Unfettered literature

Project Ben-Yehuda's founder and editor, Asaf Bartov, never studied Hebrew literature.

Asaf Bartov 88 248 (photo credit: David Stromberg)
Asaf Bartov 88 248
(photo credit: David Stromberg)
About 10 years ago, Asaf Bartov wanted to look up a line from a certain poem by Haim Nahman Bialik. Having worked as a self-taught software engineer since his teens, he typed some key works into the Yahoo search engine (Google was not yet the standard it would soon become), but the search came up with no results. After a few similar incidents, Bartov, 31, decided that if no one had put any of Bialik's poems on-line, he should start. He came home one night, typed up "El Hatzipor," and posted it on-line. He soon learned that the copyright to Bialik's work had not yet expired, and had to take the poem down, but the important thing had already happened: Project Ben-Yehuda had been born. "It began as a humble effort," explains Bartov. "I put up some poems by Rahel [Bluwstein], and at the bottom added a note, 'If you'd like to to help, write to me.'" He likens the project's beginning to the parable of the stone soup, in which a poor wanderer comes to a village asking for food. When all the villagers tell him they have barely enough for themselves, he asks them for water so that he can make "stone soup" for himself. The villagers become curious, and come out to see what it's all about. One by one, he tells them that what will really make the stone soup tasty are some onions, potatoes, mushrooms, and little by little the villagers all contribute some ingredients. In the end, the poor wanderer and the villagers enjoy the tasty soup together. "On the Internet this sort of 'stone soup shtick' works," says Bartov. "People actually volunteered, contributing their time and effort. Today, there are more than 6,000 works by over 100 authors, including poetry, novels, essays, stories, criticism and reference works." Project Ben-Yehuda - named after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary and one of the greatest figures in Hebrew's revival - took its inspiration from the first producer of free electronic books (e-books), Project Gutenberg, founded by Michael Hart in 1971. "I had cherished Project Gutenberg since the early '90s, before the advent of public Internet," says Bartov. "I took delight in the availability of Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare or old translations of Plato, and wished there were an equivalent in Hebrew." Bartov stresses that Project Ben-Yehuda deals solely with works in the public domain. By Israeli law, an author's works remain under copyright for 70 years after his death. "Because of these concerns," says Bartov, "I'm an expert in the morbid subject of the dates of death of many Israeli authors." But there's more to the decision than purely legal issues. "By policy, we are not judges of quality. I have opinions and tastes in literature, but I keep them to myself. We see ourselves as trustees of the public. We see our task as making available works from the public domain, with an aim to be comprehensive." Beyond people who simply want to read, Bartov says, the project is used by copy editors and translators, as well as academics here and abroad. "I once heard from someone who was writing a PhD and found an article by [Elhanan Leib] Levinsky. The e-mail said, 'I have Levinsky on my shelf, but it never occurred to me that he'd written on this topic.'" The Web site is making it onto university syllabuses and junior high school reading lists. BARTOV EXPLAINS that a lot of work involved is merely knowing what Hebrew literature exists, what to work on. It involves poring over bibliographical works, something in which he was not trained. As an example he mentions a writer named Mordechai David Brandtstädter. "Not only did I have to learn of his existence from a literary lexicon, I then had to go about finding his books." He points out that by nature of Web search engines, now someone might come upon Brandtstädter's work on-line without specifically looking for him, but just by searching for certain key words. Here, too, there is a larger issue: preservation. "Even organizations dedicated to preserving these texts are having a hard time doing so," Bartov laments. "We have to preserve these texts from oblivion, which includes their physical survival." Bartov describes the notion of the "long tail," as described by Wired editor Chris Anderson, as applying to the project's usage patterns. The idea is that on a graph showing usage of different works, aside from the high hits one would expect with well-known authors, there is a long tail of mostly unknown authors and works that all together represent a significant portion of the site's usage. "We produce some obscure article by an obscure author, but no matter how obscure he is, there's someone who is not only making use of it, but is also delighted enough to write to me about it." Bartov emphasizes that the project is not about making money. "Project Ben-Yehuda is entirely a