Oxbridge jointly acquire manuscript collection

Oxford and Cambridge have raised £1.2 million in an unprecedented joint fundraising appeal to acquire the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection from the United Reform Church’s Westminster College.

The collection is comprised of 1760 Hebrew and Arabic manuscript fragments that date between the 9th and 19th centuries. The Bodleian Library press release states, “[the fragments] represent an invaluable record of a thousand years of the religious, social, economic and cultural life of the Mediterranean world.”

Oxford and Cambridge’s individual collections already hold the majority of the Genizah fragments. Accordingly, Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Bodleian Library’s Hebraica and Judaica Curator, notes, “any collections that can be added will complement what is already there, sometimes quite literally, i.e. fragments can be joined together that used to be together.”

Moreover, Westminster College’s Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection contained the largest group of Genizah fragments that has come up on the open market for decades. Merchan-Hamann stated, “it is quite unlikely another collection of the same size will be offered again in the near future.”

The joint fundraiser between Oxford and Cambridge arose from the contacts between their two libraries, both of which were offered the Collection when it was put on sale. Merchan-Hamann observed, “[Westminster College] was aware of the collection’s importance and was determined that if at all possible it should stay in the UK and not be dispersed.”

The Polonksy Foundation also donated £500,000 towards Oxford and Cambridge’s acquisition of the Genizah fragments, on the condition that the collection must be digitized and made freely available to the general public. This ran in tandem with Oxford and Cambridge’s policies towards their acquisitions

Merchan-Hamann explained how the present co-ownership ensures that “researchers at either institution are able to physically examine any fragments held by the other”.

A graduate student from St Cross College reported, “I am pleased to see the two traditional rivals join sides to preserve the collection within the UK.”

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Another St Cross graduate similarly stated, “the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection seems to be a unique historical artefact and it would have been a real shame to split it up. It is great to see that Oxford and Cambridge have worked together to co-administer the collection and, in essence, keep it in one piece.”