The safekeeping of history

The National Library is compiling and digitizing a treasure of nostalgia from Israel’s past for future generations.

National Library 521 (photo credit: Courtesy NLI)
National Library 521
(photo credit: Courtesy NLI)
Imagine receiving an invitation to the circumcision, in Palestine of the 1890s, of the son of Eliezer and Hemda Ben-Yehuda. As you can imagine, even the briefest of texts scripted by the man responsible for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language was worded impeccably. Mind you, said invite does not exude too much in the way of joy or warmth. “It was well known that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did not have too many friends,” declares Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the National Library’s Israel Collection.
Amiur, along with the library’s Digital Programs Manager Ido Ivri, has been entrusted with overseeing the Time Travel, Digital Ephemera project, which comprises the voluminous and important task of sorting and digitizing tens of thousands of ephemera items. Ephemera are transitory written or printed matter, which are not designed to be retained or preserved.
The word derives from the Greek ephemerios or ephemera, which literally means things that last no more than a day. In contemporary times that can refer to such items such as pamphlets, posters, train tickets, catalogues or business cards.
Ivri came up with the digitization notion several months ago and proposed the idea to the powers-that-be at the National Library (NLI). The initiative fell on receptive ears, particularly in view of a process that has been under way at the institution for some time.
“The library is trying to break out of the academia bubble and to offer all kinds of material, both via the Internet and here, to wider audiences,” says Ivri. “Then you have to find a budget for your plan. The library has a pretty sizable budget, generously provided by the Israeli government and all sorts of other parties [currently the budget is around NIS 97 million], but you still have to find funding for special projects. In that respect we’re no different from other institutions.”
Of course, it also helps to be in the right place at the right time, and Ivri’s plan soon attracted the attention of the British-based Arcadia Fund, which aims to protect endangered culture and nature. Since its inception in 2001, the fund has awarded grants in excess of $200m.
Time Travel received a $2m. grant, which will help our national repository of books, and other artifacts, to run the three-year project, which calls for the digitization of around 150,000 ephemera items, including posters, leaflets, tickets, postcards and broadsheets from throughout Israel’s history. As part of a global project, and in collaboration with the UCLA Library in California, a leader in this field, the NLI will make these items available online to an international audience of scholars, researchers and those interested in Israeli culture and history.
IT ALL sounds very grand but, in fact, the project encompasses many items to which we would not normally give more than a moment’s notice.
“These are all ephemera,” says Ivri, rummaging through his pockets and wallet to produce a business card, receipts, a bus ticket and a couple of banknotes. “In fact, we’re also ephemera,” adds Ivri philosophically. “As this project has progressed I have reached the conclusion that almost everything in life is temporary.”
What is very much to the point is that the very technology Ivri and his team will use to carry out the digitization work is also of a fundamentally transient nature. Hardware and software become outdated, servers can crash and, of course, power cuts can occur, which makes Ivri’s job all the more challenging.
“Digitized data are far more unstable than paper, but we have taken all sorts of precautions to protect the information we will store here,” he says.
Part of the Time Travel collection will be integrated digitally from source materials in libraries, archives and other collections throughout Israel, and will seek to represent the diversity of the country’s population sectors to the greatest extent possible: Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious communities, the ultra- Orthodox Jewish community, Arab Israeli and Druse populations, as well as immigrant communities such as Ethiopians. The cultural heritage of the latter group is at particular risk of disappearing without record. The NLI’s modus operandi is designed to ensure long-term digital preservation of the materials for generations to come.
“The library’s objective is to put together a collection that reflects Israeli society through ephemera, from all over the world and to the entire world,” says Ivri, adding that there is a good old pioneering element here too. “The Arcadia Fund has good connections with UCLA, and they decided they want to carry out a global ephemera project. The project in Israeli is a sort of pilot for this.”
That, says the digitization manager, is something of a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand that’s a very good thing, because we are going to define processes, to set standards, and to mark out the way for everyone who follows in our footsteps. On the other hand, there’s a lot of basic work to be done, we have to set up systems.”
