About The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts

The British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts includes items manifesting Jewish cultural, religious and social lives between the 10th century CE and the beginning of the 20th century CE, covering a vast geographical space from Europe and North Africa in the west, through the Middle East to China in the east. In order to make the collection of Hebrew manuscripts available digitally, the Library had received a major grant from The Polonsky Foundation.

The core aim of the three-year Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP Phase 1) was to provide free online access to Hebrew manuscripts from the Library’s collection, through manuscript conservation and imaging, catalogue creation and online presentation. The outputs are detailed and searchable catalogue records and fully digitised manuscripts. This project also included a digital scholarship component, aiming to encourage and facilitate research and new work using the new digital collection. An example of new work created using the digital collection can be seen with the artist Jacqueline Nicholls' 'Bestiary of Fears' project.

The project has digitised 1,300 manuscripts, capturing approximately 435,000 digitised images. These were mainly manuscripts catalogued by George Margoliouth at the end of the 19th century. In addition, several Torah scrolls had textile covers (mantles), made of silk brocade and linen. These have undergone conservation treatment by a textile conservator and have been digitised as well.

We've made our project data accessible: 

  • A spreadsheet listing all manuscripts can downloaded from here.
  • View our digitised manuscripts on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. 
  • All of our TEI XML records can be downloaded from here (open license CC-0).
  • JPEGs of digitised Hebrew manuscripts can be downloaded in datasets here as part of BL Labs.

The project has been generously sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation, Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv EuropeMaurice Wohl Charitable Trust, American Trust for the British Library, Lara Atkin Charitable Trust, Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, Shoresh Charitable Trust, Ruth and Jack Lunzer Charitable Trust, Edith and Ferdinand Porjes Charitable Trust, and an anonymous sponsor.

What happens next?

A second digitisation phase has started in April 2016 (HMDP Phase 2). This new project, aimed at digitising  at least 1,250 Hebrew manuscripts, is an international collaboration with the National Library of Israel (NLI) and the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society. This new phase of digitisation will focus mainly on our significant Gaster and Samaritan collections. The NLI has created a new ‘hub’ for Hebrew manuscripts, to consolidate and facilitate their viewing (Ktiv: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts). Our digitised images from both phase 1 and phase 2 will be included in this new resource.

Through both The Polonsky Foundation sponsored HMDP (phase 1) and the new NLI collaborative project (phase 2), most of the Library’s 3,000 Hebrew manuscripts will be fully digitised and available online by 2019, and all of them will be fully catalogued.

Stay updated

Subscribe to the Asian and African Studies blog for information on recent discoveries and developments on the Hebrew and other collections in the Asian and African Studies Department.

Follow us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS using #HebrewProject to receive updates and highlights.

Please feel free to contact ilana.tahan@bl.uk if you would like further information, or to give feedback on using our digital collection.

Records Viewer

The first phase of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (2013-2016) has come to an end, with two main outcomes: high resolution digitised images, and digital catalogue records in TEI XML format. Our catalogue records hold detailed metadata on each manuscript, including the following fields:

Shelfmark, title, author, contents, language, decorations (initials words, miniatures, illustrations, paratext, border, other), colophon, comments, detailed contents, scribes, physical description, material, extent, collation, condition, layout, script, additions, bindings, date, provenance, acquisition, related people, related places, record history, and Margoliouth ID.

In order to make these metadata records more user-friendly, a ‘TEI Viewer’ was created by Alex Mendes, the Project Support Officer for the Library’s Asian and African Studies Department. Alex created an application that displays the TEI XML data in its entirety as a table, which can be exported as a spreadsheet. 

The viewer can be accessed through Alex’s website http://www.alexandermendes.com/tei-viewer/ 

How does it work?

You first need to make sure that you're using a modern web browser with HTML5 support. You’re fine if you’re using Chrome 45, Firefox 45, or Safari 9 (and above) for example.

The table is preloaded with all of our TEI XML records, which can also be download from here (open license CC-0). If you wish to upload and view a different selection of records you can click the upload button.

The shelfmark field is linked to its manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website, if you want to browse the whole manuscript. Sometimes you’ll see other links in different columns – these also link to specific folios of the digitised manuscript or to named authority files.

The TEI Viewer offers some functionality to help you view records in a way most suitable for your interests or needs, such as sorting, hiding and reordering columns, text searching, or exporting all rows in Excel, CSV or JSON formats. More details are available by clicking the help button.

Using this viewer, we’ve created a spreadsheet listing all manuscripts in ‘full’ mode, i.e. with all of the information associated with each record. You can download this spreadsheet from here

Note: Our records are not perfect. At times you will find mistakes, inaccuracies, or information in the wrong column. We’re more than happy to receive feedback, so please get in touch if you’d like to help us improve our records.