Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
August 2003

Professional Preparation

"What does a Judaica librarian need to know?" was a question asked of me at a recent Shabbat dinner. Since I have been preparing courses for library school students including a course in Judaica librarianship, let me attempt to answer the question. For the past six years I have been writing this monthly column in an attempt to show non-librarians what the expertise librarians command. During this time I have heard of at least three Chicago area schools who hired people to run their school libraries who have no library school training. It hurts the students when a skilled, trained and graduate librarian is not running the school library.

The preparation of a Judaica librarian begins before entering graduate school. The potential librarian needs a solid subject knowledge in Judaica. This means college level courses in Hebrew language and literature, Jewish history, Bible, rabbinics and the Jewish community. While it is great to have a Jewish high school education, the critical thinking skills needed for professional library work can only be gained in college level courses. History does not sink in for most people until they have experienced it. That means they have to be 21 years old or older. (Of course there are some people who never "get" the nature of history.) The exposure to range of Jewish topics is the basis for the ability to help library readers. Training is required in the area of librarianship that you want to specialize. The areas include cataloging and technical services, reference and other public services, and administration. I am teaching an advanced course in Judaica reference service. The students have already completed the basic requirements of the graduate program and the beginning reference course. I am not covering cataloging issues specific to Judaica collections and barely mentioning acquisitions issues.

To have a historical background librarians need to study the history of orthography, Jewish books, printing, publishing, and libraries. This historical background helps when examining old books and understanding how books fit into contemporary society and information systems.

The largest Judaica library collections contain more than 200,000 items. A good solid collection has more than 100,000 items. A specialized research collection may have fewer books, but the range of subjects is smaller. It is hard to say how big an elementary or high school collection should be because it depends on the size of the student body and their needs. I would guess a good sized personal Judaica collection contains 1500-2000 volumes.

Comprehensive collections contain books in each of the following areas. If the collection is outside the United States, then substitute the local subject for "American." In each subject area the librarian needs to understand the nature of citations, bibliography and the reference books including encyclopedias and dictionaries for that area.

1. Bible

Obviously the first book of Judaism has a special place in Jewish life and in the home of Jewish books. The Bible is the very first example of ordering and classifying books. The study of Bible is central to our worship and the basis for all other learning. The library needs to have multiple texts and commentaries.

2. Rabbinics

This area contains any post-Biblical material written by the rabbis including Talmud, Midrash, and homiletics.

3. Jewish law

Jewish law, while a part of rabbinical literature, deserves its own area because of the special ways people study and research Halakha. This area includes codes, responsa, commentaries, and contemporary treatises on general and specific topics.

4. Jewish history

Jewish history covers every country in which Jews have lived. Books include topics that help us understand how we became part of today's society. Librarians need an understanding of where Jewish people have lived and be able to help readers search for their roots.

5. Holocaust studies

Many Jewish studies programs are based on the study of the Holocaust. This area includes primary materials, personal memoirs, analysis, local histories, and general works.

6. Liturgy

Includes texts (siddur, mahzor), prayer and commentaries.

7. American Jewish community

Includes sociology and other social sciences, local and general histories, community directories, etc.

The following subject areas are self -explanatory. The librarian needs a broad overview of the subjects and a knowledge of the reference works to find what the readers need.

8. Jewish philosophy and thought

9. Holidays

10. Israel and Zionism

11. Hebrew language and literature

12. Jewish fiction and literary criticism

13. Yiddish language and literature

14. Children's books

Being a children's librarian requires skills working with children and teachers. Children's books could include all the above subjects in junior versions.

There are a couple of areas that are not exactly Judaica but are connected to Hebrew books. Very few of these materials are in American Jewish libraries. Large comprehensive university libraries may collect non-Judaica Hebrew books. This includes secular books written in Hebrew. They could be in the social, physical, military or agricultural sciences. Mishpat Ivri is Israeli secular law. Yiddish secular books are in Judaica collections as curiosities. Yiddish books were published mostly for Jews and therefore libraries that collect books as a mirror of Jewish society will collect secular Yiddish books.

Every librarian's training needs a combination of the following skills: critical thinking, subject knowledge, theoretical, practical, historical, and management skills. Critical thinking could be learned in any academic course that stresses research and analysis. These skills transfer easily for one subject to another. Subject knowledge comes from the experience of reading, listening, and being around library materials. Theoretical and historical knowledge is learned in library schools. This is the skill of learning the sources, vocabulary and tools of the profession. Practical skills are learned by experimenting, doing and mentoring by a master librarian. Management These skills are learned in classes, seminars, reading and working with people. By careful listening, empathy, experimenting, and reading, librarians can learn the management skills needed for running the library.

I hope that I am not "preaching to the choir." I have demonstrated to many community professional educators the importance of the library and librarians. Some have understood; some have not. Data, knowledge, and wisdom are all in the eyes of the beholder. One person's knowledge becomes wisdom for another.


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 our 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: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

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 ©2003 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised September 30, 2003