This month, Pratt’s student chapter of ASIS&T (the Association for Information Science and Technology) was invited to tour the Center for Jewish History. The Center is a partnership of five organizations focused on Jewish history, scholarship, and art, with all five collections housed in their Manhattan location. The Center represents the largest collection of Jewish history in the United States, and serves as a central location for research and exhibitions open to the public.
The five organizations that make up the Center for Jewish History (American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute New York, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) operate as partners with separate budgets and collections but shared resources to preserve the collections. Altogether, the Center houses artifacts that span 500 years of history, 500-thousand books across five dozen languages, and 50-thousand digitized photographs. All five collections can be accessed through a single research portal at cjh.org, which allows researchers of all kinds to peruse the resource.
The Lillian Goldman Reading Room
ASIS&T was kindly given a guided tour of the facility by several of the research liaisons, divided by floor and department. The tour began on the top floor where the research center and the Lillian Goldman Reading Room are found. The research portal at cjh.org can be access from the convenience of your home, but utilizing the research center on site gains you access to additional catalogs organized by location and subject, as well as direct assistance from researchers already familiar with the collections. Items from the collection can be checked out in the research room, which are then made available for study in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, a beautiful two-story location with large skylights and books in every wall. Items from the collection can only be studied in-house, and most of the collection is available for this purpose.
18th Century Rabbinic Book on Astronomy
After touring the research and reading rooms, ASIS&T was brought back to the first floor where the public exhibits are found. Each organization with the Center for Jewish History has space on the first floor to display exhibits of their choosing. Ongoing now is YIVO’s “Jews in Space” exhibit, which features everything from rare 18th and 19th century rabbinic books on astronomy to Jewish pop-culture scifi references. The exhibit includes a timeline of Jewish achievements in astronomy and aeronautics, including items carried by astronauts to perform the first Jewish ceremonies in space.
While the first and upper floors are exciting for the general public and researchers, the heart of the Center for Jewish History is the basement, where the archives work takes place. The basement is composed of a long hallway with windows on either side where you can see the various stages of the archival process take place.
The tour of the basement began with the data center where the digital catalogers work. The Center opted for on-site servers in order to ensure that the catalog is always available during the Center’s hours of operation, and it’s the digital catalogs department’s job to make sure the catalog is up-to-date and available for the upstairs research center and the Center’s website. This responsibility includes converting the entire catalog from an old cataloging software to the latest system, which is a years-long process due to the size and complexity of the five collections. While the department itself is only a few years old, the metadata they’re charged with converting is up to 12 years old and was created over several generations of archivists at the Center. This complicates the process, since each archivist used their own methods to catalog the collections, all with varying levels of detail (or not), leaving this new team of digital experts with a range of decisions regarding how to store the information in a consistent system that needs to withstand yet another 12 years of use.
Next was a tour of the digitization room, a large and dim space filled with cameras, computers, and various recording equipment for both film and audio. The role of the digitization department is to, of course, digitize selected collections from the archive. Collections are selected by the partner organizations (or whoever is funding the digitization project) and are prioritized by on-site management. The Center has enough funding and interest in digital archives to have a constant stream of work, ranging from taking high-resolution photographs of books or photos to digitizing old film, negatives, and audio recordings. This department has a special rig designed to photograph maps and large posters, which sometimes involves taking photos of each segment (moving the camera rather than the item in order to minimize the risk of damage) and then stitching the photos together in Photoshop. This department produces “terabytes upon terabytes” of data that is then aggregated by the catalog department next door. Through years of effort by the digitization team, about one-fifth of the Center’s collection has been digitally archived.
On the opposite side of the hall from the digitization room is the digitization research room, where a small team of researchers are tasked with determining whether an item from the collection can qualify for digitization. This team curates the digital collection, first determining if the incoming item would hold value as a digital object, and then determining whether copyright and HIPAA legislation would allow for the item to be digitized (and if so, to what degree the item should be made available to the public.) Due to the age of the items and how they usually come into the Center’s possession (frequently by donation from Jewish families), copyright law doesn’t apply in many cases. In cases where the item is protected by copyright, however, it must be passed over for digitization and the Center must decide if the physical item itself should be preserved. This research department also handles some digitization tasks themselves, such as converting old computer files into formats that can be used by modern software. They’re also one of the largest contributors to Wikipedia in the Jewish history space. Incoming candidates for digitization are organized into projects, and once a project is complete, this department is responsible for updating and creating articles on Wikipedia that are connected to the primary sources that the Center has archived.
The last stop on ASIS&T’s tour was a large, bright room at the very end of the hallway where preservation and restoration of the Center’s items takes place. This room is filled with tables, some of which have plastic domes secured to them with holes and gloves so that objects can be managed with the utmost care. Items are selected for preservation based on the “intrinsic value” of the item itself, such as if the binding of a book is special or if the item was held by an important person. Preserving these items is a monumental task, requiring a surprising amount of knowledge not just of the items themselves but of environmental moisture and local insects. On the day ASIS&T arrived, the preservation department had spent the entire morning checking insect traps under a microscope, attempting to determine if a firebrat found earlier that day was a lone insect or the beginning of an infestation. Along this line, the preservation room is also equipped with investigative tools like endoscopes, which can be fed into walls and ceilings in order to check the Center for mold. The preservation of physical objects also has an interesting financial perspective: while funding for digitization can be exciting for donors, funding for a new HVAC system is significantly less so. The difficulty associated with preserving physical artifacts is one reason these five organizations partnered to create the Center for Jewish History.
Altogether, ASIS&T’s tour of the Center for Jewish History was a fascinating inside look at a local archive. It was exciting to see the perspectives and subjects of several papers from the Information Professions course come together in a real life environment, particularly in seeing how all the departments function. The Center for Jewish History is open six days a week and the galleries are free for the public, so if you haven’t checked out this site yet, you should!