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And there, stacked on a gray metal bookcase in a large, central archive room, were cassette tapes of oral histories given to the AJC by David Ben-Gurion, Arthur Miller, Jack Benny and George Burns.
The AJC’s library was founded in 1930 as an in-house resource for its staff to research and write reports. “It was for the Jewish community in many ways what the Library of Congress was supposed to be for Congress,” Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna said. “If you wanted to know everything there was to know about Jews… they had it.”
Today, Sarna said, scholars and students do much of their research online. And if they need a source that’s not available on the Internet, there are plenty of Jewish libraries in New York to which they can turn.
Even the AJC’s own research staff use the library infrequently, said Bayme, who oversaw the downsizing to 3,500 books and documents. He stressed that while the library has been reduced, its vast archive of internal documents remains intact. He said the AJC was discarding only titles that were “obsolete or no longer part of our agenda or have no relevance directly to AJC.”
“We’ve transformed it from a research library to a reference library,” Bayme said.
But Jerome Chanes, a senior fellow at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center and a regular user of the library for years, charged that the culling has less to do with the slow decline of libraries than with the AJC’s changed priorities.
Twenty years ago, Chanes said, the AJC began to shift its focus away from domestic affairs and toward international affairs and Israel. The great book dump is part and parcel of that shift, he asserted.
“Within a few years, the research department, which for decades had done groundbreaking watershed research in every conceivable arena of national affairs… [began to shrink] until it finally, for all intents and purposes, ceased to function,” said Chanes, a contributing editor at the Forward.
Bayme “vigorously” denied Chanes’s assertion. Far from overlooking national affairs, he said, the AJC’s focus is now global, drawing on both domestic and international issues.
“The library served our needs historically,” Bayme said. But “those needs changed” as the technological age resulted in a move to online research from “bound volumes”.
By drastically reducing the library, the AJC has freed up an entire floor of its eight-story building, which “will be rented soon,” a spokesman said.
Bayme said he could discard any unclaimed books with a clean conscience. Everything “humanly possible” had been done, he said, to make sure Jewish institutions or individual scholars had been given the chance to offer the works a new home.