Mapping and Making the News

How our curiosity about a 200 year old ledger sparked broader interest about how libraries sell off items

About a month ago, a friend of HaMapah notified us via our Facebook page that a document that may be of great interest to us had just gone up for auction. I took a look, and, indeed, it’s just the sort of thing that provides the sort of information we are gathering through our Responsa Mapping project and through the Prenumeranten project. The document in question is the pinkas (ledger) of an emissary (shada”r, or sheluha de-rabanan) from the Jewish community of Tiberias to collect funds in western Europe.

I looked at the images and other files uploaded by the auctioneer, Genazym, and was utterly enthralled. The emissary, Israel Hayyim Raphael Segre, visited hundreds of communities, and each donor signed his or her name to the pinkas. Several leading rabbis signed, including R. Akiva Eger, a fact that drove the price of the item up to $200,000! This also makes the document a valuable historical resource. The study of travel, fundraising networks, and, more generally, the geography of Jewish history is in its infancy, and these sorts of pinkasim will be an important resource as this field develops.

Curiosity piqued, I went into the NLI catalogs to see what else I could find. I was somewhat surprised to find that the very manuscript on auction was already cataloged, microfilmed, digitized, and available on KTIV. Even more surprising, it had apparently been part of the JTS collection. This sparked a tweet thread:

The thread generated interest and discussion, and it eventually turned into an excellent article for JTA, by Asaf Shalev. It really gets into the deaccession practices of various libraries, especially JTS, and the calls for greater transparency in the process. Over the past week, lots of folks have reached out about it and commented to me about it privately, even folks without much interest in this field. In truth, I wouldn’t have found what I found without the HaMapah community.

Since the pinkas is digitized, and the list of cities visited was uploaded by Genazym, I’d like to try to map the route in full. Some of these places we have not encountered before, including southern German hamlets like the ones where my grandfather and his ancestors were born. Once we convert the PDF posted into a spreadsheet and look up the places, we will see about mapping the full route. I think that would be pretty cool.