Old Media, New Media: Librarians and Archivists Reflect

For the Forum section of AJS Perspectives we asked librarians and archivists working in the field of Jewish Studies to reflect on how their work has been transformed by new media in the last decade and what they have found to be the most challenging and/or most exciting recent developments in this regard.

University of Washington

Sephardic Studies Program at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington
Brochure cover of the Sephardic Studies Program at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington.
In 2016, I received an email from a woman named Linda in South Africa with Sephardic Jewish roots on the island of Rhodes. “I speak a very broken Ladino and would love to learn more,” she wrote. She began to explore our online learning tools, such as Sephardic Hebrew cursive (soletreo) tutorial videos. We benefitted just as much: she shared with us the only surviving copy of a Ladino translation of High Holiday prayers composed by the last chief rabbi of Rhodes and published, unexpectedly, in Romania. To bring this new discovery to a broader audience, I composed a digital essay highlighting the book and its miraculous trajectory over the past century—from Romania to Rhodes, evading the Holocaust, to South Africa, and digitally, to Seattle. Through Facebook and Twitter, this article quickly garnered readers from our “followers” in forty-five countries. The transnational journey of the text concluded with global online open access.

Since its inception four years ago, the Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies has leveraged its website and social media to curate the history and language of a set of communities long operating in analog and largely overlooked by the broader field of Jewish Studies. New media have empowered us to showcase the Sephardic experience through texts, music, and videos before a global audience. Sephardic Jews were once one of the least accessible world cultures online. Our efforts have contributed to exposing the historical, cultural, and literary worlds of the Sephardic Jews to the attention of students, scholars, and community members worldwide.

With more than 1,200 Ladino language artifacts—books, newspapers, manuscripts, and personal correspondence—acquired through local and international crowdsourcing, our program has digitized more than 133,000 pages of material, a selection of which is already online. Recognizing that the languages and historical contexts of our artifacts are not well known, we strategically curate “Sephardic treasures” in digital essays to make them approachable for our audiences. Rather than wait for them to be discovered, we actively pursue social media campaigns to draw attention to them. As a result, some of our “treasures” have been integrated into Jewish Studies syllabi and dissertation research, translated into five languages, highlighted in documentary films and museum exhibitions, and reproduced in award-winning books.

If a goal of new media is to reduce distance between people and increase access in a global age, the Sephardic experience—which spans Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Africa, and beyond—is primed for a digital revolution. Through our curation and dissemination of previously difficult-to-access materials, our Sephardic Studies Program seeks to give voice to a slice of the Jewish experience that until now was just a whisper.

Ty Alhadeff is the research coordinator, archivist, librarian, blogger, and social media strategist for the Sephardic Studies Program at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, University of Washington. Ty received his BA degree from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Duke University

The most significant change in the library and in the librarian’s work in the past ten years has been the huge expansion of digital media. While a decade ago we already had online catalogs, databases, and websites and used personal computers for our daily work, much of the librarian’s work was still done in a traditional way. Book publishers sent their print catalogs in the mail, and librarians ordered books title by title. Dozens of print newspapers and journals were displayed on shelves in a central area of the library, a place popular among readers. The reference desk was busy with students asking for advice and assistance as they were searching for sources. Students and faculty alike still used the reference collection of encyclopedias, dictionaries, lexicons, all in printed book format.

Today, in addition to every student carrying his own laptop, most professors and all students walk around with a smartphone that grants them immediate access to every online source, as well as many other forms of Internet communication. Yet this ability to search and find material on one’s own, anywhere, creates difficulties in finding and selecting the right material within the seemingly infinite quantity and diversity of online information.

Our library still receives some printed academic journals that are not available electronically, yet the shelves that house them have moved from the main floor to the basement and use has very much declined. In all disciplines, in science, social studies, and humanities, digital representation of journal articles has replaced the paper format. Scholars and students have direct access to discovery tools, but the number of journals and articles available online has become enormous, with multiple ways of access. One of the most important roles of the librarian nowadays is to support and teach our patrons what the discovery tools are and how to use them. The abundance and variety of options is overwhelming, and learning to find and select the best resources is the challenge facing scholars and students.

The digital revolution has also brought e-books to the library. Gloomy expectations predicting the imminent disappearance of the printed book have not materialized. Digital publications have not replaced printed ones, and our readers want and use both formats. Librarians still maintain and manage collections that are now composed of both physical and digital material.

The advancement of the Internet and the World Wide Web enabled the development of one of the more exciting concepts in today’s scholarly world: open access. Providing unrestricted access, without financial or legal barriers, via the Internet, to peer-reviewed scholarly research allows anyone who is interested to benefit from new scholarly work. Academic libraries serve as open access repositories for scholarly works created by faculty and students and thus support the dissemination of knowledge beyond the academic world.

