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Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

In her 2008 novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks presents the fictionalized history of a single book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–as seen by Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Alternating between Hanna’s story and glimpses from the Haggadah’s past, Brooks pieces together the book’s history using the clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from it.

Over the next few weeks, I want to provide readers of People of the Book with real-world examples from archives, libraries, and museums across the world. These examples should help you picture what Brooks is describing, contextualizing her novel and providing an introduction to the history of the book.

To start us off, the Haggadah.

The Haggadah is a sacred Jewish book that sets out to fulfill the commandment to “tell your son” of the escape from Egypt. A blueprint for the Seder, or ritual feast at the beginning of Passover, the Haggadah is a very common book, one that can be found in almost every Jewish home. Although most are rather normal-looking, throughout the last eight-hundred years many have been designed with extraordinary attention to detail and a lot of money. Surviving examples in libraries, archives, museums, and private collections present scholars with insight into Medieval manuscript illumination, Jewish and Biblical art, and the history of the book in Europe.

The examples provided below are keeping to the general genre of Brooks’s Haggadah. They are from Medieval Europe, illuminated with human figures, made from expensive materials, and finely decorated by a master.

  • Sarajevo Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1350): This real book was the inspiration for Brooks’s fictional one, in name and design. Although it belongs to the National Museum, the Haggadah is currently on display in the main hall at the Sarajevo Parliament in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • The Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1320): Comparable to the Sarajevo Haggadah, both being created in the same area around the same time, the Golden Haggadah is different in two ways. First, although the Sarajevo one is illuminated with copper and some gold, the Golden one lives up to its name: gold covers almost every page of illustration. Second, the Golden Haggadah has almost double the miniature illustrations (56 to Sarajevo’s 34). In content and size, this version of the Haggadah is stunning in its overwhelming luxuriousness. Currently owned by the British Museum, it is available in full online.
  • The Birds’ Head Haggadah (South Germany, c. 1300): Quite possibly the oldest Haggadah in existence, the name comes from the bird-like features of the people in this book’s marginal illustrations. This style of drawing skirted the rules against drawing humans by giving them pronounced beaks, and it was very common in Southern German manuscripts of the time. This Haggadah is currently owned by the Israel Museum.
  • The Washington Haggadah (South Germany, 1478): Created more than 100 years after the Sarajevo Haggadah in Brooks’s book, the Washington Haggadah has a much clearer provenance (the history of who owned it, when, and where). We know, for example, that it was created by Joel ben Simeon and came into the possession of the Library of Congress as part of a large accession in 1916. Frequently on tour, this version of the Haggadah is one of the most accessible in person, having spent a long time at the Met and available in facsimile through Harvard University Press.
  • The Rylands Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1330): Most likely the finest Haggadah in existence, the Rylands Haggadah incorporates a variety of illustrative techniques with the text and includes a 13-page miniature cycle, which details Exodus from the burning bush to the Red Sea. As such, it is a pillar of Judaic and Biblical art and a standout example of the genre. Owned by the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, it was also displayed at the Met and available in facsimile.
On Congressman George Brown’s Papers and Completed Projects

On Congressman George Brown’s Papers and Completed Projects

Finally, after two years of hard work, an email arrived from my former supervisor, Jessica Geiser, telling me that the Congressman George Brown Papers were done! They were processed and posted online for the whole world to see! Fantastic news, and, yet, it made me a little sad, a little teary-eyed.

Large projects, ones that take years to come together and require meticulous planning, are hard to leave behind. They train your brain to always be solving problems, thinking simultaneously about near and far future goals, and to prioritize and multitask.  I’ve felt this way about other archival projects I’ve been apart of; and I am sure that I will feel this way when I am done with my dissertation.

But there is also a lot of joy in seeing a project through to its conclusion. The whole purpose of processing George Brown’s papers was to make his work available to researchers, to represent his four-decade long service to the people of California, and to insure Brown’s proper inclusion in the history of American science and exploration. And that has been achieved.

This collection, which started out as more than 800 linear feet of documents stuffed haphazardly into file boxes, is now preserved and available in the Special Collection & University Archives of Rivera Library at the University of California.

Although I am intimately familiar with the documents in the collection and know that the collection is rich in breadth and depth, I cannot wait until scholars trained in American history and politics, science and conservation start using it in their research. Time can only tell what innovations they will make!

Press Releases and Articles:

[Image is from Wikipedia and the U.S. House of Representatives, and is used under a Creative Commons License.]

