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  • Of Scribes and ScriptsCitizen Science and the Cairo Geniza
  • Laura Newman Eckstein

The attic of Ben Ezra Synagogue, in what is today known as Old Cairo, once held hundreds of thousands of manuscripts: the corpus of the Cairo Geniza. Traditionally, the term Geniza is understood as a temporary storage chamber for unusable Hebrew religious texts. For unknown reasons, however, the Jews of Fustat never removed their texts from the Geniza. Not only did they deposit religious texts in the Geniza, they also left their letters, court records, receipts, and other conventional texts that tell us about daily life during the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, the Geniza was emptied and the fragments were dispersed to various scholarly institutions. Yet, over a century later, less than half of the approximately 350,000 fragments have been cataloged, and those that have been cataloged have varying levels of detail.1 This is largely due to the complexity of the task and the particular skill sets required—many languages, hands, and scripts need to be deciphered by just a handful of experts.

In August 2017, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, in partnership with the Princeton Geniza Project, the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, and the [End Page 208] Zooniverse, began the first phase of a larger project to attempt to sort and transcribe Cairo Geniza fragments, entitled "Scribes of the Cairo Geniza." The Zooniverse is the world's largest and most popular platform for people-powered research. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world come together on this platform to assist professional researchers. Their goal is to enable research that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise.2 Instead of relying on the expertise of a few scholars, we will be relying on the interest of the global population, and the remarkable potential of crowdsourcing technologies. We provide basic guides that give citizens the information they need to make useful distinctions that can contribute to deciphering the Geniza.

In the first phase of the project, we are asking citizen-scientists to sort Cairo Geniza fragments in preparation for our later transcription phase. By asking a series of tailored questions, we will be able to gather more metadata about each individual fragment. To devise a successful workflow, in which citizens are asked questions that generate useful data, and in ways that engage the widest possible audience, we worked from the following principles:

  1. 1. No expert knowledge is required for participation.

  2. 2. Reward for work is almost immediate.

  3. 3. The work undertaken adds to the sum of knowledge about the Geniza.

The third principle is particularly important. Mia Ridge, in her volume Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, writes, "Think of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a coalescence around a set of principles, particularly the value placed on meaningful participation and contributions by the public."3 Here are two examples of good questions we decided not to ask because they would not result in meaningful data that we did not intend to acquire through other means. [End Page 209]

  • Do you see the word "W"? While this question can be extremely helpful in determining the genre of a particular fragment, individual words will de deciphered in the later transcription phase. There is no need to ask citizen-scientists to duplicate later work. If it seemed that we could answer a question through the transcription process, or would be too confusing for citizen-scientists and hence result in data that would not be helpful for sorting purposes, the question was nixed from the workflow.

  • Is there a drawing on the fragment? This category encompasses such phenomena as embellished letters, doodles, and ink smudges, and thus might result in data that is too diverse to be useful. (Drawings undoubtedly remain interesting, and users can record observing them using hashtags on talk boards, as discussed below).

The questions we decided to pose are as follows:

  • In what script is this text written? This will tell us whether the fragment is in Hebrew, Arabic, or both Hebrew and Arabic scripts. We provide users with easy tutorials that allow them to recognize these scripts by...


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