Exposing the Hidden: Highlights from CUL’s rare printed Hebraica

Happy New Year!

December 2016 marked the end of a three year project to catalog Columbia’s rare Hebraica and Judaica collections.  While Columbia has been collecting Judaica since its inception (with a donation from Kings’ College founder Samuel Johnson that included his Hebrew-Latin Psalms), many of the books were left uncataloged due to lack of expertise and Hebrew knowledge among the Library staff over the centuries.

This was rectified with the creation of the Norman E. Alexander Library in 2010.  The NEA Library hired three successive students from 2013 to 2016: Kelila Kahane (BC ’14), Hannah Vaitsblit (BC ’16), and Avinoam Stillman (CC ’17).  The students were trained in copy cataloging (that is, the identification of pre-existing records that matched the books they analyzed) and copy specific cataloging.  The students examined the shelves that included Judaica, book by book, and checked CLIO to see if there were any electronic records for the books.  If not, they created a record for the books and added copy specific information (unusual bindings, owners’ marks, bookplates, etc.).  It was this project that identified a book in Columbia’s holdings formerly owned by Isaac Newton, and many other significant previous owners were identified as well.

The project included both Hebraica non-Hebrew Judaica, but the work done is best exemplified with the Hebrew imprints: We have over 2,200 books containing Hebrew printed from the invention of moveable type until 1800 at Columbia.  By the end of the project, over 1,000 records had been added or significantly updated to describe copy specific information, such as owners’ signatures, to the records.

Many gems were discovered over the course of the work, including the Newton book identified above, but also many other important previous owners, such as:

Some work remains, such as the creation of a detailed catalog record for Columbia’s 22 volumes of the Bomberg Talmud, but that should be completed by the end of the Spring semester.

Many, many thanks to the great work of Kelila, Hannah, and Avinoam – thanks to them, our “hidden” collection of Judaica imprint is no longer hidden, but is now completely open for scholarly use!

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