Reining in Your Metadata with Help from an Archivist [GradHacker]

Reining in Your Metadata with Help from an Archivist [GradHacker]

Now up on GradHacker, a little advice for effectively employing metadata to bolster your research:

Every book we read, every source we mine, and every number we collect has a history, has a life that precedes us and will continue long after we are gone. It is easy to forget this when we are frantically collecting materials for our dissertation. This legacy is rich but, in the hustle-and-bustle of research trips, exam prep, and writing, it is often neglected or even forgotten.

One of the most important parts of building an archive is capturing this legacy by recording an item’s dimensions, condition, material composition, origin, and provenance. In so doing, an archivist generates a vast amount of metadata, or information about an item irrespective of its content. Not only is this information useful in categorizing and storing the item, it also enriches the context of the archived item for researchers and facilitates use of the collection as a whole.

Metadata, though, isn’t reserved for the hallowed halls (or cold, windowless basements) of an archive. It is also a vital part of any researcher’s personal database.

Check out the full article up on the blog!

[Photo is courtesy of Flikr user Forsaken Fotos and used under the Creative Commons.]

Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Untitled_Clipping_031114_033841_PMEarly English Books Online (EEBO) is a fantastic online database of scanned English language books from 1450-1700 and is comprised of 125,000 unique titles—a staggering resource by any measure!

For early modernists interested in print during the English Civil War, one of the most important collections included in EEBO are the Thomason Tracts, a collection of documents (pamphlets, manuscripts, journals, and books) which were collected, organized, and annotated by George Thomason between 1641-1661 (for more on the man and the collection).

This work’s value, besides its near completeness, lies in the remains of Thomason’s own hand, scrawled in the margins of nearly every page he obtained. Just like modern readers take post-it notes and highlighters to their materials, Thomason took his pen. English historians and literary critics have creatively used these remnants to reconstruct topics as disparate as reading habits, archival and library methodologies, political radicalization, and ideological transmission.

According to Jason Peacey (his new book is AMAZING-good) and since collaborated by several scholars and my own snooping, many of these annotations are missing from the digitized version of Thomason’s Tracts. Some were too faint to make out in the scan, and others were rendered completely illegible by it. This seems to me to be a profound loss of valuable historical documentation, of a unique epistemology which he created as he read and stored these written materials.

In a book talk with Dr. Peacey late last week, he suggested that this failure to correctly digitize Thomason’s Tracts was a failure endemic in the impulse to digitize archives at all. The process, he argued, inherently decontextualizes documents, making them easier to abstract as individual texts or bytes of information from the rich historical context of his creation.

For example, if I were to view the first page of William Prynne’s 1644 A true and full relation of the prosecution, arraignment, tryall, and condemnation of Nathaniel Fiennes… (an excerpt of which heads this post) in a photocopied form, then I would be less likely to abstract the text from the document. This means that, because of the feel of the paper and the heft of the book, I would be reminded of the tactile and visual experience of the original. Conversely, if I were to view this same page online, Dr. Peacey argues, then I would be more likely to think of the document as lines of text which I could cut-and-paste without ever thinking about the original book from which it came.

On one hand, Peacey is absolutely correct that the missing annotations from Thomason’s Tracts are an example of how digital archives can lead less-than-critical historians astray. The act of flipping through bound copies of his collection within the hallowed halls of the British Library is a completely different experience from me, alone, in my tiny studio apartment on a huge computer monitor. Much of Thomason’s original structure and the sensorial experience cannot be recreated.

Following this logic, on the other hand, leads me to question his two conclusions. First, if one is looking to replicate the experience of using the Thomason’s Tracts, how can photocopies be any better than the digitized version? Abstraction takes place the moment a document is inscribed into a new medium—copies will always be copies, no matter if they are photocopied, scanned, or some super cool future technology. The moment the smell of the paper or the feel of the page is missing, the scholar using the material has to be cognizant of recreating that aspect of her document. (My antiquarianism is showing a bit, no?)

Second, I am unconvinced that the missing annotations tell us anything about the failures of technologically recreated archives. Instead, I see one poorly digitized set of documents. Scholars are versed (though not explicitly instructed) in the culture of physical archives. They know how to use the materials, move around in the space, and conduct the “work of the archive.” Digital archives require the same literacy. Only since postmodernism forced us to confront the hidden systems of power inherent the archives, have we been conscious of how scholars can perpetuate these power systems or negate them. Perhaps this should carry over into our use of online archives—interrogate the silences, recreate the materiality, and be proactive on both of those fronts.

