News From the Library: Vol. 4 No. 1 (September 2008)

In This Issue:


Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian

It is our pleasure to share more News From The Library. We continue to be one of the go-to destinations for all serious students of Judaica and we are happy to help their efforts in any way we can.

If you are worried that you missed a print issue of News From The Library this past spring, don’t worry: you didn’t. We didn’t publish an issue then because we were (and are) evaluating how best to communicate developments in The Library to the widest range of interested parties.

This News From The Library will reach you during the Jewish season of review, reconsideration, and renewal. We at The Library wish you a season and a year of renewed strength and wisdom.


The following selective report, keyed to our vision statement—“To collect, preserve, and make available the literary and cultural heritage of the Jewish people.”—highlights the most important goals we set for ourselves:


• Enhance the general collection acquisitions budgets
General book aquisitions funds have been modestly enhanced and they continue to grow. In addition, we continue to shift some print acquisitions to online electronic format.

• Build a dedicated fund for special collections
The Library now has a fund with an excess of $200,000 dedicated to the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts. The gift provides us with ample room to continue to enhance our collection of worthy and rare materials.


• Increase security for special collections
A new electronic swipe-access system is presently being installed. This will permit a complete and specific record of all parties who enter the Rare Book Room.

• Replace climate-control system in Rare Book Room
With the support of the Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation, the new HVAC system, as well as new digital monitors/recorders, have been installed to keep a record of conditions in the room. We are also installing a new water-detection and diversion system.

• Disaster planning
With the expertise and guidance of our conservator, we have instituted a comprehensive new disaster-response and recovery plan.

• Replace roof to protect special collections
A new roof was installed over the Special Collections in December 2007.

• Secure positions for two full-time conservators
See the article on new conservation money on page 9.


• Hire staff to catalog the remainder of the collection
Funding provided by Stanley and Phyllis Sanders allows us to continue processing books recovered from our high density storage.

• Provide electronic access to electronic and digitized materials
With the support of the Harry and Sylvia Rebell Memorial Foundation, we have licensed Digital Asset Management Software—DigiTool—which now allows us to provide our digital collections online. Digitizing prioritized materials is an ongoing project, and one we are proud to undertake.

• Produce additional online and traveling exhibits
We have created an online exhibit relating to the High Holidays and Sukkot. A site containing hundreds of images from our portraits collections will soon follow. The Prato Haggadah exhibit, in facsimile, has provided us with a very successful and sought-after traveling exhibit; last year it was in Las Vegas for the Passover season, this year in Detroit.

• Professionalize Library publications and identify new publication projects
We have two catalogs in production, one of our exceptional collection of ketubbot and the other of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts. Our next project will be a volume of the Index of Jewish Art dedicated to Library manuscripts.


• Refine and upgrade membership program
We have added lower steps to The Library membership program. Direct mail offerings have been successful in bringing in new funding, and News From the Library will be enhanced in print and online.

• Additional marketing, media, and public relations plans
Licensing new products to a professional publisher (Pomegranate) has been extremely successful. New Library programs, such as Library-sponsored faculty book talks, have been featured in a new JTS media campaign (“JTS: Where Interesting Conversations Happen”) and have led to a considerably higher response.

The Library is now undertaking a new strategic planning process to help us set our direction for the next several years. What should our priorities be now? How will the changing world of information storage and access alter the ways in which we build our collection and serve our readers? We must challenge ourselves with the best available models—and with the best thinking about models that do not yet exist. Only by thinking broadly and making significant demands on ourselves can we continue to be one of the world’s premier Judaica research libraries.

We invite your contributions. With your help, we will create a plan that will help us keep a clear vision for the next five years. And, if we accomplish its goals in three years, we will come back to you with new reports, asking for new wisdom.


Two developments help bring The Library’s wealth of content to a wider audience both here at JTS and over the Internet. We have transformed our high density storage area on the third floor of The Library and—with funding from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation—finished our five-year grant to reclaim 35,000 books that survived The Library fire of 1966 and renovate the space.

The renovated space now houses many of The Library’s archival collections, restricted books (those published between 1800–1840), and books in poor condition from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all in a climate-controlled, secure environment. The other significant development is two recent gifts to support our conservation program, allowing us to provide additional staffing for this program.

With funding from an anonymous donor and the Maurice and Beverly Baker Foundation, the Conservation Lab has expanded its staff and embarked on a survey and digitization project.

The new conservation fellow, Melissa Buschey, has just completed her training at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Her first major project for The Library will be to conduct a detailed survey of our approximately 900 Hebrew manuscripts that now have no surrogate copy; evaluate their condition for digital photography (from which we will produce both microfilm and digital images); and administer minor treatments to help prepare the manuscripts for photography. By creating these surrogates we will assure that, in the event of a catastrophe and were these manuscripts damaged or destroyed, their contents, at the very least, will not be lost. In addition, the digital images make it possible for scholars to study these manuscripts online from anywhere in the world.

In addition, we have hired Amy Stecher, a conservation technician who will also assist Melissa and Amy Armstrong with treatments. Amy Stecher, who has worked for us previously, has an MS in Library and Information Science from the Pratt Institute and five years experience in the conservation lab at Cornell University.


When did you begin working at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary?

I began working here about twenty years ago. I was a grad student at JTS at the time, and I was hired by The Library as part of a project to identify and catalog old Yiddish books. After I finished with this project, I just stayed on and worked full-time in Special Collections. I began under the leadership of Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, working under him until his retirement.

