Recycling Books Digitally

by | in Books

If you can’t find the old sefer you are looking for at your local beit midrash, try Starbucks.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be Starbucks, unless you need a caffeine buzz to help you through a difficult text. Through the cutting-edge work of HebrewBooks.org, you can now access a growing number of Torah works for free, anyplace with Wi-Fi service. With airports (Ben Gurion now, LAX at the end of the year) and even entire cities offering free wireless Internet connectivity, the day will soon be upon us when all the Torah works one could ask for will be available through the Internet, practically any place on the globe.

Chaim Rosenberg is to old books what John Muir was to the Sierra Club. Chaim (Jewish Action readers will remember him from the summer 2001 issue) labors to insure that the work of a vast number of Torah scholars will be recognized, preserved and properly utilized. He is not compensated for this, but works full-time as a supervising speech pathologist for the New York City Board of Education. His conservation work was jump-started by some soul who dumped boxes of sefarim in a shul, and to his dismay, Chaim could find no one who wanted them. It didn’t take long to learn that the authors of those works had often scrimped and saved and spent their last pennies on publishing Torah works that few people in their far-flung communities across early-twentieth-century America ever read. These books were written at a time when hardly anyone appreciated them. Without consciously willing it, Chaim became the preservationist of old Torah, first offering scores of American titles on a CD (later expanded to two) for just the cost of shipping. He later (and still does) offered one of the best bargains in Torah software: hundreds of responsa works on two DVDs, which he sells for $36. Hundreds of talmidei chachamim here and in Israel have made this an indispensable workhorse tool.

That was a good deal, but he just came up with a better one. He went from offering hundreds of titles to offering 11,000, and he reduced the price to zero. Through the support of the Ryzman and the Friedberg families, from Los Angeles and Toronto respectively, Chaim has been able to scan thousands of older works and offer them on the Web. Moreover, he has worked with the leaders in Hebrew optical character recognition (OCR), so that scanned works are searchable, with more titles added all the time. You will find all of this at http://hebrewbooks.org/, including comprehensive instructions on how to search by using the “Support” option.

Chaim is still a protector of endangered species, so he first turned to lesser-known works, generally using 1950 as the upper cut-off point, and concentrated on saving works that would otherwise be lost.

He deliberately avoided the titles that were commonly available. Many of the titles, therefore, will not be familiar even to those who are at home with Torah texts. He also includes at least the partial output of close to 150 distinct Torah journals. He realizes the potency of his project (in a few years, the PDAs we are all beginning to carry will have the speed and clarity of today’s desktops) in putting all of Torah at everyone’s fingertips. One of his goals, therefore, is to add the standard works that are most often used, which will make the site a one-stop location for Torah material. He estimates that buying the rights to those works and scanning them could be done for about $25,000.

Meanwhile, the preservationist work continues apace. Chaim anticipates adding 1,500 to 2,000 new works this year alone, and 4,000 by the end of two years. The most daunting task is not in the scanning but in teaching computers to read Hebrew. Standard OCR technology has gotten better over the years, although using it still requires some manual correction of mistakes. Applying it to Hebrew, especially old Hebrew fonts—adds a new wrinkle. What we call Rashi script became popular largely because printers could cram more letters on a line. That was good for pre-modern printers, but bad for your eyesight and even worse for OCR programs. Letters often bleed through to each other, or show cracks and gaps. Chaim must often “teach” the computer a new set of rules for each new work he scans. The method is simple but laborious. He searches for strong, intact specimens of each letter of the Aleph Bet (including not-so-common end forms), and makes them the model for that volume. Finding them, which must be done manually, takes time. Depending on the integrity of the text, OCR accuracy can vary from thirty percent to above ninety percent.

Applying OCR to text has expanded the storage space of each Torah volume by a factor of three. It has therefore also increased download time. Chaim’s workaround is to offer all 11,000 volumes pre-loaded on a hard drive, which he sells at cost for $300. The access time for data stored on a local hard drive is a fraction, of course, of the download time from the web site. The hard drive is also updateable as more texts are added. For young students who cannot come up with the money all at once, he will ship for $25 down, the balance to be paid by automatic billing of a credit card.

Chaim admits to having been a bibliophile well before he witnessed the ignominious book drop that turned his head. He hopes to soon spread his enthusiasm—as well as traffic to his site—through launching podcast interviews with other book lovers talking about the world of Jewish books. While computers are seen in some circles as the death knell to published text, Chaim is using them to give new life to books that had lain dormant, or were threatened with extinction. He estimates that there are about 24,000 unique titles that still need to be preserved, and 100,000 alternate editions of those works that also may contain important material.

Endangered animal species often have to be distanced from humans to allow them to survive. Chaim has found the way to have computers preserve endangered texts precisely by bringing them into the sphere of human use.

Don’t Take It with You
It’s hard to beat free, but the next best thing is a super-bargain. Membership in a another online service provides a great deal to those who either can’t afford to buy all the excellent Torah library collections, don’t want to risk carrying them along on the road or need access to them at multiple locations. These collections—such as Bar-Ilan, DBS, Soncino and the new edition of Encyclopaedia Judaica—are all accessible for a very modest annual fee through Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. You can sign up at http://spertus.edu/supportspertus/membership.php ($20 for one year, $35 for two). You will receive a password and log-in name by e-mail, and after installing a utility download, you’re set.

Unlike HebrewBooks, which went for quantity, and therefore relied on scanning alone, Spertus offers the major Torah collections that have been digitally entered. Scanned text cannot be cut and pasted. You can print out out a page or a whole work, but to incorporate a line or a paragraph into another document, you need access to the older software packages. Spertus puts all of those gold-standard collections within the reach of everyone, and allows them to be put through all the paces for which they were designed.

Speed Up Your Rabbi
While Internet services continue to brag about lightning-fast download times, some things refuse to speed up. Some of our best Torah presenters speak slowly and deliberately, frequently punctuating their discourse with pregnant pauses. Some peripatetic commuters are driven to distraction by the pace. They want those Torah words to zip by as quickly as the supercharged convertible in the next lane on the expressway. At last, there is an electronic remedy—at least for recorded shiurim. The Samsung T-9 MP3 player has a variable speed feature, like some of the old cassette tape players did. If the presentation is going just a bit too slow for your taste, you can speed it up just enough not to have your mind wander, while still taking in every word.

At the time of this writing, there is still no known remedy for rabbis who speak too slowly in shul.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein drinks lots of coffee between jobs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Loyola Law School and the editorial board of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2007.

Leave a Comment