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).