While Ivri and his team will have their work cut out for them, Ivri says the project will encompass a large hinterland of lay helpers too.
“If I take a modern day bus ticket I can glean a lot of information – the price, date and even time of day, and the name of the bus company. The same applies to street posters – you’ll know, say, that the details refer to a play put on at Habimah Theater and who the actors were. But there are older items about which we may know very little, or nothing at all. This project is not just about putting loads of ephemera on the Internet, it also involves allowing the public to add their own input about them, to carry out some kind of manipulation and tell us something about the items. In English they called that ‘crowdsourcing,’” says Ivri.
The reference is to the distributed problem-solving and production process which normally involves outsourcing tasks to a network of people. In this case we are talking about the NLI and an almost unlimited number of people around the world who will use the NLI digitized ephemera database.
“The aim is to create a community of people who interested in ephemera in Israel, in order to feed the project,” Ivri explains.
Mind you, there will be no wanton information dumping in the Time Travel project.
“We won’t put anything up on the Web without some kind of identifying details,” Ivri hastens to add.
“The hope is that the user will continue the work on a particular item of ephemera. It is our job to make the technology available to you that will allow you to continue the work. You might look at a scan of a poster of a show and recognize it as a production your actor father appeared in, in say 1949.”
Ivri hopes that, the 150,000 or so items slated to be housed on the NLI site will spawn many more.
“We hope that the general public will start to bring us more ephemera. Ephemera, by definition, are almost infinite and hard to track down. It’s like books, two copies of which, by law, have to be deposited with the library. But it is impossible to completely incorporate all the ephemera out there, partly because new items keep on emerging.”
IVRI AND his team are embarking on an exciting escapade. They will, no doubt, come across some new and thrilling discoveries as they wade through the thousands upon thousands of posters, postcards and theater programs. This was empirically, and unpremeditatedly, proven when we sat down to discuss the project with Amiur.
In addition to the aforementioned invite to the brit of the latest addition to the Ben-Yehuda family, Amiur had brought along a poster with details of the forthcoming burial of someone in Jerusalem in 1949.
“It’s a shame we don’t have the name of the deceased here,” he says, quickly followed by Ivri’s excited exclamation: “It’s Herzl! Look, it says Herzl here,” he says, pointing to one of the lines in the text. “You see,” says Amiur, “that’s how it will probably work as the project progresses.”
Ivri expects all sorts of things to turn up over time.
“Officially, all printers should give the library copies of every single poster they make. But we haven’t got the energy or resources to follow up on that. The library collected posters from official bodies, like municipalities and the Histadrut, and also eclectically collected things like wedding invitations and advertisements.”
Naturally, not all the items will reach the library in mint condition.
“We will do some restoration and repair work before we digitize some of the items,” says Ivri. “Luckily that department is right next to mine, so I am sure it will be a smooth process.”
It is often more a matter of random accumulation than a preplanned effort to provide the NLI with testimony of some event or other.
“People might know that we collect, say wedding invitations, so they’ll bring us a copy of an invitation to their daughter’s wedding. Things like that,” explains Ivri. “I think it can be fascinating to see what a wedding invitation looked like in Israel, say in the early 1950s or in the 1960s, compared with today.”
Ivri likens trawling through ephemera to the work of an archeologist, or a historian.
“In principle, you can go back to an earlier time and learn how people talked, and thought, and what they wrote down. It is like a history lesson without the history book. It is a sort of informal way to research what life was like in Israel at some stage in the past.”
Indeed, looking at the actual article rather than just reading about it, and about how life was when the item was in use, offers a fascinating and unfiltered glimpse of days gone by. History books, by definition, offer the reader the historian’s interpretation of the facts and figures he or she has researched, and the learned conclusion they have drawn from the evidence. But it can be far more exciting to gaze at an artifact that was manufactured, and used, at a particular juncture in the past, particularly if the item was in use during the observer’s lifetime.
