Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Heidi Lerner's Comments for the Working Group Meeting

Heidi Lerner

Jewish Books and the Academic Library

I was honored to be invited to join the Working Group on the History of the Jewish Book. I am not able to attend AJS this year but have sent in a few words that hopefully will add some perspectives on the relations between academic libraries and the study of the Jewish book. I look forward to continuing and expanding our conversation at next year’s AJS.
Universities and colleges throughout Europe, Israel and North America have collected in their libraries and made accessible Jewish books since the 1700s. They hired and retained specially trained staff that selected materials, and developed classification, indexing and cataloging methods to organize these items systematically. Catalogs of these institutions reflect the holdings that support the study of Jewish religion, history, society, politics, languages, culture and literature.
During the past two decades rapidly evolving electronic and information technologies have been and are actively changing scholarly research in Jewish Studies. The current and new generations of Jewish Studies scholars and academics must be prepared for these changes or face the consequences of not keeping up with them. University libraries as repositories and Jewish Studies librarians, as information specialists are uniquely equipped to help scholars integrate traditional and new resources into their research methodologies.
Jewish Studies scholars have traditionally relied on printed or paper-based tools to carry out their research. Electronic versions of our textual legacy are becoming increasingly important. Previous decades saw the appearance of digital literary collections on CD-ROM. Today, universities, libraries, archives, and other institutions and organizations are digitizing print versions of Judaica-related books and mounting them on the web. These collections contain searchable or non-searchable images from printed editions, or keyed-in digital texts. Some notable examples emanating from university libraries are the Yiddish Prints Collection at the Universitatsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main, the Jewish National and University Library Digitized Book Repository, the University of Pennsylvania/Cambridge Genizah Fragment Project and the Bibliotheca Rosenthalia’s holdings of works by Manasseh ben Israel. Academic librarians have been the main ones in their institutions who decide which texts get digitized or consult with faculty on selecting bodies of materials for electronic preservation and dissemination. Of course mass digitization projects undertaken by companies such as Google are taking the decision-making out of the hands of librarians and faculty in participating institutions, except for where rare or very fragile materials are concerned. Librarians also determine how access to internal and external collections of digital materials is made available to their university library patrons.
Scholars and other individuals are turning to digital technologies to create new editions of classic texts and also “digitally born” editions of new books. Zachary Baker, Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford University has recently accessioned into the Stanford University Libraries collection and had cataloged for its library online catalog: the “Ladino Digital Library”, a corpus of new electronic editions of printed Ladino texts and the “Zohar Pritzker edition, Aramaic Text Online.” Also recently “added” to the Stanford library’s collections is “Rabanim She-nisifu Ba-Sho’ah”, an electronic text written and published on the Internet in 2007 in an HTML format by Peninah Maizlish. The catalog records for these items have also been added to OCLC WorldCat which is becoming a de-facto union catalog for printed and electronic Judaica and Hebraica texts.
Universities continue to collect and scholars continue to use printed books. Stanford adds approximately 60,000 new printed volumes to its collections each year. University libraries receive regular and ongoing acquisitions from vendors in the area of Jewish Studies based on selection profiles developed by bibliographers who understand and anticipate the research needs of their institution’s faculty and students. Jewish Studies librarians are always on the lookout for specialized textual materials which make a university’s Judaica and Hebraica collections even more unique. Stanford has acquired in recent years, the Eliasaf Robinson Collection on Tel Aviv, a heterogeneous body of printed works (books, journals, posters and other ephemera), archival documents and pictorial materials on the founding and early history of Tel Aviv, and the historic Hebrew Library of Copenhagen's Jewish community.
But with the ongoing acquisition of physical items, university libraries are under increasing pressure to find ways to store their holdings and to make room for new materials. In many cases they are building onsite and offsite high-density storage facilities to accommodate growing print collections. Librarians must come up with the best strategies and solutions to buffer the expectations and needs of faculty and students against the requirements of university administrations.
The role of the university library and librarians in supporting and providing access to Judaica and Hebraica textual materials in a variety of formats is crucial. They are uniquely placed to think about and decide how and where users can access library collections, monitor the use of these collections, decide what is and is not collected, think about how and where these materials are stored, how much cataloging and indexing is provided, and how and what to preserve within library collections.
Thank you for allowing me to add these few words. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me at any time.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Summary of Working Group meeting in Toronto

As promised, here is a report on our meeting in Toronto at the Association for Jewish Studies conference.

