On May 26th, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, a popular Israeli news outlet, released a full-length article focused on the Samaritan Archive project, a collaborative endeavor lead by two U.S. researchers and universities: Dr. Jim Ridolfo of the University of Cincinnati (UC) and Dr. William Hart-Davidson of Michigan State University (MSU).
The article contained an extensive interview with Ridolfo, who is studying the Samaritan people’s attitudes towards the circulation of their books through a Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Fulbright fellowship. The Fulbright is split between the West Bank Fulbright program and the Israel Fulbright program, due to the fact that the Samaritan people live half in the Palestinian Authority, West Bank and half in Israel. Ridolfo talked about how he became interested in the Samaritan Archives during his time as a graduate student at MSU and how that initial interest grew into the dynamic and internationally acclaimed project it is today.
The Samaritan Archives project seeks to digitize thousands of ancient, sacred Samaritan texts and make them available to the Samaritan community that produced them. You may ask why, if the texts are Samaritan in origin, they are not already available to the Samaritan people. The answer is rooted in the Samaritan’s complex and chaotic past. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Samaritan people faced a growing state of poverty. To counter this, they sold their ancient texts and manuscripts to foreign collectors in exchange for monetary goods.
One of these foreign collectors was a Michigan industrialist and philanthropist named Edward Warren. He bought a number of ancient manuscripts that were later donated to MSU by his children. It is these papers that have now become known as the Samaritan Archives.
In the Haaretz article, Ridolfo focuses on how this digitization effort has a strong user-experience component that goes along with it. The goal of this project is not just to make an online repository of Samaritan texts for scholarly purposes, but to create a digital tool that current Samaritans can use to reconnect with their ancient texts and culture. This could eventually include things like Facebook tools, websites, and cell-phone applications. The article focuses on the novelty of this approach saying, “This is an innovative approach that places an emphasis on the users of digitized data— in this case, the Samaritan community— while the project is being planned and designed.”
The Samaritan Archives project is another example of MATRIX’s commitment to digitizing endangered texts, designing user-centered interfaces, and building international partnerships. We are encouraged and excited that this work is being recognized by international news media and hope to engage in many more of these projects in the future. Says Ridolfo of his experiences in Israel, “I’m confident that the work I’ve done here will help make the ongoing grant work with MSU MATRIX and MSU WIDE that much more rewarding for the Samaritans. I’ve collected data that shows how such a cultural-digital infrastructure will matter to the lives of community members.”
To learn more about the Samaritan Archives, please read the Haaretz article (in both Hebrew and English), visit Jim Ridolfo’s personal website, or check out other international media that has also focused on this story— including the A.B. Samaritan news, the Samaritan’s only newspaper. Also, be on the lookout for Digital Samaritans, Ridolfo’s upcoming book on the Samaritan Archives project.