Brandeis Library Joins “Footprints” Project

Scan of Masekhet Rosh ha-Shanah, showing handwriting, stamps, and an insert about the Brandeis LibraryBrandeis Library has joined "Footprints," a digital humanities project that aims to trace the movement of thousands of Jewish books and uncover stories about the spread of knowledge and culture around the world.

Footprints is an online platform that aggregates information about the ownership, location, movements of specific copies of early modern Jewish books. Each "footprint" is a piece of information that shows, ideally, that a specific book was owned by a specific person in a specific location at a specific time.

By gathering this information on thousands of books, in a single site, the platform allows researchers to trace the movement of Jewish books, and, therefore, learn more about the spread of knowledge and culture in a global diaspora. In addition, adding Brandeis’ early Hebrew imprints to Footprints helps highlight our collection and help researchers become familiar with our rare books.

Footprints was founded, led and coordinated by historians and librarians at Columbia, the Jewish Theological Seminary, University of Pittsburgh, and Stony Brook University. Brandeis joins other contributing libraries, including the Library of Congress, University of Pennsylvania libraries, libraries in Oxford, Dublin, Frankfurt, and more.

Judaica Librarian Rachel L. Greenblatt explains that the current location of a book—in our case, Waltham, Mass.—provides one "footprint." Historical "footprint" information is gleaned from ownership marks and handwritten notations in the printed books. About 25 of our hundreds of early Hebrew imprints have been digitized, and for those works, staff were able to visually search for and record this information using the digitized copy.  

One footprint for a copy of a Talmud that Brandeis owns was printed in Cracow (now Kraków, Poland) in 1602. An accompanying map shows the travels of several different known copies of this volume—illustrating the movement of Jewish cultural and intellectual history from Poland to various points in Europe, and from there to Israel and North America.

Our next task is to visually check the remaining 400-plus physical books at Brandeis to find this information, digitize the books if possible, and, if not, photograph the relevant ownership notations. Brandeis looks forward to continuing to work with Footprints as our collection is fully integrated into the platform.