Amsterdam, The Netherlands, January 13, 2014 — It wouldn’t be a stretch to think you could walk right past the entrance to the Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam and not notice it. But you’d also be walking past one of the greatest collections of books on the planet, and the oldest Jewish library in the world. Founded in 1616 as the library of a Jewish day school, today Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos is home to almost 30,000 printed works, and almost 600 handwritten and decorated manuscripts, some dating as far back as the 1200’s. More than half are in Hebrew, and many are illustrated with incredible illuminations, medieval drawings painted in rainbow colors and often in silver and gold.
About two years ago it was decided to digitize the manuscript collection at Ets Haim in order to assure preservation as well as to make the materials available on a much wider basis. That dream was just realized, in part, late last year when the first two hundred manuscripts were completed and put on line in a spectacular web site that is as easy to navigate as are the manuscript illustrations breathtaking. There are still four hundred left to digitize. Executive Librarian Heidi Warncke took a few moments away from the ongoing effort to answer a few questions about this historical treasure and the digitization project now underway.
Sheryl Kay: What brought you to EH, and what really makes the library so special?
Heide Warncke: While studying Hebrew at the University of Amsterdam I got interested in the collection of the library and even more interested in the history of the Jewish books and manuscripts in the collection. When I finished my studies I started working in the Rosenthaliana (the Jewish history collection at the Amsterdam University Library) as a cataloger of Hebrew books. As the two libraries, the Rosenthaliana and Ets Haim, have always been working closely together it became clear that the printed collection of Ets Haim should be catalogued and the manuscripts should be digitized. That’s when I came in.
Ets Haim is special because it is the oldest still functioning Jewish library in the world. We also have one of the most important collections of Sephardica, books written in Spanish or Portuguese. So anyone who would like to learn about the history of the Sephardic Jews in and outside Amsterdam should start his research at Ets Haim.
Sheryl Kay: If you had to pick your own favorite manuscripts, which might those be and why those?
Heide Warncke: There are so many beautiful manuscripts in the collection that it is difficult to choose my favorite ones. There is one manuscript in particular that stole my heart. It is a catalogue of books and manuscripts, collected by Moses Teixeira de Mattos, written in Amsterdam in 1768. The title pages, one in Hebrew and one in Dutch, are illustrated beautifully and clearly show the love that this book collector had for his collection. At the bottom of both title pages there is a small quaint drawing of a man, reading a book in his library, surrounded by symbols of erudition, like a compass and a globe.
Another manuscript I really like is a book called Kinor David, by David Franco Mendes, written in Amsterdam between 1732-1775. It is a collection of poetry and riddles. Some of the riddles really look like a Sudoku with Hebrew letters. I especially like a poem that he wrote in Dutch and was also translated into Hebrew. It was written on the occasion of the coming of age of Willem V, Prince of Orange, in the year 1766. This poem illustrates the excellent relationship of the Portuguese Jewish congregation with the Dutch royalty. This has never changed – even in the services today there is a special blessing in Portuguese for the Dutch Royal Family.
I think that the library is most famous for the Mishne Torah, a code of Jewish Religious Law, by Moses Maimonides. It is not written by Maimonides himself, but it is very close to his date of death which makes is a special treasure. It is the oldest dated Hebrew manuscript kept in a Dutch collection.
Sheryl Kay: Tell us about the genesis of the digitization project.
Heide Warncke: The initiative to digitize the manuscript collection of Ets Haim was taken by Prof. Dr. Emile Schrijver of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana and the University of Amsterdam. He told me about this photographer who had digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls and world famous private archives like that of Nelson Mandela, Desmund Tutu and Sigmund Freud. The name of the photographer is Ardon Bar-Hama. The quality of his photography is just incredible. At first I was quite surprised to hear that the manuscripts would be photographed rather than scanned but when I saw Ardon at work I understood that this is the most efficient way to digitize the collection, there is absolutely no risk of damaging the manuscripts and because of the quality of the images it is possible to zoom into every detail of a page.
Sheryl Kay: What goes into digitizing a manuscript?
Heide Warncke: Digitizing the manuscript is a very quick and easy process. It’s the technology that makes it special. Ardon developed special techniques and lenses and he uses a special UV-protected flash.. He is shooting 5000 openings, double pages, in four days. It would never be possible to scan as many pages in the same time.
As the whole manuscript collection will be digitized, we decided to also digitize the books systematically in the order that they were on the shelves. We also get quite a lot of requests to digitize certain works before others. So now we are working according to a list of book numbers, so that we can make sure we don’t miss a manuscript. We have digitized the first 200 manuscripts and hope to digitize the remaining 400 manuscripts this year.
Sheryl Kay: You make it sound easy enough, but we both know it’s a really big undertaking. Why bother? Why spend all the money and take all the time to do this when there is no measurable financial return?
Heide Warncke: A few years ago, the 400 year-old collection of Ets Haim was put on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. I really feel the obligation to preserve the library’s treasures for future generations. When you visit the library you will be overwhelmed by the beauty of all these old books. But if no one would read them what would really be the value of this collection? By digitizing the manuscripts we are making the collection accessible for everyone, scholars, general public and religious communities. We want to stimulate research into the manuscripts from all fields of research. And we would like to invite people from all over the world to have a look at the treasures we have in the collection.
Sheryl Kay: Other than academic scholars, who else would be interested in viewing these?
Heide Warncke: We hope to interest as many people as possible to have a look at our manuscripts on the internet. Just to enjoy a beautiful illustration or read a few pages. The manuscripts are about every aspect of human life, not just about religious matters. They were written in many different languages. This site makes the collection accessible for everyone everywhere. And if ever you have the time to visit Amsterdam, you should really come to see the Portuguese Synagogue and the library. It is possible to book a special tour to visit us. Very famous people like Barbra Streisand and Shimon Peres have been our guests recently, so you will be in good company by visiting!
Ets Haim Library is located at Mr. Visserplein 31011 RD, Amsterdam. View the Manuscripts here: Manuscripts