The expansion of digital media has transformed the work of scholars and librarians alike. The old tasks have not gone away—subject knowledge is still prized as are librarians’ skills in finding and evaluating information. But the digital world has opened up new possibilities and challenged us to learn new skills.

Originally from Israel, Rachel Ariel studied History, Political Science, and Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew College in Boston. Upon coming to North Carolina in 1994, Rachel became one of the two founding teachers of the new Jewish Community Day School of Durham-Chapel Hill. Rachel was the director of Jewish Studies at the Lerner School. Since 2006 Rachel serves as the librarian for Judaica and Hebraica at Duke University Libraries.

Stanford University

In my first professional library position I worked as a cataloger. Apart from typing up catalog cards, this entailed assigning the appropriate subject headings and classification numbers, and consulting a gamut of reference works for information on the books’ authors and contributors. The basic principles of cataloging remain the same today, even as methodologies and technical jargon have changed significantly. Yesterday’s catalogers have been transformed into today’s “metadata specialists.”

I still have a folder containing the handouts from the Judaica bibliography course that I audited at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1970s. Each week we discussed the foundational reference works that underpinned the subdisciplines of Jewish Studies: bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, lexicons, concordances, etc. These were all print publications—nary a database or full-text resource among them. They were the backbone of the first syllabus for the Research Methods seminar that I led at Stanford over fifteen years ago. However, experience soon taught me that students—even advanced graduate students—regarded the likes of Shlomo Shunami’s Bibliography of Jewish Bibliographies as irrelevant to their research. To me, this is a loss, but one that is largely compensated for by the democratization of the research process in the online environment.

Indeed, many of the reference works that I once consulted as a cataloger are themselves now accessible online. As a researcher in the field of Yiddish Studies I am grateful for the profusion of indexes and journal databases, as well as for the availability of digitized books, journals, and newspapers, not to mention audio and video resources. Recently, a researcher in Texas sent me an email inquiry in which he commented, “My resources here in Houston are limited.” My response: “You are not as far away as you may think.”

Last year, the editors of the online journal In geveb invited me to compile a multipart research guide, Resources in Yiddish Studies. The guide’s medium is entirely electronic and its listings are hybrid in nature—grouping together by topic, in an integrated manner, print-only, digitized, and born-digital resources. In the process of compiling the research guide, I was able to immerse myself in the continually expanding universe of online resources, and to share this knowledge through a journal that is universally (and freely!) accessible.

Zachary M. Baker, recently retired, was the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections in the Stanford University Libraries (1999–2017), and also had administrative oversight of collection development at Stanford University Libraries (2010–2017). Previously, he served as head librarian of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (1987–1999).

Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles

Crowdsourcing has yielded valuable resources like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, as well as many other endeavors, as Clay Shirkey analyzes in Here Comes Everybody. This new media development also sparked two Jewish Studies projects that have occupied much of my time and thinking over the past decade: a survey of American Jewish language and identity and online dictionaries of distinctive words used by Jews in multiple languages.

In 2008, Steven M. Cohen and I sent a survey invitation to about six hundred friends and colleagues and asked them to forward it to Jews and non-Jews. The survey went viral and eventually yielded over 50,000 responses. This large response enabled us to gain a better understanding of how Americans of various backgrounds understand and use various Yiddish and Hebrew words and other distinctive features, like New York pronunciations and overlapping discourse (see results here and here).

The second crowdsourced project is a series of online dictionaries on www.jewish-languages.org: Jewish English Lexicon, Léxico Judío Latinoamericano (Latin American Spanish, with Evelyn Dean-Olmsted), Lexikon över Judisk Svenska (Swedish, with Patric Joshua Klagsbrun Lebenswerd), and Glossaire du français juif (French, with Cyril Aslanov). A Russian version is in the works, and others are planned for the future. The idea behind these websites is that Jews around the world use their local language with a repertoire of distinctive features, including words from Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other languages. In the case of Jewish English, dictionaries have recorded many of these words. But hundreds of words were not documented, especially those used by specific subgroups. That’s where crowdsourcing came in. The websites allow visitors to edit entries and add new ones. Collectively, the lexicons, along with the Jewish Language Research Website that hosts them, have been accessed by over a million unique visitors from dozens of countries. Often people find the Jewish English Lexicon after searching for a word, such as bubbale, heimish, and refuah shlemah. Shana tova and g’mar chatima tova were popular in September, and moadim lesimcha in April. For definitions and information on who uses these and over one thousand other words, click here.

Both the survey and the lexicons were featured in multiple media outlets and linked to by many blogs and websites. They have both led to exciting developments in our understanding of Jewish language and our ability to share that knowledge with people around the world. This was all due to the Internet and the various technologies that enabled crowdsourcing.