volunteer effort," he says. There are currently 170 active volunteers with assignments for either typing or proofing, with more than 600 people over the project's life. Bartov tries to match volunteers to their preferred content, and at any one time they are working on more than a dozen different authors. This allows Project Ben-Yehuda to post a variety of content on-line each month. Everything on the site has been typed from printed sources, including books and magazines, directly copied without any editing or changes. "Often [this material] contains typos. To every 10 to 25 typers, we have one proofreader. But if we limited our published content to what had been proofread, we'd have 10 percent of what's currently on-line." The way Bartov deals with this operational imbalance is to post content as soon as it is ready and to ask users to write in with obvious mistakes, which are immediately updated. "For many kinds of users," he explains, "the availability is most important. It's better to have it today with a few typos than a year from now without them. Some people - not volunteers - have been sending corrections in for years." In 2004, an NGO was founded to enable the project to accept donations that people started offering. "No one has worked for pay. We have no office, no equipment. Just people dedicated to the idea. Our reward is the satisfaction of the work itself, and the feedback we get." WHEN THE Shenkar College of Engineering and Design contacted Bartov and offered any help the project might need, he said what was really needed was a server and hosting, which the college then donated "no strings attached." People ask Bartov why the project isn't affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport or the Education Ministry. He responds by saying that, first, they never offered, and second, that the project shies away from political affiliation to maintain its independence. "The fact that the project is done by unaffiliated volunteers surprises people. It also inspires them. Many of our volunteers were moved to contributing precisely by this inspiration." There have also been offers to buy or sponsor the project, including offering a salary, which Bartov has turned down. "Morally, I can't turn this into a commercial venture. Hundreds of people have volunteered under the implicit understanding that that it'll remain free. It's still a hobby, and I don't intend to make money from it." As the Project's founder and editor, Bartov says many people imagine he is a retired Hebrew professor. In fact, he's a young software engineer who holds a BA in classics from Tel Aviv University and also teaches ancient Greek. He never studied Hebrew literature or language, and came to this as a reader who wanted someone else to do it. Bartov says that all kinds of serendipitous encounters have occurred since the project's inception. Since 2003, he has been speaking at conferences organized by librarians, information specialists or bibliographers, and these invitations led to others. Last year, he was involved in a Van Leer Institute study group on Hebrew as a cultural language. And this year he has given a talk at the Academy of the Hebrew Language. "It seems that being the guy who reads the project's editorial inbox is a unique position. I'm a witness to the reactions of all kinds of people encountering classic and forgotten works of literature. After so many years, I can start to generalize, offer conclusions on how older modern Hebrew literature is perceived, how people cope with it, what difficulties they encounter. But I'm still not a scholar of Hebrew literature or language." He further emphasizes that whereas most institutions have academic concerns, Project Ben-Yehuda's is trying to serve the public according to its interest. This means "saving" Hebrew books from oblivion, but it also means making popular authors available on-line. One such effort involves the works of Alter Druyanov, who died in 1938 and whose works entered the public domain on January 1, 2008. "Druyanov is well known, much loved, and heavily drawn upon," says Bartov, who over the past year assigned a variety of his works for the volunteers to prepare for on-line publication early this month. Along with other texts, the on-line material will include his famous compendium of Jewish humor, The Book of Jokes and Witticisms. The project is taking more and more of Bartov's time, and he's not sure he wants to head it interminably. He's involved in other pursuits, including the Israeli Free Software movement and the Hebrew Wikipedia project, and would like to eventually hand Project Ben-Yehuda over to a new generation of volunteers. "Past experience shows that it happens eventually," he says, citing his involvement with creating and chairing the Israel Role Playing Society, which he eventually left but which still exists. "There are no immediate plans to change anything. If it's handed over too soon, it'll run aground. But at some point, the right people do come along who can take it over." benyehuda.org