Issue 2

Scribes

Between the ninth and nineteenth centuries, community members in Fustat, Egypt discarded textual materials in a storeroom (or ‘geniza’) of the Ben Ezra synagogue. Today, this corpus of 350,000 fragments, which ranges from liturgical text to personal records, is known as the Cairo Geniza and fuels a global digital scholarship endeavor.

Launched in 2017, Scribes of the Cairo Geniza is a multilingual crowdsourcing project intent on classifying and transcribing this corpus. An international partnership led by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the Zooniverse—the world’s largest platform for online crowdsourced research—the project invites the public to view and decipher Cairo Geniza fragments. In doing so, the participants (#GenizaScribes) become scribes themselves. The volunteers become part of the history of this collection, converting handwritten sentences into machine-readable text and contributing their questions and insights to the project.

In April 2021, The Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship at University of Pennsylvania Libraries, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University Library, the Princeton Geniza Lab, and the Zooniverse used Scribes as the foundation for a series of conversations about crowdsourcing and digital projects in general: from project management and development, to the creation and use of data, to crowdsourcing platforms and research possibilities.

The essays below build on these conversations, highlighting perspectives from all the different scribes that engage in this work: researchers, volunteers, developers, and project managers. “Strangers in the Landscape” documents the development of the interactive on-screen keyboards featured in Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, which allow users to match Hebrew characters on a keyboard to those on the page. Following a project’s design from concept to product, Blickhan, Granger, Noordin, and Rother discuss the process of developing tools for research and engagement. They find that balancing humanistic and technical inquiry within a project collaboration requires us to think about the relationship between design and data.

What happens after the crowdsourcing process is complete? “Data’s Destinations” explores crowdsourced transcription data’s management and dissemination, noting the challenges of contextualizing and publishing these data within traditional content management systems. Van Hyning and Jones provide a brief history of crowdsourced transcription in the humanities, and review three case studies of projects working towards integrating these outputs into public record.

While the feature articles highlight the work of project teams to support these efforts, this issue’s snippets shed light on the public who take part in these crowdsourcing projects. In “Creating & Recreating Virtual Community on Douglass Day”, members of the Colored Conventions Project team share the lessons learned in pivoting to new audiences and engagement in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. “Serendipity in the Cairo Geniza” tackles one fragment from Scribes from two perspectives: that of a graduate student and a crowdsourcing volunteer. Dudley and Reader bring their own unique expertise to this corpus, and take us on their parallel research journeys.

To be a crowdsourcing scribe is to understand one’s role in this larger research and engagement process—to be a part of the data we collect and create. We hope this issue highlights the space for analysis and discussion within community-engaged scholarship, and the possibilities for new avenues of discovery, access, and management that this methodology makes possible.

—Emily Esten

skip to featured content

This piece is about making in support of making. It is about projects born from myriad goals that gather new objectives along their lifecycle, through evaluation and iteration.

“Strangers in the Landscape”: On Research Development and Making Things for Making

  • Samantha Blickhan
  • Will Granger
  • Shaun A. Noordin
  • Becky Rother
10.5281/zenodo.5750679

snippets

Creating and Recreating Virtual Community on Douglass Day
  • Justin Smith
  • Courtney Murray
  • Jim Casey
Serendipity in the Cairo Geniza
  • Matthew Dudley
  • Steffy Reader

credits

Guest Editor Emily Esten

Editor Grant Wythoff

Technical Lead Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Technical Kevin McElwee

UX Designer Gissoo Doroudian

Manuscript Editing Camey VanSant