Who are the #GenizaScribes?

By Emily Esten, Judaica DH Coordinator at Penn Libraries

Who are the #GenizaScribes, the thousands of volunteers who participate in Scribes of the Cairo Geniza? As we move forward with our project, we decided to ask the #GenizaScribes community questions to learn how we can best support and grow our volunteer base.

Our goals were to:

  • Identify the current demographic of #GenizaScribes
  • Understand participant motivation in the project
  • Receive feedback about the project

The survey was open from Tuesday, December 12, 2019 through Monday, January 13, 2020, and available only through direct email via Zooniverse. Thus, only volunteers who had registered with Zooniverse, participated in the project at least once, and have not opted out of receiving project-related emails were eligible to participate. We received 205 survey responses (5% of email recipients, 2% of all participants). All responses listed below are in aggregate, in descending/alphabetical order.

Zooniverse performed a similar study regarding engagement in 2014, from which we borrowed several questions. Zooniverse has grown its user base and expanded its project offerings significantly since that survey, but provides a baseline for how to interpret our responses.

Thank you to those volunteers who completed the survey! As always, you can join us in classifying and transcribing fragments from the Cairo Geniza at scribesofthecairogeniza.org.

*Some entries have been grouped and edited for clarity (ex.: USA, U.S.A., and United States of America all referring to United States of America.)

**This response was removed early on in the survey due to a typing error.


How old are you?

Our community is made up of people of all ages! Due to some typing errors, we realized after the fact that the 60–69 age demographic was entirely missing from our responses. While this may not be completely accurate to our respondents, it gave us a good sense of the age range of participants.

A pie chart of the ages of survey respondents

To which gender identity do you most identify?

Compared to the 2014 survey, our user sample skews female — good work towards achieving gender parity in the Zooniverse! This question was included in the survey as an open-ended question, meaning respondents could describe their gender identity in the way that best fits them.

A pie chart of gender identifies over respondents shows a majority of participants identify as female.

In what country do you currently reside?

The responses also seem to match the 2014 survey, which found significant participation from the United States of America and the United Kingdom. However, we are excited to see representation from 27 different countries around the globe! Our survey results include seven countries that were not represented in the 2014 survey — Austria, Finland, Tanzania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Spain — though we know from the 2015 Zooniverse Global Challenge that the site has global coverage and sees visitors from those countries.

We are particularly excited to see significant engagement from Israel. We know we have had many participants through community engagement efforts by our partners at the University of Haifa. We would like to strengthen our engagement efforts in countries where Arabic is an official or national language, none of which are represented in our survey demographic (outside of Israel).

A pie chart of countries involved highlights the top countries in which survey respondents reside: USA, UK, Canada, Israel, France, Australia, Italy, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Tanzania, The Netherlands, and Argentina.

What is the highest level of education you have completed?

The number of participants who identified as having completed some post-graduate school training was significantly higher than expected. For comparison, educational attainment data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 reported that less than 15% of American adults have a professional degree that required study beyond a four-year bachelor’s course. Combined with the professional data from below, we can infer that many of these positions may require graduate degrees.

95% of #GenizaScribes have had experience in higher education.

What is your employment status?

Over half of our community is employed (either full- or part-time), followed by a significant number of retired volunteers.

A pie chart of the employment status of survey respondents

What is your current (or most recent) profession?

From academics to zoologists, we have a wide range of professionals represented in the #GenizaScribes. The most frequent words in these responses were teacher (15), manager (14), librarian (11), computer (7), and engineer (7).

A word cloud of free-response answers to the question provides an in-depth look at professions of #GenizaScribes

Which languages do you know?

In 2019, we launched our multilingual interfaces in Hebrew and Arabic. 73% of survey respondents identified as Native English speakers, but 36% of all respondents had some knowledge of Hebrew and 14% of volunteers had some knowledge of Arabic. While our engagement with native speakers of Hebrew and Arabic speakers was low in this survey, we plan to continue promoting the project to these linguistic communities.

A column chart notes that the majority of #GenizaScribes are Native English speakers.

We also asked respondents what other languages they know in addition to Arabic, English, and Hebrew. #GenizaScribes are quite the polyglots! In addition to the three languages of our project, 85% of respondents noted basic proficiency in at least one additional language. The top six languages included in these responses were French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, and Russian. Jewish diaspora languages like Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, and Shuadit were also represented in responses. We hope this information could help drive future multilingual crowdsourcing and digital humanities projects.


