People Of The Digitized Book


Coming soon to a computer near you — Plato’s philosophy in Hebrew, with a Yiddish translation.

The thoughts of the ancient Greek scholar are among the contents of “Tales of the Wise Men of Greece,” a book written by Polish-born Yehuda Leib ben-Ze’ev, an early leader of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries. A compilation of short bios and summaries of the worldviews of the Greek thinkers with whom much of the Jewish world was not familiar, the book has spent several decades in a secure, climate-controlled room in the National Library of Israel, access limited to a small number of researchers.

It’s now part of a major digitization process undertaken by the library that will make an initial 120,000 books — out of the library’s total holdings of five million — available to the public for the first time.

As part of a collaboration with Google Books, all of the library’s out-of-copyright books that have not yet been digitized will be scanned and put online; a Google digitization center in Germany will handle many of them, while the library will scan those “in problematic physical condition,” according to Zack Rothbart, the library’s communications director.

About 3,000 books already scanned by Google are now online; the others in the first collection will be available in two years.

Rare books to be digitized include “Tzena U’rena,” an 18th-century Yiddish translation and commentary on the Torah intended for use by women; a 19th-century edition of “Ma’em Lo’ez,” a midrashic commentary on the Torah; and Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah in his own handwriting.

“The Google Books project launched 15 years ago with the aspiration of bringing the entire world’s books online and making them searchable and discoverable to everyone on Earth,” said Ben Bunnell, head of Google Books’ Library Partnerships. “We’re delighted that the National Library of Israel chose to join us in this endeavor.”

The project is supported by Israel’s Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage.

“Ben-Ze’ev’s book is written in very accessible and relatively basic language,” Rothbart said — “evidence that it was intended for the masses.”

Once it goes online, the masses who can read it will grow.