To their credit, EEBO has written many of the illegible annotations into the catalog records. Though not perfect, in doing so EEBO is acknowledging a shortcoming and correcting it. Yes, it is not like reading Thomason’s original annotation as he wrote it, but it is a start.

I think this is what scholars need to do when it comes to using online archival information more broadly: be aware of the selection bias and limitations of digitized technology, make sure you know the materiality of the original document by effectively employing the catalog information, and use these items with as much intellectual rigor as you would any other source.

“Datafied” Archives: Authenticity, Authority, and Illusion

“Datafied” Archives: Authenticity, Authority, and Illusion

Me, Microfilm, a Laptop, a Notebook; or, everything necessary to spend the day in the archive.
Me, Microfilm, a Laptop, a Notebook; or, everything necessary to spend the day in the archive.

Piggybacking off of my last post, Purple Ink, and last week’s CDH discussion led by the wonderful Jacqueline Wernimont, today I want to reflect on the concept of “datafied” archives, to borrow Wernimont’s phrase, and authenticity.

Unlike projects which create brand new archives, take almost any Tumblr for example, datafied archives are the digital versions of brick-and-mortar institutions with two major changes: the archival material has been scanned (digitized) and any text has been rendered searchable (datafied). A particularly comprehensive example of this is the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, where you can quickly search for articles within American newspapers from 1836-1922. Notice how the digital reflects the physical: you still read the article within the context of the whole newspaper page, the fonts and images remain as they do in the original newspaper, and you can browse the collection by year or publication as you would in the Library of Congress itself. Nevertheless, the archive is made up of individual pieces of abstractable data–phrases, words, and pixels.

Medieval European archives were originally meant to exclusively serve the needs of the king, to insure that he and his advisers had control of the charters and agreements within his realm. Authenticity was based on the literal proximity to the physical body of the king–he included the materials so they were authentic.

As early modernity continued on into the European Enlightenment, archives became less about this closeness and more about organizing, filing, and structuring knowledge. They still enforced the king’s authority, but now just having the documents was not enough–one had to be able to quickly access the stored knowledge. Across Europe competing methods of archival practice sprang up; however, all of these systems began defining authority and authenticity in the relationship between the item and all of the other materials in the archive. File folders and library cataloging styles define the physical place the item has within the archive and library, creating authority by exercising control and authenticity by comparison.

Authenticity for a datafied archive is similarly built, only in this case it is constructed in the digital’s relationship to the physical. Each of these archives are constructed from digital reproductions of material originals–records and documents, visual and written–which reside together online as they do in reality. If, for example, the Library of Congress has an archive of newspapers,  they carry the the LOC’s authority and the newspapers’ authenticity into their digital versions.

However, this slippage between the the digital/datafied and physical archives’ authenticity leads to a potentially huge fallacy: big data’s illusion of objectivity.

This illusion has two parts, internal and external. First, datafying archives leads to the assumption that all material inside the archive is available in digital form. I do not think this is intentional on the part of the archives, nor is it simply stupidity on the side of the users. Take, for example, the Getty’s recent launch of its digital library–a fantastic and fascinating project which I have already used several times. An uninformed user may mistake this site for the totality of the Getty’s collection, which is far from true. Not only does this increasing availability of datafied material replicate issues of access which affect physical archives, they create new lacuna within the collections themselves.

Second, big data in the form of a datafied archive abstracts the information from the human hand which constructs it, side-stepping questions which all digital consumers should always ask: who selected this information for digitization and why? What was not included and why? Who did the work and why? Why? Why? Why? Nothing is objective in the physical archive, and, likewise, nothing should be considered so in the digital even if it claims to be. The mission to digitize every book, for example, can clothe subjective choices in objective goals. The massive scale of big data scanning projects, most notably Google Books, masks real-world political and economic motives behind the datafied archive–take this example of the racial and class issues behind the scanning of Google’s books.

I cannot say that this shift in authenticity in the archive is necessarily bad, excepting the last example of Google Books which is deeply troubling. Instead I am saying that datafying archives and redefining authenticity is occurring all around us. In fact, we are participating in its redefinition every time we use these materials. What we, as scholars and members of the online public, must do is to be hyper-vigilant of our assumptions when using datafied or digitalized archives, to educate ourselves on how we are constructing “the authentic” within this new media. Several institutions are furthering such efforts, like the Centre for Digital Library Research and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, focusing on the importance of digital literacy and education.

Above all, I want us to be self-aware as we live our digital lives, think about how our actions are constructing and reconstructing authenticity, and question the silences which continue to exist in our data.