“The mere fact that these things were not made to be kept for posterity makes them more real. It’s not like a book that was written to be read over the years,” says Ivri. “Presumably, no one expects the invitation to their wedding to be read by someone 50 or 100 years down the line.”
In fact, the number of individual objects that will eventually find their way onto the library’s digitized archives will be far greater than 150,000.
“An item of ephemera can also be a collection bequeathed to the library by someone,” explains Ivri. “It can be a box of posters from the 1940s and it can be a train ticket.”
THE DIGITIZATION project’s defined time frame of three years means the eventual volume will be finite.
“In the first year we’ll go through the ephemera we have here in the library,” Ivri continues. “We’ll digitize around 25,000 artifacts and we’ll also contact other archives and collectors to see what they have. We’ll send out people to photograph items all over the country and we will put together a coherent collection. That’s Hezi’s job. We don’t want the collection to be amorphous. There must be some logic and shape to it all.”
That also applies to the categories of the items.
“New formats of ephemera will probably come to light as the collection develops,” says Ivri, “but, whatever happens, there must be some sense to it all.”
The three-year limit on the project is not the only pertinent time frame.
“I expect the ephemera we will store to date from the last quarter of the 19th century up to the present day,” says Amiur, who strongly connects with the romance of the Time Travel initiative. “All this material is so nostalgic. People want to sit down with these things, which remind them of all sorts of things and evoke a sense of longing for times gone by. It’s like a book. These things give you an immediate sense of the reality of the past.”
Amiur also sees the practical side of storing some of the more aesthetic items.
“Here, for example, is an advertising brochure of a German ink company, from the time of the British Mandate,” he says, proffering a delightfully crafted, four-page, approximately A5-size leaflet with black-and-white images of bottles and jars, and stamp pads, which could only have been drawn in the seemingly innocent and gentler days when computerized graphic design was not even a twinkle in Apple computer company founder Steve Jobs’s grandfather’s eye.
“We have around 300,000 posters in the library,” Amiur continues, “and we have a collection of commercial notices. You can learn so much from these everyday items.”
Another intriguing artifact Amiur produced for my benefit was a wedding invitation from the Ottoman era which noted the time of the event according to Turkish time. And there was another which noted “European time.”
“The Ottoman regime here was not particularly strong and many Jews here were subjects of some European power or other,” explains Amiur. “There were newspapers in all sorts of languages, print houses which produced material in different languages. These artifacts from the collection are prime examples of how members of the public, and researchers, can learn from seemingly ordinary relics of the past. It is fascinating. You can learn about the usage of the Hebrew language at certain times in the past.”
Another wedding invitation refers to the time of the event, on a Saturday night, as taking place on “motza’ei Shabbat kodesh” – after the holy Sabbath – which, had the phrase been maintained into contemporary times, would have preempted any idea of abbreviating “motza’ei Shabbat” – the egress of the Sabbath, or Saturday night – to the quick-fire slang “motzash.”
“We learn so much from all these things,” says Amiur, “and I am sure people will learn more things from them in, say, 20 years from now. They might, for example, examine the design of some wedding invitation or poster, or have a particular interest in the fonts used way back when, and learn about the approach to aesthetics – commercial or artistic – at some stage of history here. There really is no end to it, and that’s the beauty of this.”
Amiur and Ivri say they are, in a sense, passive observers.
“We are not here to decide what is important and what isn’t,” notes Amiur. “It is a matter of collecting ephemera items to produce a representative collection. Others can decide what is important to them. We just have to make sure the things are available to them.”
There seems to be something quintessentially Jewish about the project at hand. As Jews have been forced to pull up stakes so many times throughout history, we learned to develop skills we could relocate with, rather than necessarily accumulating vast amounts of material possessions. Then again, that gave rise to the need to cling to tangible objects that evoke memories of long-lost places and people.
Once the Time Travel project is complete, we should all have plenty of nostalgic and historical treasure to feed off, should we so desire.