About the Geniza Lab

The Geniza Lab at Princeton University was founded in 1985. Since then, it has made more than 4,000 document transcriptions available and searchable online.

Origins: Goitein and his lab

The original Geniza Lab was located in the house of Shelomo Dov Goitein (1900–85) in Philadelphia (1957–70), then in Princeton (1970–85). Goitein was the first scholar to conduct extensive research into the documentary holdings of Cairo Geniza collections worldwide. Goitein’s lab consisted of his personal research materials: notes, indexes, transcriptions, translations, microfilms and photocopies (yes, photocopies!) of much of the documentary Geniza.

On his death in February 1985, Goitein bequeathed his Lab materials to the National Library of Israel (then the Jewish National and University Library). Copies of everything remained in Princeton. (Some materials appear to be housed in Princeton alone.) This is the material core of the Lab, and it is now in the process of being indexed and digitized.

Goitein probably adopted the idea of calling his research space a “lab” from Fernand Braudel (1902–85), his exact contemporary and another great historian of the Mediterranean. Braudel ran the Centre de Recherches Historiques at the Sixième Section at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and he and others often referred to it as a laboratoire de recherches historiques. Braudel’s laboratoire funded Goitein’s research on the Mediterranean between 1954 and 1964.[1]

Goitein worked for nearly forty years on the materials that eventually became the five volumes of his magnum opus, A Mediterranean Society (1967–84; posthumous index volume 1993). In the course of his research, he generated the enormous body of materials that came to constitute his Lab.

But Goitein’s ambitions extended beyond his five-volume work and his Lab: he harbored the long-term goal of making the entire documentary Geniza corpus available in transcription and translation. A. L. Udovitch, who taught at Princeton from 1968 until his retirement in 2008, wrote in 1969 of Goitein’s desire “to initiate, in collaboration with others, the systematic publication and translation of the entire corpus of documentary Geniza material.” [2] In a sense, that was the foundation document of the Geniza lab in its collaborative guise.

Goitein’s goal of making the entire documentary Geniza available has yet to be realized. We still possess only a rough estimate of how many documentary texts the Geniza preserved, let alone a comprehensive catalogue of their contents. The Princeton Geniza Lab aims to continue Goitein’s work.

The digital turn under Udovitch and Cohen

The idea of turning Goitein’s Lab into a collaborative space arose shortly after Goitein’s death in 1985, but it was originally limited in scope, focusing on digitization.

In the early days of personal computing, IBM had granted a number of PCs to Princeton to foster innovative practices in the university classroom. Udovitch thought to take advantage of the new technology by creating Hebrew and Arabic fonts for transcribing Geniza documents and, eventually, making them searchable. Udovitch convinced the university to set aside space for the Lab, and he arranged for Goitein’s research archive to be photocopied and stored there before it was sent to Jerusalem.

The implementation of the Lab’s vision was overseen by Mark R. Cohen, professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. Cohen was among the first to recognize the potential of digital technology for Geniza research and the first to realize some of that potential. [3]

Under Cohen’s leadership, the Geniza Lab developed the Princeton Geniza Browser, which digitized thousands of transcriptions and made them freely available and searchable. To Goitein’s corpus of unpublished transcriptions, Cohen added hundreds of published ones and also commissioned new ones. Two dozen graduate students and visiting scholars at Princeton and specialists elsewhere contributed to this expanded corpus under Cohen’s direction.

On Cohen’s retirement from Princeton in 2013, the documents in the digitized corpus numbered 4,320.

The Geniza Lab today

In 2015, Marina Rustow, professor in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and History, assumed the directorship of the Geniza Lab. The Lab’s mission remains the identification, description, transcription and translation of the documentary Geniza corpus.

This was Goitein’s original vision, but there are two new components. The first is English translations: the Lab considers translation to be an integral part of the research process and the only way to make the digitized documents available to the wider public. It also forces scholars to nail down their interpretation of documents and to resolve interpretive ambiguities.

The second goal is the development of a technological infrastructure that will link images, transcriptions and translations. In addition, we would like for scholars to be able to access multiple transcriptions and translations of the same document, where more than one exists, on the reasoning that access to the interim products of research should not be restricted.

The first goal, the provision of new content, is being undertaken at Princeton. The second, the development of the technological infrastructure, is being overseen by Jessica L. Goldberg{link to homepage} at UCLA. Together, both these goals constitute a vision whose implementation will take many years and a committed team of collaborators.

Events

The Princeton Geniza Lab’s remit now also includes organizing lectures, conferences and workshops, housing postdoctoral fellows, and developing fixed-term projects to help implement the Lab’s larger goals.

We’re delighted that you’re interested in our work and invite you to stay in touch. Check back for an events mailing list.


[1] Peter N. Miller, “Two Men in a Boat: The Braudel- Goitein ‘Correspondence’ and the Beginning of Thalassography,” in Miller, ed., The Sea: Thalassography and History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 27–59; on Goitein’s use of the “lab” nomenclature, 52.

[2] A. L. Udovitch in a memorandum to Joseph R. Strayer (1904–87), professor of History at Princeton. National Library of Israel, Arc. 4* 1911 (S. D. Goitein archive), AC-0458 (1969–70).

[3] A. L. Udovitch, “Preface,” in Franklin, Margariti, Rustow and Simonsohn, eds., Jews, Christians and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times: A Festschrift in Honor of Mark R. Cohen (Leiden: Brill, 2014).