A $100,000 foundation grant is paying for the technological rescue, according to this Jewish Week story.
On a recent Thursday, Melissa Buschey, a conservationist at the Jewish Theological Seminary, opened up a hand-written Judeo-Arabic manuscript dating from the 1600s C.E. “Probably from somewhere in Italy,” Buschey said casually, turning the page.
Thick, clear polyester sheets encased each piece of paper, which would later be digitally photographed to be accessible online.
Buschey and her colleague Amy Armstrong had come to call the heavily-pocked text the “Swiss cheese document.” Without the careful encasement of each page and its digital photograph, the Swiss cheese document would have eventually become illegible—a scholar’s gold mine lost to impending parchment decay.
But that didn’t happen. The document was preserved because of their work and so will roughly 900 more rare manuscripts—some dating from at least the 12th century C.E. and held by the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The preservation is made possible by a recent $100,000 donation given jointly by the Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation and an anonymous donor.
“With the grant money these very fragile things can be re-housed,” said Armstrong, the Library’s senior conservationist, in the Library’s sanitized white conservation laboratory. (The workspace seems more like a medical office than a library.) The donation will directly pay for a two-year fellowship for Buschey, as well as two additional part-time conservationists.
At New York University, Buschey specialized in paper conservation and earned an art history master's degree a few months ago. Armstrong had been the sole preservationist fighting against manuscript decay. The rare documents are the last group left from the JTS Library’s 11,000 rare Hebrew manuscripts - the world’s largest - already microfilmed.
The Baker Foundation is an endowment; the annual budget comes solely from investment dividends and interest. It has given away between $500,000-$750,000 a year, with some 80% to Jewish-related education and cultural activities.
The JTS Library is the largest owner of rare Hebrew manuscripts in the world, some back to the 10th century CE. Manuscripts have been gathered since JTS's 1886 founding, but it didn't really grow tremendously until German Jewish scholar and librarian Alexander Marx arrived in 1903.
Preservation has always been problem for this library and other libraries with rare manuscriptions.
Librarians and scholars are currently enthralled in a debate over how Google plans to digitize millions of old books, some of which only have one extant copy remaining. Google plans to digitize as many books as quickly as possible, which means tearing out pages to scan them. Critics fear the loss of the original book itself, while Google argues that the information it holds is much more important.
For years, librarians have relied on microfilm, which requires photographs of the book’s pages for scholars to later consult. But scholars still have to go to the particular library holding the microfilm to see them. And the microfilming process is crude, requiring heavy glass plates to be placed on extremely fragile pages with aging book spines. “You can’t photograph it without it falling apart,” said Armstrong.
Newer methods have nearly overtaken microfilming. The costly polyester plastic sheets (about $50 a page) encase single manuscript pages, then are digitally photographed and digitized to allow anyone with Internet access to look at them.
Most of the JTS collection has been microfilmed except this last batch, which will be preserved the new way using this grant.