To use the University Library in Cambridgewhere the manuscripts are housed, you will need a reader’s pass. Access to the manuscripts, however, will also need a stated reason. For full details over access to the library and its various holdings consult the library webpages.
The content is of course very important, but the manuscripts are evidence in their own right. Manuscripts are also important in themselves as to what they can tell us about who copied it and why, and about how they viewed the content through the way it is presented.
The best way to learn to read manuscripts is through practice. Becoming used to handwriting and styles is all part of the experience of reading, and the only way is to work with the manuscripts. In addition to reading the handwriting, you should also learn about the codicology, including the significance of the size of the manuscript, the material it is made of, and its relation to other manuscripts. To read more on this see World of Manuscripts.
Digitisation has a number of advantages. It preserves the manuscript in that the image provides a picture of the manuscript even if in the future the ink fades. It also allows scholars from anywhere in the world to consult the manuscript without their needing to travel to Cambridge. Finally, it allows the comparison of manuscripts in different locations, as now the images can be brought together on your desktop when before they could never be placed side by side. Read more about the digitisation plans under World of Manuscripts.
Transcriptions are very helpful, but sometimes represents a scholar’s interpretation of what can be read where the legibility is poor or where similar letters are ambiguous. By consulting the manuscript you can make your own judgement regarding the reading.
Scholarly reconstructions of historical periods or even the content of ancient sources are only reliable as far as their primary sources are reliable. Paying attention to those primary sources will allow you to evaluate each one on its own terms. You will be able to judge what the source says, how clear the actual text is, and its place within the wider picture. By examining the primary sources you will be in a stronger position to critique the secondary discussions.
The manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah collection in the University Library have survived thanks to the work of Charles Taylor and Solomon Schechter. The story of the discovery of the manuscript and their arrival in Cambridge is explained in the World of Manuscripts.
For help about visiting the collections, consult the library webpage.
For more on Hebrew manuscripts, consult C. Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: University Press, 2002).
For the Cairo Genizah, see A. Hoffman and P. Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Jewish Encounters; Schocken, 2011) and S. Reif, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo: The History of Cambridge University’s Genizah Collection (Richmond: Curzon, 2000).