Sarah Bunin Benor, professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, received her PhD from Stanford University in Linguistics. She writes and lectures widely about American Jewish language and culture. Her books include Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2012).

Yiddish Book Center

On a good day I’m surrounded by cartons of reel-to-reels, cassettes, DAT tapes, DVCAMs, and MiniDVs. Last year we rescued our broken and mistreated CDs, sorted everything, gave each one a unique identifier, and moved the disks into Tyvek sleeves.

These boxes of loved and unloved formats are here for a simple reason: digitize or transfer. At the Yiddish Book Center, as at most digital libraries, content matters more than the container. Our goal is to transform these “tapes” into a digital collection, to present scattered media as a usable record of the center’s mission—the lectures on Yiddish culture it sponsored, the concerts it held, the recordings of native speakers it captured. Soon we will add them to the center’s holdings of digital stuff.

Digitization is the correct choice. It improves access to materials. It preserves the original recordings (temporarily). It enables a small memory institution in a midsized state to have a global impact. But more than a decade into the era of digital libraries, it’s past time to admit that digital objects are boring.

What we’ve gained in access, we’ve lost in tactility. The books at the Yiddish Book Center bear inscriptions, stamps, signatures, library records, doodles. There could be ten to fifteen copies of a single volume by Sholem Asch on the shelves, each slightly different, each potentially appealing to a different reader, each with a unique texture. Because scanning is practical, only one copy of a book is digitized. Beautiful, variable, sensorial artifacts become flat JPEGs.

The media scholar Florian Cramer has written about postdigital movements in arts and design. Although the term is multivalent, one notion is to choose the technology most suited to the job rather than default to the bleeding edge. If access is the goal, new media will always be the most suitable. Yet access is only one part of the mission of cultural heritage institutions. Consider member engagement. Every summer the Book Center sponsors a music festival, Yidstock. How would members respond to receiving a “best of” cassette? Would they appreciate its bootleg feel? Physical media also serves a pedagogical purpose: as objects marked in time, they illuminate a disappearing world.

Memory institutions like ours should embrace the challenge of making new media more meaningful. We need to adopt postdigital logic, accept that the experience of old media was more engaging, and inject our cool digital spaces with a sense of play.

Eitan Kensky is director of the Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. Before coming to the Book Center, he was the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard. He is a cofounder of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. He received his PhD from Harvard in Jewish Studies.

Western Reserve Historical Society

I work at the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS), a nonprofit historical society in Cleveland, Ohio, that collects materials related to local Jewish history. The most exciting development in my own professional life has been the digitization of these materials in all formats, including, but not limited to, photographs, manuscript collections, film, audio recordings, newspapers, and books, to make them available to the public. Digitization makes it much easier to pursue scholarly work, but it has also posed tough challenges in my work as an archivist.

The vast holdings of WRHS include audiovisual materials, such as recordings of the sermons of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, oral history interviews with local Holocaust survivors, performances of singers and musicians at local congregations, and Jewish radio programs that featured guests like Molly Picon. Some of these materials can be found in our digital repository, notably eighty interviews in the recently completed Soviet Jewish Oral History Collection. But a daunting challenge remains—processing hundreds of items to inform the public that these Jewish history sources exist and, eventually, to digitize them for the purposes of our researchers, who include students at all levels, local community groups preparing for programs, and genealogy and academic researchers worldwide. Our historical society has been collecting for 150 years. Our audiovisual materials come in many formats, including 8mm film, 16mm film, 8-track, U-Matic, Beta, VHS, and laser disc, among others. Digitizing these materials to make them widely available will eventually enable us to hear Rabbi Silver’s famous oratory or relive a 1920s Camp Wise picnic. These recordings will allow us to visualize moments both celebratory and everyday and help transform our image of the Jewish past in America.

Yet another pressing challenge awaits. We serve as the repository for the records of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and nearly all the area’s Jewish congregations and social service agencies. Approximately 350 collections from local donors document our community’s Jewish past. The donations keep coming in, and, increasingly, more contemporary materials will be born digital. We at the WRHS are working to develop policies that will facilitate the accessioning and processing of these materials and enable us to release them to the public. This requires additional training, staff, money, and, not least, commitment. It’s the commitment that will allow us to reach our goal of helping researchers tell the stories of local Jewish history.

Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish History at Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of Jewish Life in Cracow, 1918–1939 (Vallentine Mitchell, 2004); A Stitch in Time: The Cleveland Garment Industry (Western Reserve Historical Society, 2015); and For the Good of the Nation: Institutions for Jewish Children in Interwar Poland (Academic Studies Press, 2017).