Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman

Roots of Librarianship
May 1999

The word Sefer appears in the Tanach 116 times. It is used for the Torah, individual books of the Tanach, or for names of books that were lost (such as Sefer HaYashar). The words for library, Sifriah, and librarian, Safran, do not appear until modern times. The roots of librarianship are not very old at all. Depending on how you define a librarian, librarianship as a profession started in 1876 with the formation in Chicago of the American Library Association or in 1890 with the starting of the first library school by Melville Dewey.

In honor of Shavuot, the celebration of receiving our first book, I want to share with you a few selections with the oldest references to the activities of librarians.

The first quote is from The Assumption of Moses(Aliyat Moshe) from the Apocrypha.1

You receive this writing that you may know how to preserve the books which I shall deliver to you; and you shall set these in order and anoint them with oil of cedar and put them away in earthen vessels ... 1:17-18

The books in this quote refer to the books of the Torah. The people are told to expertly care for books of the Torah. We have three librarian activities: preserve books, arrange books, and store them properly.

From the Book of Maccabees II (the Apocrypha) 15:39

A book skillfully prepared is a delight to taste.

A librarian tries to select books that will be appropriate for the library readership.

Judah ibn Tibbon from 12th century Spain in his directions to his son tells him everything else a librarian must do. The most important is a catalog.

Take particular care of your books. Cover your shelves with a fine covering, guard them against moisture and mice. Write a complete catalog of your books, and examine the Hebrew books once a month, the Arabic books every two months, and the bound volumes once a quarter. When you lend a book to anyone, make a memorandum of it before it leaves your house, and when it is returned cancel the entry. Every Pesah and Sukkot call in all your books that are out on loan.2

The idea that one should lend books is a very noble one, considering that before printing books could cost the equivalent of 1-3 several months wages. Ibn Tibbon covers the areas of circulation, cataloging, storage, and preservation. He does not cover reference work, because his directions were to his son for his personal books. The story of reference librarians does not begin until about 1900. Before then library users were on their own. The library catalog was a inventory and finder's guide. It was not yet used as a bibliographic tool. Collections were so small 3 that readers just looked around.

When reading the Torah remember that this Sefer was the first book for us and it was the first library for most synagogues.


1. The Apocrypha is a collection of Jewish books dating from ancient times. Some were written in Biblical times and some were from after the Tanach was closed. The Hebrew originals of most of the books were lost. Our texts were preserved from the Greek and Latin texts. The Hebrew versions of the books were published by Avraham Kahane, Ha-Sefarim ha-hitsonim li-Torah, li-nevi'im, li-kituvim ...Jerusalem, 1970. The Kahane version is reconstruction of the original Hebrew; not strictly a translation from the Greek or Latin sources. Kahane uses fragments of the original texts found in the Cairo Geniza and other sources. The English version is : The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, edited by R. H. Charles, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1913.

2. Quoted in: Jewish life in the Middle Ages, by Israel Abrahams. Jewish Publication Society, 1920.

3. In 1900 most high school libraries were lucky to have 300 books.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: Reach him via e-mail at:

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Last revised May 27, 2003