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Seth Chalmer, assistant director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, said he collected 15 box loads of unpublished materials that provide a window into the 20th-century workings of Jewish groups.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

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.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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