Folk Lit of the Sephardic Jews

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library has added a multimedia archive of Judeo-Spanish ballads and other oral literature to its digital humanities collection.  The Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews database is the largest online collection of Sephardic and Hispanic folk literature in the world, and is now available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The unique collection of oral folk literature was developed over four decades through the collective efforts of University of California colleagues Samuel Armistead and Joseph Silverman, and the ethnomusicologist Israel J. Katz.  From 1998 to 2003, Professor Armistead, the custodian of the collection and one of the world’s foremost scholars of medieval Spanish literature, worked with Bruce Rosenstock, associate professor in the Department of Religion at Illinois, to digitize, transcribe, and create a website for nearly 2,500 fully-edited transcription files with associated audio files through a multi-year, half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation Digital Library Initiative.

“In all, our Sephardic collection now embodies just under 1,500 ballad texts, representing some 190 different narrative types, sung or recited by Sephardic Jews from Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Israel, and Morocco,” said Professor Armistead.  “The collection also includes abundant examples of other traditional genres: lyric poetry, folktales, proverbs, and riddles.”

“This collection of digitized and transcribed tapes made during 40 years of ethnographic fieldwork is one of the most extraordinary treasures not only of Judeo-Spanish culture, but of Hispanic culture in general. The fact that an oral tradition of folk ballads could persist for, in some cases, nearly a millennium is simply amazing,” said Professor Rosenstock.  “I am extremely proud to have been a part of making this cultural treasure accessible to scholars and the wider public for coming generations, and I am immensely grateful to the University of Illinois Library for giving it a permanent home.”

The software development and hosting of the digital library is provided by the University Library, and this resource is sustained as part of the Library’s Scholarly Commons services.  The Scholarly Commons serves the emerging needs of faculty, researchers, and graduate students at Illinois pursuing in-depth research and scholarly initiative.

“The original effort to produce the Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews Database was immense, and its value to scholars is unquestionable,” said Sarah Shreeves, coordinator, Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship (IDEALS). “The Library has been very happy to work with Professor Rosenstock to ensure a permanent and stable home. This is the type of collaboration with faculty that the Scholarly Commons wants to foster as much as possible.”

Visit to access the Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews database.  In addition, the Scholarly Commons website is located at .

Do you have a story you’d like added to the Library News & Events? If so, please contact Heather Murphy ( ).

Updated on