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2013 Year in Review: Polonsky Pays Bodleian, Vatican Libraries to Digitize Texts

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The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Library) have joined efforts in a landmark digitization project with the aim of opening up their repositories of ancient texts. This is the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. Over the course of the next four years, 1,500,000 pages from their remarkable collections will be made freely available online to researchers and to the general public.

The initiative has been made possible by a £2,000,000 award from The Polonsky Foundation. According to the three concerned parties, Dr. Leonard Polonsky, “who is committed to democratizing access to information, sees the increase of digital access to these two library collections — among the greatest in the world — as a significant step in sharing intellectual resources on a global scale.”

Dr. Polonsky said, “Twenty-first-century technology provides the opportunity for collaborations between cultural institutions in the way they manage, disseminate and make available for research the information, knowledge and expertise they hold. I am pleased to support this exciting new project where the Bodleian Libraries and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana will make important collections accessible to scholars and the general public worldwide.”

The digitization project will focus on three main groups of texts: Hebrew manuscripts; Greek manuscripts; and incunabula (15th-Century printed books), including a Gutenberg Bible; and a Psalter printed in Greek and Latin in Milan in 1481. According to a press release by The Polonsky Foundation, The Bodleian Libraries, and the Vatican Library, “These groups have been chosen for their scholarly importance and for the strength of their collections in both libraries, and they will include both religious and secular texts. For the launch of the project, however, the two libraries have focused on bringing to light a smaller group of Bibles and biblical commentaries, each of which has been chosen for its particular historical importance.”

They state, “Portions of the Bodleian and Vatican Libraries’ collections of Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and incunabula have been selected for digitization by a team of scholars and curators from around the world. The selection process has been informed by a balance of scholarly and practical concerns; conservation staff at the Bodleian and Vatican Libraries have worked with curators to assess not only the significance of the content, but the physical condition of the items, prioritizing items that are robust enough to withstand being transported to the imaging studio and handled by the photographers. In order to preserve the integrity and completeness of the manuscript collections, the libraries have also agreed to digitize whole collections where appropriate…”

While the Vatican and the Bodleian have been creating digital images from our collections for a number of years, this project has provided an opportunity for both libraries to increase the scale of their digitization services. In both cases, this has meant significant investments in the equipment, infrastructure and people that make digitization possible. Over the course of this project, both libraries will also be revealing information about their digitization techniques and methods.

The Steering Committee consisted of Richard Ovenden, Co-Chair (Interim Bodley’s Librarian);
Monsignor Cesare Pasini, Co-Chair (Prefect, Vatican Library); Wolfram Horstmann (Associate Director for Digital Libraries and IT, Bodleian Libraries); Adalbert Roth (Director of the Department of Printed Books, Vatican Library); and Christine Madsen, Secretary (Head of Digital Programmes, Bodleian Libraries). The Selection Committee consisted of Malachi Beit-Arié (Ludwig Jesselson Professor Emeritus of Codicology & Palaeography, Hebrew University of Jerusalem); Alan Coates (Curator, Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries); Chris Fletcher (Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries); Timothy Janz (Curator of Greek Manuscripts, Vatican Library); Kristian Jensen (Head of Arts and Humanities, British Library); Paola Manoni (Metadata Specialist, Vatican Library); Christine Madsen (Head of Digital Programmes, Bodleian Libraries); César Merchán Hamann (Director of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library; Yarnton and Hebraica and Judaica Curator, Bodleian Libraries); Richard Ovenden (Interim Bodley's Librarian, Bodleian Libraries); Delio Proverbio (Curator of Oriental Manuscripts, Vatican Library); Adalbert Roth (Director of the Department of Printed Books, Vatican Library); Aviad Stollman (Judaica Collections Curator, National Library of Israel); and Nigel Wilson (Emeritus Fellow, Lincoln College, Oxford). The Technical Committee consisted of James Allan (Head of Imaging Services, Bodleian Libraries); Luciano Ammenti (Head of Information Technology Centre, Vatican Library); Nicole Gilroy (Head of Book Conservation, Bodleian Libraries); Wolfram Horstmann (Associate Director of Digital Library Programmes and IT, Bodleian Libraries); Christine Madsen (Head of Digital Programmes, Bodleian Libraries; Manager of the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project); Paola Manoni (Metadata Specialist, Vatican Library); Matthew McGrattan (Digitization Service Manager and Imaging Specialist, Bodleian Libraries); Angela Nuñez Gaitán (Head of the Conservation Workshop, Vatican Library); Michael Popham (Head of Digital Collections, Bodleian Libraries); and Irmgard Schuler (Head of Photographic Laboratory, Vatican Library).

Dr. Polonsky had previously donated £1,500,000 to establish the infrastructure of Cambridge University Library’s Cambridge Digital Library and begin the first phase of digitizing documents between 2010 and 2014. They would begin with The Foundations of Faith Collections and The Foundations of Science Collections, Cambridge University Librarian Anne Jarvis announced at the time. The former included the Cairo Genizah Collections and the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, while the latter included the papers of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, as well as the papers of the Board of Longitude.

Further, Dr. Polonsky and his wife, Dr. Georgette Bennett, also donated money for The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City to digitize manuscripts. Born in New York City, Dr. Polonsky is a British subject.

Leonard Polonsky attended Townsend Harris High School and earned his B.A. at New York University at age eighteen. He served in the military in 1945-6 and subsequently studied at Lincoln College, Oxford. Polonsky earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1952.

After teaching languages at the University of Heidelberg, he returned to New York to enter the financial services industry. He founded Liberty Life Assurance Company Limited in London in 1970. This company evolved into Hansard Global, PLC, of which he is chairman. He is a trustee of the Polonsky Foundation in London and the Polonsky Brothers Foundation in New York.

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