Our chair, Joe Davis (Gratz College), was snowed out, so we chaired ourselves, as it were. I began by describing how the meeting had come about. At a conference on the Jewish book at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2006, David Stern (University of Pennsylvania) had lamented the lack of institutional frameworks for the study of Jewish books. At the time, Joe Davis, David Stern, and I talked a little about organizing something to promote the field. Before this year's AJS call for papers deadline, Hindy Najman (Toronto), Jeremy Stolow (McMaster), and Heidi Lerner (Stanford) joined the discussion, and this lunch-time meeting was the result.

David Stern then spoke about some of the problems and prospects for the field, noting very few opportunities to study Hebrew bibliography and codicology. He also pointed out the advantages of using material texts in pedagogy.

Hindy Najman then spoke from the perspective of a scholar of Judaism in late antiquity and discussed the issue of the "book" in a pre-book culture. On the one hand, she pointed out that medieval and early modern studies generate interesting questions about the role of written texts that can be used to interrogate and investigate the ancient period. She also pointed out that books seemed to have played a role in the Jewish imagination before physical books (codices) were used.

Jeremy Stolow spoke from the perspective of someone in communication studies focusing on the question of the role of the medium. He pointed out the ways in which communication scholars research not only the means of production and transmission of texts, but also the interaction of the "end-user" with the medium.

I spoke from my perspective as a cultural and intellectual historian, focused on early modern Jews and pointed out the importance of integrating the study of books as both texts and material objects into more general historical research. While many in Jewish studies have examined the materiality of books to assess the "reliability" of the texts inside, I suggested that we need to not only look at what's inside, but also at the vessel (cf. Mishnah Avot 4:20).

I also summarized remarks by Heidi Lerner (who could not be in Toronto). Her remarks were from the point of view of a librarian and she emphasized the role of academic libraries in mediating access to texts in both electronic and paper forms. She emphasized the importance of digital resources in research and teaching but also the continued relevance of printed materials.

After this remarks, the discussion turned toward practical steps that might be taken in the future to promote the study of the "Jewish book."

(This blog was one of the suggestions.)

David Kraemer (of the Jewish Theological Seminary) was going to join the meeting to discuss a new journal, "Quntress: An Online Journal for the History, Art, and Culture of the Jewish Book." He could not be at the meeting but we discussed this journal and the important contribution it is expected to make to the field.

Miriam Bodian (Touro College) suggested that someone propose a review essay to AJS Review or another journal laying out the state of the field.

Many participants expressed an interest in planning sessions on the Jewish book at the Association for Jewish Studies and other meetings.

Susan Einbinder (Hebrew Union College) pointed out that there are sessions devoted to the history of the book at the annual Congress on Medieval Studies held at Kalamazoo every May. Those interested in participating in those sessions should contact her.

Another venue discussed was the American Academy of Religion. The coordinators of the Study of Judaism section are Aryeh Cohen (American Jewish University) and Martin Kavka (Florida State University). Those interested in proposing a session on the history of the Jewish book at AAR should contact them.

Finally, Vivian Mann (JTS) and Jane Trigere (independent scholar) both reminded the group to focus on decorative and aesthetic aspects of Jewish books, Jane Trigere suggested that we bring into the conversation people who make books as well as those who study them.

That's a rough summary of the meeting. No formal action was taken--no constitutions were drawn up, nobody was elected to anything, etc. I volunteered to create a blog and post this summary.

The blog is here to facilitate discussion and action. Use the comments as you see fit.

Also feel free to send me announcements or remarks suitable for separate posts--calls for papers, announcements of programs and events, etc.

Respectfully submitted,

Adam Shear