Monday, August 17, 2015

The Drastic Changes now in effect at The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary and its effect on future scholarship

As of Aug. 1st the library of JTS, home to the largest and most comprehensive Jewish and Hebraic collection outside of Israel is closed. The library, which housed 425,000 volumes, has been moved off-site to accommodate the building of high-rise buildings by developers.

JTS, which has been faced with financial troubles in the past years, has attempted various different ways in the last years to solve their financial woes. In 2009, a major change in the leadership positions occurred, and several months ago, several of the JTS Library's rare items not related to Judaism have been sold at auction in an attempt to raise funds.

The current plan for the next few years (at least through the end of 2018) leaves just 10,000 volumes in the library until construction is completed. Once the new library building is in use, the plan is to keep about 25 percent of the titles onsite in the new Library. The remaining 75 percent will be stored offsite, available only for next business day retrieval. The temporary home, will open November 1 and will be located on the 7th floor (both Kripke and Schiff buildings, formerly the student computer and language labs) for the duration of the project. Those people who do not currently have borrowing privileges, which include the numerous researchers who visit and use the library, will be charged a fee equivalent to their cost (between $3.25 and $8.75 per item) for retrieving materials from their remote storage. The Library reserves the right to limit quantities of all materials retrieved from remote storage based upon consultations with the researcher.
courtyard of JTS Library soon to be demolished
To summarize, the library, which for over a century was the base from which some of the very best scholarship and printed works emanated, will for posterity be at best a very inconvenient and costly place to do research. The numerous publishers and editors of books, that for decades have relied on the fabulous collection of the library will now have to work with their hands tied and their pockets emptied. A scholar with a table full of books being referenced, can be charged for their use the price of a 5 course meal in a Manhattan restaurant. Seeing references in a footnote, a scholar can no longer request the book and check relevant sources, he would need to place a request and return an additional day to be able to view it in person. Rather than encourage students and scholars to explore the world of our history and literature, people will have to contemplate the cost of obtaining the book for reading and come back the following business day to obtain it. Books requested on Thursday afternoons, will not arrive in the library until Tuesday.

To be fair, JTS may have been left with little choice as to this decision, and for their rabbinical students, such a system at the library might suffice. I assume this was the very last resort that the administration was left with, but the thought of the largest collection of Hebrew Incunabula sitting in a warehouse in NJ, is disheartening at the very best. It is rather depressing to think, that as a people who excelled at coming together and succeeding in fundraising for our vital institutions, that the nation's most prestigious Jewish library should be forced to come to this. Throughout the World of Jewish Books, the future of the library has been received with much sadness and anger. In the words of Prof. Shnayer Leiman, "Very sad news about JTS! Let people know that there is nothing safer than having the books in their own house". Prof. Leiman recalled his days of youth when his ability to roam stacks of endless books allowed him to develop his interests. With the setup as is projected, students will never be introduced to the vast depths of Jewish Literature and the books will more than likely be stored into oblivion. In a conversation I had with one of the librarians at JTS, she tells me how it doesn't matter much, as "who today uses books anyways!".

It is very unfortunate that JTS no longer will be able to view its library as a home for all Jews of all backgrounds and denominations. The best we can do is hope that a change can still be made and the freedom of the printed word will be reimposed.


13 comments:

  1. Is there any other library in the world that charges to request books? I think that they should loan all the books to the Mendel gottesman library at YU that way people can have easy access

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    2. Loaning a significigant portion of the rare collection to columbia would be the most logical move. Unfortunately columbia does not have the space. YU absolutely does not have the space to house a multi-thousand volume temporary loan of rare materials. In addition, there is no good set up for a reading room for the collection

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  2. Very sad news indeed. Decades ago when I studied at YU, I would spend endless hours in the library, discovering new books and reading long forgotten works. I had a habit for a while of requesting ten books at a time on categories of interest and work through them and compare the different author's opinions and take on a subject. I have many friends who ended up as academics who started off as Yeshiva bochurim exploring in the library and being sucked in with fascination at discovering new and wonderful books they would have never encountered in the beis medrash. Nothing beats endless rows of bookshelves to encourage scholarship, this way you can come across books by mistake that you would never have known exist and never would have known to even request.

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  3. Pretty crazy that the Conservative movement is being forced to let go of the last good thing that belonged to them.

    And by the way humble of you to only quote part of Prof. Leiman's comment. The full version which I heard was -

    "Very sad news about JTS! Let people know that there is nothing safer than having the books in their own house, via Mizrahi book Store!"

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  4. JTS itself should ( or allow HebrewBooks.org ) to scan and archive everything in their collection

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  5. I don't know if it is a coincidence, but the Conservative Movement has the same formula with Judaism. They kept 25% and put 75% away in storage for occasional use.

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  6. Meanwhile, AIPAC is wasting $40 million on a losing campaign that is wrongheaded, divisive, and destructive to American Jewry. The billionaires in the Jewish community have their heads screwed on backwards. JTS and its Library are a treasure, and the necessity for their having to take these steps is a shonda.

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    1. Perhaps the Jewish Billionaires think that preventing another Holocaust is worth putting some effort in to. Are you too blinded to hear what Iran's leaders keep on saying at every opportunity, that they intend to wipe Israel of the map?
      That aside, I don't think JTS put any effort in to finding donors to prevent this catastrophe, there was barely any notice given as to the details, until it was too late.

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  7. The ability to delve through the stacks, finding all the other books shelved together with your subject of interest, is what makes a research library work. All the online catalogs in the world can't replace it. Maybe they should ship the books to AJU here in LA; they just built a new library that would be happy to house this collection.

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  8. A new article on the topic was published by JTS clarifying some significigant points.

    http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-jts-library-for-the-21st-century/#.VgCWU0fioLg.facebook

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