Tracing the Lives of Hebrew Books

How did knowledge spread in the time between the invention of the printing press and the advent of mass media?  

“Books are the material form in which ideas move around,” says Adam Shear. “If we know one individual’s reading, we can see a micro-history. If we aggregate the data of what books were owned by many individuals where and when, we can see broader trends.” 

Adam Shear looking at open Hebrew books

Shear collaborates on a project documenting evidence for books that circulated in other places and times after they came off the printing press. “Footprints” is a collaboration that includes researchers at

close up image of hebrew book in "Footprints" studyColumbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the University of Pennsylvania working with Shear, associate professor and chair of the Dietrich School’s Department of Religious Studies. 

The initiative develops tools for scholars to collect evidence tracking the locations of Hebrew books printed before 1800, and to contribute information on individual books to a growing body of data giving a picture of the movements of Hebrew books and the people who owned them. The concept is to document physical evidence of one book at one point, touched by one user. 

The project recently won a Digital Innovation Award from the Renaissance Society of America for its excellence in supporting the study of the Renaissance. 

The concept is now being used in other areas, including in the study of manuscripts and books in other languages. Shear sees possibilities in expanding databases to incorporate material from booksellers, catalogs, and books mentioned in other sources. 

One problematic area of documenting Hebrew books from the period before 1800 is that evidence of a book’s presence at one time may be a mark from a censor. During the Catholic Inquisition, Jews were routinely required to bring their books to be examined by censors, who would cross out objectionable passages and sign the book as approved. 

“It was oppression,” says Shear. “But behind the oppression was a Jewish owner of that book. We are recovering the owner.” 

Adam Shear looking at forward with open Hebrew books.