When did you begin giving your well-known Rare Book Room tours?

When I first began working in Special Collections, Mrs. Edith Degani would guide many of the tours. But soon I was giving them, and when I became the chief librarian in this department, my staff (Seth Jerschower and David Wachtel) would do them as well. The tours have always been a lot of fun.

One of the most noteworthy parts of my experience in offering these tours has been the opportunity to meet famous and important people. Over the years many notable persons have visited the Rare Book Room, such as former President Jimmy Carter; well-known columnist and essayist William Safire; Israel’s then-president Ephraim Katzir; Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington; the Samaritan high priest; a group of French bishops; and, of course, Dr. Ruth.

We often have visits from important book collectors as well. I remember that once a French collector from Paris traveled all the way here just to look at one of our rare Sephardic box bindings.

What was the funniest or most interesting experience you have had while giving these tours?

My experiences doing these tours are rarely funny, though they are almost always interesting. I guess the funniest thing I can recall is when the head of the Weizmann Institute, for whom I was giving a tour, asked me, “How much do you pay to work here?”

What are your favorite works in the collection?

I love the whole collection, but I admit certain “weaknesses” for particular works. Given my original scholarly leanings, I have a deep interest in historical Ashkenazic works and works in old Yiddish. Our great autographic manuscripts—Maimonides’ signature from the Cairo Genizah; the original copy of the well-known hymn, "Yedid Nefesh"; the holographs of Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, Moses Hayyim Luzatto, and many others.

I also have a particular affection for some of our ephemera—such as the world’s oldest printed Hebrew calendar, the first book printed in Amsterdam by Menasseh ben Israel (a siddur), and many of our early manuscripts and printed Haggadot.

In addition, I admit to a great love of our oldest Bible manuscripts and other Jewish sacred texts—the 1224 Toledo Bible, a Persian Bible manuscript from the tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and our famous Talmud manuscript of tractate Avodah Zarah. But also great printed works, our unparalleled incunabula collection; I could go on and on.

From your perspective, what are the major changes The Library has seen over the years?

Well, many of the changes are simply matters of size—we have more staff and many more requests. But new technologies have made more of a difference than anything else. Digitization of rare materials has opened up new worlds. The number of requests we get to digitize our rare materials is incredible.

What have you liked most about your job?

One of the things I have enjoyed is traveling to serve as courier for loans we have made around the world. In this capacity, I have been to Paris, Toledo, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem. I have also accompanied loans to cities throughout the United States.

Even more, I have enjoyed my many interactions with students, faculty, and visiting scholars from around the world, facilitating their research. We here in The Library provide the resources for much of Jewish scholarship. New books in Jewish studies are constantly citing us and giving us credit. The truth is that they couldn’t do their work without consulting our books and manuscripts.

The essence of my joy is this: because of the comprehensiveness of our collection, my position has provided me with the opportunity to be exposed to the continuity of Jewish history and culture through the ages. Here, I have literally been able to touch artifacts from each period and location; there is nothing like the immediacy of actually touching the Jewish experience.


We have just completed a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to conduct a comprehensive preservation-needs assessment for its nationally significant sound collection of more than 10,000 recordings. The Library’s large and diverse collection primarily documents the Jewish experience in America, and includes Jewish music, speeches, radio broadcasts, and lectures by prominent scholars and public figures.

Of particular importance are archival recordings produced from 1914–1994, including such unique items as field recordings on aluminum disks of biblical chanting styles of the different ethnic groups in British Palestine, early commercial recordings of liturgical music (1921–1928), and Yiddish songs (1914–1945). Lectures from the Joseph and Miriam Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism collection include discourses by David Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban, and Raul Alfonsin, World War II–era Jewish radio programs broadcast to US servicemen, and Coretta Scott King’s address at a memorial service for Abraham Joshua Heschel.

To conduct the assessment, The Library contracted with a company called AudioVisual Preservation Solutions. Based upon their findings and the inventories conducted by The Library, AudioVisual Preservation Solutions provided The Library with a detailed report, including specific recommendations for steps we should take to assure survival of and access to our audiovisual collections.

Based on The Library’s sound collections’ size and composition, the consultants recommended establishing an in-house audio preservation lab at JTS. In their estimation, the approximate cost of implementing this recommendation would be $321,000 to renovate and equip the existing facility, and $25,500 in annual operating expenses for the first three years—funds that would have to be raised through new grants and donor gifts.

The NEH-funded preservation-needs assessment is the first step in The Library’s efforts to make its archival recordings widely accessible to musicologists, ethnomusicologists, historians, folklorists, and others actively seeking these materials for research, music education, and personal pleasure. We will now work actively to realize these goals.


The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary is the cornerstone of the institution’s outstanding reputation for enriching Jewish academic scholarship. With the Western Hemisphere’s most extensive and significant Hebraic and Judaic collection, The Library houses more than 400,000 volumes extending from the tenth century to the present, encompassing  subject matter as varied as biblical commentary, rabbinics, philosophy, medicine, literature, philology, liturgy, history, mysticism, science, and law.

All gifts are welcome. Contributions of $360 or more entitle you to membership in The Library, which gives you borrowing privileges, information about and invitations to The Library’s events, and two issues annually of The Library’s newsletter.

To become a member or make a donation to The Library, use our secure online form