How to read manuscript numbers
Reading manuscript numbers is easy, once you know the standard abbreviations.1 Take for example:
BL Ms. Or. 5024
which means British Library manuscript Oriental 5024, or literally, at least at some point in history, the 5,024th handwritten book on the shelf in the “Oriental” collection of the British Library in London, UK. This is called a shelfmark.
After the manuscript number, you may have a folio number, like f. 3v (sometimes abbreviated fol., or ff. for multiple folios). This tells you exactly on what page to find a passage. Since we’re talking about manuscript pages, we’re referring here to both sides of a sheet of paper sewn into the book’s binding. Each folio has a verso (front) side and a recto (back) side, as do many Jewish books modeled on manuscripts, like the Vilna daf of Talmud. Daf just means folio (and vice versa) and v is the same as an “a” (or “.”) page and r a “b” (or “:”) page.
Keep in mind that many manuscripts bind together a number of different works, so sometimes the folio numbers tell you where in the manuscript to find the entire thing we’d call a book today.
How to look up a manuscript
Once you know where your manuscript actually is (the technical term for its whereabouts is provenance) you can go to the library page of that institution and look it up, though you don’t need to do that anymore, because now we have Ktiv, on which, see the next section. But theoretically, once you know the shelfmark, you can look up a manuscript directly through the library catalog, similar to the way you’d look up any book. You will probably need to specifically find the rare book or manuscript division, then enter the shelfmark according to their system. So, to use the same example from the British Library, you would go to their main page, navigate to one of the catalogs (such as this one or this one) and type in Or 5024 (or select in the drop-down menu), which will get you to the manuscript cataloging information and digitized leaves from the manuscript. Some digitized manuscripts are free to download and copy and others aren’t. The catalog page should say.
Where to find manuscripts online
Today, the absolute easiest and best way to look up specifically Jewish manuscripts is through the Ktiv database, which is a project of the National Library of Israel (NLI). The NLI has a microfilm collection2 that aims to cover all Jewish manuscripts in all the various libraries around the world. In its 21st century incarnation, this massive collection has become an online, searchable catalog that will give you cataloging data about the manuscripts all in one interface, and a link to the library that owns the item. If the manuscript is digitized, in whole or in part, it will be linked there as well.
Another site to know, for fragments from the Cairo Genizah, is the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society. You need to register to use it, but registration is open and free, to the best of my knowledge. If you’ve never looked at a manuscript before, try searching for the Passover Haggadah on Friedberg and you’ll see many examples that you can read off the page, if you read basic Hebrew. There’s also a citizen science project, Scribes of the Cairo Genizah, for the public to transcribe genizah fragments, for which you don’t need any prior knowledge.
What to do with unfamiliar scripts (handwriting)
If you know the basic topic and the language of the manuscript, you can make yourself a handwriting key. Pick a chunk of text you recognize and write out the way the scribe forms each letter. It takes some getting used to, but after a little while you get used to reading it, just like learning Rashi script, if you’ve done that.3
Why you’d want to look up a manuscript
You might want to follow up on an interesting reference in something you’re reading.
You might want to check your printed text against a manuscript version. Often Jewish books have been published in editions of variable quality, many of which date to the early centuries of mechanical printing. (Or, they have been published in outstanding editions that are inaccessible to the vast majority of people without institutional access to specialized publications.)
Of those manuscripts that survive, there are many, many manuscripts that have never been published, let alone digitized. You might want to find treasures that are sitting around waiting to be read and brought back to life!
Even if all you do is look up a manuscript in the library catalog, you can find out really interesting information from the cataloging notes, which once upon a time lived in large, often hand-typed volumes that themselves were stored in rare book rooms. You will sometimes see other numbers next to manuscript numbers, which are generally either catalog entry numbers or microfilm numbers.
Major collections of Jewish manuscripts
|NLI||National Library of Israel||Jerusalem, Israel||[see Ktiv database]|
|Vat||Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (I actually prefer their old-school interface here)||Vatican City, Rome, Italy||ebr. = ebraico (Hebrew)|
|BNF||Bibliothèque nationale de France||Paris, France||héb. = hébreu (Hebrew)|
|Bodl.||Bodleian Library||Oxford, UK||Heb. = Hebrew;|
Poc. = Pococke;
Hunt. = Huntington
|CUL or Camb||Cambridge University Library||Cambridge, UK||Add. = Additional;|
Taylor-Shechter Genizah fragments
|BL||British Library||London, UK||Or. = Oriental;|
Add. = Additional
|Parm||Biblioteca Palatina||Parma, Italy||ebr. = ebraico = Hebrew|
|Munich||Bayerische Staatsbibliothek||Munich, Germany||Cod. hebr. = Hebrew codices|
|Ost. or ON||Österreichische Nationalbibliothek||Vienna, Austria||Hebr. = Hebrew|
|JTS||Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary||New York, NY, USA|
- There’s a chart below. Scholars can get away with using annoyingly cryptic shorthand for referring to manuscripts because there aren’t actually all that many collections of manuscripts in the world. So everyone can know that Bodl. means the the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, BNF means Bibliothèque nationale de France, and so on. Actually, once you start poking around, it’s not hard to memorize which collections live in which institution (like, say, the Tay-Shech collection at Cambridge) and even what these collections used to be called if they were called something else in the past (usually the name of some wealthy person who owned them in their personal library). However, the learning curve can be off-putting if you want to follow a reference, which is unfortunate, because it’s not a complicated system at all.
- Microfilm, if you’re not familiar with it or its cousin, microfiche, is an old-school way of making mass copies of archival materials. It’s literally a film rolled up like an old cassette tape but without the case, and you magnify it on a special machine that will make you nauseous faster than a roller coaster.
- Rashi script is simply a printed form of Sefardic semi-cursive handwriting favored by early printers because it’s compact and takes up less space on the page.