time ever, a unified catalog of all Jewish books in Italy. Made possible thanks to the support of the Rothschild Hanadiv Europe Foundation, it is aimed at cataloguing and making available to scholars from all over the world 35,000 printed books from 14 Jewish communities in Italy and 25 state institutions through a new groundbreaking database.
A first phase has just ended, with the cataloging of the first five thousand volumes, as the UCEI representative of the project Gloria Arbib, explained presenting “I-TAL-YA Books” to the public of the Jewish Book Festival recently held in the town of Ferrara. Under the Sukkah of the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (MEIS), the various partners recalled the importance and uniqueness of this ambitious initiative.
“It is a project that we have believed in since the first day; it is demanding and important: a project of restoration, cataloguing, valorization and worldwide sharing of an ancient Italian Jewish heritage whose value is immense”, remarked the UCEI President Noemi Di Segni.
“It is a heritage of Jewish knowledge that puts together the ancient Jewish traditions (knowledge and skills of academics) and the Italian printing art, which is unique in the world. We believe it is something important, a value that has to be shared”.
“This heritage – she said – is unprecedented throughout the whole world and our aim is to make it available to all the academics and to those who will appreciate this thousand-year-old knowledge, centennial as for the printing, which we have made available worldwide in the past, as we will keep on doing in the present and the future”.
In 2018, Arbib recalled, the working group met and laid the organizational foundations to begin cataloging. Initially it was decided to carry out a pilot phase focusing on two thousand volumes present in some libraries in Rome, Milan, Turin and Genoa. The volumes, which can be consulted on Teca, the Biblioteca digitale platform of the National Central Library in Rome, have progressively increased thanks to the work of the cataloguers, which continued even in the difficult period of the pandemic.
“This project is an excellent example of team work – the strong connections and mutual trust forged between the three partner institutions at the start of the project in 2018 and 2019 – enabled us to continue with implementation throughout this difficult past year”, said Oren Weinberg, Director of National Library of Israel, whose speech, like that of the other speakers, was translated by the trainees of the SSLMIT University of Trieste who collaborate with the editorial staff of Pagine Ebraiche.
“I am sure – he concluded – that the excellent relationships established between the NLI cataloguing department and the cataloguing and technical teams in Italy, will position us well for continuing this success as the project expands to include many other collections from communities and institutions across Italy”.
Going back to the beginning of the initiative, Sally Berkovic, CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, recalled the moment she received the request to support I-TAL-YA Books. “At the Rothschild Foundation Europe, we receive hundreds of applications a year for a variety of projects and it can be very difficult to choose what to support. I remember very clearly the application from UCEI because it was very ambitious – there was a very important idea, although it was not quite clear how this idea could become a reality”.
The application form, she said, “explained – and I quote – Manuscripts, incunabula and old books are an important testimony of Jewish life in Italy and to the development of Jewish books and printing across Europe. There are many uncatalogued collections of relatively rare old books and this project will help secure what remains of the rich heritage of Italian Jewish books, after centuries of theft and damage first by the Church and then by the Nazis”.
“And so – she concluded – here we are, 3-4 years later and you have made it a reality – to create this important catalogue with thousands of entries – and I’m delighted we have been able to help, both by
providing funds, but also by making the shidduch – the match between the National Library of Israel and UCEI, which has been incredibly productive”.
The curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel Yoel Finkelman and the Associate professor of History Francesca Bregoli stressed the importance of Italian Jewish book heritage. Finkelman gave several examples including the Hebrew Bible printed at Soncino in 1488. “One might expect the Hebrew Bible to be the first book to be printed, but in reality the printers were a little hesitant due to the premonition that technology was not yet reliable enough to achieve the desired result”, he explained. “So, it took some time for printers to become familiar enough with technology to work with print. This is a 1488 volume printed by the Soncino family, one of the most important Jewish families of printers in history, certainly from the 15th century”.
Regarding the Teca, the portal where the volumes can be consulted, the methods for cataloging the books were illustrated by Chiara Camarda, cataloger of the I-TAL-YA Books Project.