Where did you hear about our project? (select all that apply)

There are lots of ways people hear about Zooniverse and our project specifically! Knowing that these respondents opened an email from Zooniverse, it seems unsurprising that previous participation in Zooniverse projects led to them joining Scribes of the Cairo Geniza. But we are also glad to hear that our work on social media, press coverage, and public presentations by members of our team have been successful in bringing in new volunteers.

#GenizaScribes are engaged participants in the Zooniverse!

Which workflows have you participated in the project?

The majority of survey respondents have participated in the sorting workflows. This tracks with our site stats, where over 93% of 9,407 volunteers have classified fragments into Hebrew or Arabic script. The sorting workflow is easier and does not require any language proficiency.

Over half of our survey respondents have participated in the transcription workflows at least once, with more transcribing Easy Hebrew fragments than Easy Arabic fragments. This is much higher than our site stats, where 601 volunteers have transcribed Hebrew fragments and 131 volunteers have transcribed Arabic fragments, as of December 20, 2019. But we can expect that those who responded to the survey are more engaged in the project.

Most survey respondents participate in the sorting workflow.

If you have posted in the forums/Talk, which of the words below describe the purpose of your contributions? (select all that apply)

518 volunteers total have participated on the Talk boards — about 5% of our volunteer base overall. A large segment of those volunteers is represented in the survey, often using these social spaces to discuss findings from participation. That makes sense based on our involvement with those spaces, where we answer questions and engage with the research term to learn more about fragments in the project.

A bar chart of purpose of Talk boards contributions shows us that most people want to discuss findings!

Which of the following words describe your view of participating in the Zooniverse? Please select all that apply.

Consistent with the findings of the 2014 survey and a 2009 study exploring the motivations of citizen science volunteers, people want to contribute to progress! Combined with the answers of the following question, volunteers are very interested in the content of this project specifically, and the ability to learn about Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and manuscript collections.

Interest and the desire to contribute drive most #GenizaScribes to participate.

What has been your favorite part of participating in Scribes of the Cairo Geniza?

Respondents shared many personal anecdotes — we have highlighted some of the survey responses below.

“As a novice sofer I was fascinated to see the school book lesson pages, particularly the one with facial doodles...”

“Brushing up on Hebrew, seeing history/research in action!”

“Discovering astounding pieces of texts. Some of them are among the images I use as wallpaper on my computer.”

“Felt great to finally transcribe something — even just one line!”

“Finding ‘doodles’ or little figures along with the text. It’s amazing to see the the corrections or edits of the original scribes. It’s like looking into our ancestors’ minds.”

“I found it very challenging in a good way, it really made me focus on the visuals/structure of the letterforms to attempt to sort accurately.”

“I had read the book Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman so it was exciting to help sort some of the fragments I had read about.”

“I had to leave college before accomplishing my terminal degree, so having the opportunity to contribute in a small way to a project involving papyrus and translation touched on a lifelong dream. My immense gratitude to those who made it possible for me to participate.”

“I love using it in class with my students! It was an easy way for them to feel connected to Jewish history and better understand the everyday of academic research.”

“Learning to distinguish daily life vs “high” versions of the scripts”

“Reading old Hebrew and Aramic and try to figure out what they are speaking about.”

“Reading words written by people a long time ago, and helping document them, possibly contributing to understanding how groups of people created meaning for themselves. And also in a strange way, I liked being immersed in a succession of often quite beautiful images (script).”

“Seeing older (even ancient) texts. Usually I’ve been working on projects with writing/info from the 20th century.”

“Seeing writing from hundreds of years ago and thinking about the people who created those documents — this is such a cool glimpse into their lives”

“…Like most people, I will never handle an ancient piece of writing, only see pictures or film of it. But digitally manipulating these documents and helping scholars eventually interpret them makes me feel a very real connection to the source material, the people who wrote it, and the time they lived in.”


If you have lost interest in Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, please indicate your reason(s) why.

Volunteers being busy, noting project difficulty, and unfamiliar with Hebrew and/or Arabic were the most common factors for leaving the project. We received good feedback about clarifying project goals, providing more assistance with transcription, more regular updates from our team, and ways to optimize the sorting workflow for mobile use. Several volunteers had forgotten about the project over time, and were glad to receive a reminder!


👉 Become one of the #GenizaScribes yourself! Join us in sorting and transcribing Geniza fragments at scribesofthecairogeniza.org!

Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries

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We are the Judaica #DH at the Penn Libraries. Follow us for news and updates on our projects. #judaicadh

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