Trove Up for Grabs as Library Slims Down

Jewish History Books Go Begging as AJC Looks for Space

paul berger

By Paul Berger

Published September 20, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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The books, with such titles as “The Negro and Organized Labor” and “Who’s Who in World Jewry, 1965,” stretched in rows more than 50 feet down the hallway of a Manhattan office building. Hundreds more publications, on topics such as race, religion, civil rights, terrorism and the Holocaust, were clustered in empty adjoining offices, spread out silently on tabletops and windowsills as the Midtown traffic rumbled by.

These thousands of books, almost all hardcover, were waiting like unwanted mutts in a pound for someone to come and take them away. They were all that was left of 13,000 titles that the American Jewish Committee decided to cull as part of an 80% reduction in its print library holdings.

In recent weeks, graduate students, scholars and researchers, including library heads from Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary, have descended on the AJC’s Midtown headquarters to pick over the collection, which includes periodicals and internal documents from a plethora of Jewish organizations.

Seth Chalmer, assistant director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, said he collected 15 box loads of unpublished materials that provide a window into the 20th-century workings of Jewish groups.

They included internal memos and reports stretching back decades, from organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah and the Jewish Agency for Palestine (now the Jewish Agency for Israel).

Chalmer said that duplicates of these documents might exist inside the organizations themselves. But in cases of defunct organizations or those that have not properly maintained their papers, they may be the sole documentary record left. Don’t even think about surfing the Web.

“I saw a bunch of stuff that I feel fairly sure I couldn’t find on Google,” Chalmer said.

Steven Bayme, director of the AJC’s contemporary Jewish life department, said he had to clear out all the remaining books by September 14. Any Jewish titles will be sent to the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Everything left over will be thrown away.

Although the collection had largely been picked dry, a visit to the AJC’s offices before the September 14 deadline revealed several items of historical interest still waiting for an owner.

Among the hundreds of titles in a side room was a 1910 U.S. Immigration Commission publication titled Dictionary of Races and People. It provides a window into the prevailing bigotry of the day by defining “Negroes” as, among other things, “belonging to the lowest division of mankind from an evolutionary standpoint.”

Inside a cardboard box at the end of a hallway, a box of John Birch Society bulletins included a 1964 pamphlet titled “The Time Has Come.” The bulletin warned that “Communist influences are now in full working control of our Federal Government.”


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