Historical treasures only a click away

New website to be launched houses Jewish press from the 19th to the 21st centuries, showing that the People of the Book are newspaper folk, too.

Historical Jewish Press 521 (photo credit: HJP.org.il)
Historical Jewish Press 521
(photo credit: HJP.org.il)
The saying goes that yesterday’s newspaper is only good for wrapping today’s fish. That adage notwithstanding, Prof. Yaron Tsur has rescued a veritable treasure trove of history in old newspapers – 400,000 sheets of them, and counting – all either printed in pre-state Palestine in the decades preceding Israel’s independence in 1948, or by Diaspora Jewish communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.
On Tuesday, the Tel Aviv University historian, together with the National Library, is launching the Historical Jewish Press website (http://jpress.org.il) at a symposium in Givat Ram, marking six years of work scanning and digitizing 20 newspapers in Hebrew, English, French, Judeo-Arabic and Hungarian.
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“The HJP website is a breakthrough in accessibility of material on the Jewish experience during the modern period. At the click of a mouse, a researcher can find all references in a score of newspapers regarding a specific community, family, individual or event.
“This offers unprecedented access to a centralized journalism archive,” explains Tsur, who is currently on sabbatical at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies.
“The launch signals a new stage in the history of the historical Jewish press – its conversion from print to digitalization and its newly available accessibility through the Internet,” he continues.
While many of the often-brittle historic originals are available at the National Library in Givat Ram or on microfiche, until now researchers have had to scour thousands of pages to winnow out the historical information they are seeking.
Tsur, who wrote his PhD on the Jews of Tunisia, fell into the HJP project almost by accident.
In 2004, his colleague at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Ronald Zweig, asked him to hold onto his work digitizing the archives of The Palestine Post – forerunner of The Jerusalem Post – since Zweig’s research project was being disbanded. Zweig had digitized The Palestine Post with the help of Olive Software Ltd., an Israeli hi-tech firm based in Denver, Colorado, which had donated its proprietary software transforming unstructured content into intelligent knowledge assets.
Intrigued by the free-text search possibilities offered by a multilingual, digitized newspaper database, Tsur began expanding the project. In 2004, he scanned the Alliance Israélite Universelle’s bulletin Paix et Droit from its founding in 1860 to 1913, along with several Jewish newspapers from France, Morocco and Egypt.
From the AIU library in Paris, the project snowballed.
“A major turning point,” Tsur says, “was the Israel National Library joining in the project in 2005. For decades, the library had collected and preserved Jewish newspapers from all over the world. Now it was time to make them available and searchable for all Internet users.
“My colleagues there – Prof. Elhanan Adler and Orly Simon, who co-headed the project, as well as Alon Strasman, who recently replaced them – are real experts, and so is the head of the library’s reprographic service, Israel Weiser. Together with Shaul Duke, the brains behind the website’s technological development and head of the digitizing crew at Tel Aviv University, we made a perfect team.”
Crediting the former directors of the library, Prof. Yoram Tsafrir and Shmuel Har-Noi, and current director Oren Weinberg for their constant encouragement, Tsur acknowledges that “the library’s participation in the project is the clue to the site’s success.”
Today, the site includes vast and rare collections, mainly of Hebrew newspapers as varied as Hayom, published in St. Petersburg, Russia, between 1886 and 1888, to Ma’ariv from 1948 to 1969 (to be continued up to 2003); Davar from 1925 to 1969; and 19th-century newspapers Hamagid, Halevanon and Hahavatzelet, followed by pioneering Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Hatzvi, Ha’or and Hashkafa. In the near future, Herut and Al Hamishmar will be added.
Next, the HJP team plans to tackle the vast Yiddish press of prewar Eastern Europe. The Warsaw newspaper Heint is already being scanned, and the New York daily Forverts is being negotiated.
The HJP website is being funded by Yad Hanadiv and assisted by others like the Matanel Foundation, as well as by private individuals. Unlike most newspaper websites, which charge for archived articles, the Historical Jewish Press website is free. Tsur terms this open usage “the democratization of information.” He calls the building of the website “holy work” and views the project as a “symbol of inter-institutional cooperation in Israel, and between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world. It’s a national cultural property of the highest order.”
The HJP website is overseen by an 11-member academic committee that includes experts in Jewish and Israeli print media.
The symposium will take place in the auditorium of the National Library in Givat Ram, beginning at 7 p.m. on December 28 with the viewing of an exhibit on historic Jewish print media. Among the speakers will be Israel Prize-winning journalist Nahum Barnea.