AJL Cleveland Convention
Every June for the past 32 years Jewish librarians have been gathering for the annual Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) convention. This year AJL met in Cleveland on June 22-25 with the theme, "Shared space -- real and virtual : the Jewish library and the world." One question from the convention floor concerning publicity prompts me to tell about some of the exciting activities in libraries and Jewish studies.
The last speaker at the convention was Charles A. Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Enterprises, Inc. in Cleveland. Ratner started out by saying that before he was asked to give a speech for AJL he had never heard of the organization and never knew what a librarian did. After this opening, his talk covered his struggle to get a Jewish education for his children and how he journeyed from a parent to a community activist then to a leader for Jewish education. In the question and answer period, one librarian asked, "How can we publicize what the Cleveland Federation is doing?"
Mr. Ratner said that 15 years ago the Federation made a strategic plan for the community. The portion concerning education said that since only 14% of Jewish students attend day schools they want to concentrate their efforts on the supplemental schools. They wanted to encourage congregational schools to teach children. Rabbis and educators wanted to teach Jews how to feel Jewish and better about themselves. Ratner, continued by saying, thank God no one listened to that report. Since the strategic plan was made three new day schools have been opened, new buildings built, and enrollment is now 28% of the Jewish student population. Millions of Federation dollars have been spent to build buildings and train teachers to staff those schools. Millions have been spent on improving the educational content of the school programs.
Part of this improvement in education infrastructure was explained by Dr. David Ariel told us about the programs of Cleveland College of Jewish Studies to train teachers at the highest levels, including masters and doctoral degrees and distance learning programs..
Ratner told us what kinds of education didn't work. Events, retreats and classes based on feeling Jewish didn't work. Text-based classes and events did work. When students learned a text they went home with something they could hold and build upon.
Now for my personal thoughts -- What role does a librarian have in a Jewish school, congregation or yeshiva? As my son told me, "Abba isn't everyone at the Yeshiva your student?" Librarians are the professionals who control the purchase, cataloging, storage, and retrieval of the texts. Librarians organize and classify information to enable readers to find information when they need it. Think of the two greatest discoveries of Hebrew texts in this century, the Cairo Geniza and Dead Sea Scrolls. How much easier our work would be if these collections were cataloged libraries instead of the piles of paper and parchment that we found. When one starts to include commentaries, Halacha, history, science, philosophy, literature and every other subjects needed to be an informed person, the size of the collection needed skyrockets.
Arlene Rich of the Cleveland Jewish Genealogy Society led a session on genealogy resources.. She told us some beautiful stories of families who found lost relatives as a result of looking into their family histories. She gave us lists of reference works for libraries to own and let us use the Social Security Death Benefit CD-ROM to look up names. From this session librarians learned not only what resources are available, but of the importance of saving records for future generations. [Note: The HTC Library collects banquet books, year books, and wedding books, which can be used by future readers for family research.]
Dr. Daniel Rettberg of Pitts Theological Library, Emory University gave a paper on manuscript books from Yemen. The Yemenite Jews used manuscript books into the 20th century. Dr. Rettberg showed slides of two manuscripts, one was done by a professional scribe and the other by a non-professional for personal use. Books and paper were so scarce the margins of the books were used for practicing Hebrew writing. Printed books came very late to Yemen, partly because of Moslem conservatism. The government didn't want large numbers of literate people. Jews did import a few Hebrew books because they were less threatening than Arabic books.
Dr. Menachem Schmelzer, provost of Jewish Theological Seminary and former JTS librarian, delivered a fascinating lecture on the American contribution to Genizah studies. He told of the history of the documents and where the documents are today. He talked about some of the prominent scholars including S.D. Goitein. (One of the librarians in the audience said that she was related to Goitein and verified everything the Dr. Schmelzer said.) I was able to talk to Dr. Schmelzer privately about some research he is doing on a medieval manuscript that relates to work one of the HTC faculty is doing.
In addition to the 32 sessions with opportunities to learn, meals and exhibits presented a wonderful time to meet librarians and discuss their libraries. I finally met in person many of the people I correspond with via e-mail and phone. I met the editors from the Ofek Institute who are working with two of our faculty members. The opportunity to share knowledge and resources is a very important component of the convention. The contacts I made will help me better serve my readers.
The 175 librarians who attended the convention included teacher-librarians from day schools, Judaica librarians in universities, librarian-managers of large libraries, librarians in synagogues, schools and Jewish centers, and researchers. Their jobs include catalogers, reference librarians, managers, acquisition librarians, archivists, historians, library automation experts, rare book librarians, and internet gurus. Librarians are the collectors, guardians, catalogers, organizers, guides and disseminators of the recorded word in any media imagined. While books and periodicals are prominent media in today's collections, librarians need to collect and learn more about the electronic and non-print media. The libraries of the future will contain materials in electronic format including cd-roms and computer files. Computers not only help us to produce materials faster, more accurately, but also move the information to those who need it much faster.
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