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

Collage of images from "Resurrection of Christ," a 19th century anthropologist's photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.
Collage of images from “Resurrection of Christ,” a 19th century anthropologist’s photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.

Fully nude and dancing in the background of a recently restored Vatican fresco, scholars believe they have uncovered the first artistic representation of Native Americans in Europe.[1] At least fifty years before previously believed, Pinturicchio’s depiction of native people in the “Resurrection of Christ” (c. 1793) was one of, if not the, first example of portraying Native Americans as uncivilized, nude savages. This image placed their bodies within a preexisting, European epistemological system—their location is evocative, on the right shoulder of the returning Jesus.

“Unclothed, acutely aware of the camera,” writes Philippa Levine about the various native peoples photographed much later, during the nineteenth century, for scientific and anthropological reasons, they “were, in the language of the day, anthropological ‘types,’ not individuals but representatives.”[2] In her work, Levine’s naked natives share much in common with Pinturicchio’s. The act of capturing these images rendered these people’s bodies archetypes for their race, symbols for the stretch of the British Empire, and knowable in a way which soothed colonial anxieties. What she argues, and what the recently uncovered painting suggests, is that these sorts of cultural artifacts or archives must be read against the grain for they tell historians more about the system of power, the contexts of colonialism, and the ordering of the Empire than they do about the truth they purport to represent.

Mentioning the archive in this way may seem out of place; however, the archive has a duel meaning: as system of collecting and storing documents as well as the base of knowledge a group of people use to build their understanding of the world. It is this latter way which Levine means the term when she describes the anthropological images as the “body standardized by a precise uniform background, could be observed, measured, and classified.”[3]

Interestingly, this sentence could be said about the East India Company and the creation of its institutional repository as described by Betty Joseph—the Company’s record of observations, measurements, standardizations, and classifications of the Indian people. The Company’s archive was influenced by two forces. On one hand, the Company wished to increase profit through expansion, and, on the other, it had to consolidate its power over the places it already controlled. The archive itself was a way to achieve these goals through recording of precedence, codifying legal cases, to name but two examples.

Whereas Bernard Cohn sees the British exercising power over the Indians in the act of translating and learning Indian languages, Joseph sees it in the relatively few women who appear in the Company’s archive. She concludes that the presence of these women means that, though the archive suggests a male-centered, hegemonic-type control over the British colonial holdings, women were part of the political system. Occasional female subjectivities render the master narrative flawed and the archive incomplete. Although colonization, for Joseph, is clearly a process—from mercantilism, to colonialism, to cultural hegemony, to liberal paternalism—the creation of the archive was not. Instead, in Joseph’s formulation, the archive seems to be static. Although “the colonizer is also subject to the tyranny of his own representations,”[4] meaning they simultaneously create and are bound to their creations, this does not allow for an original representation or an evolution of representations, something Levine’s work also lacks.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, in Silencing the Past, that there are three sites where power is exercised over the archive: 1) within the selection of the original material to form the archive, 2) within the maintenance of the archive itself, and 3) within the mind of the historian who examines the material. At each of these stages, individual voices and marginalized perspectives are literally silenced, stricken from the historical record. The first two are overtly addressed by Levine and Joseph, who are both interested in questions of creation and historical use of the archive; however, the (surprisingly) tacit argument being made is that historians and anthropologists have not only been miss-reading the archive, but willfully employing it incorrectly.

The archive for its creators was the accepted truth—the scientific objectivity of the anthropological photograph and the Company’s interest in proper imperial governance. Scholars take this truth at face value rather than interrogating its cultural, literary, and political foundations, falling victim to contemporary biases and perpetuating them in the historiography. For Cohn the historian and the anthropologist are active participants in the archive—they (we) create a new mental archive as we try to interpret the physical one. Dipesh Chakrabarty is also aware of this when he writes that a good history must “deliberately [make] visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its repressive strategies and practices, the part it plays in collusion” with the structures of power.[5]

At every stage of its development, the archive is representational, an anthropological “type” which is symbolic, a construction, and subjective—all of which must be kept in dynamic tension if historians are to understand the multiplicity of people and their various ways of being-in-the-world.



[1] To see the cleaned up image, see Elisabetta Povoledo, “Early Images of American Indians Found in a Vatican Fresco,” New York Times, May 6, 2013, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/early-images-of-american-indians-found-in-a-vatican-fresco/.

[2] Philippa Levine, “Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power,” The Journal of British Studies, 52, no. 1 (2013): 10.

[3] Levine, 9.

[4] Betty Joseph, Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840, ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 45.