- David Kraemer
The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Founded in 1886, the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) is recognized as the greatest Jewish library in the Western Hemisphere and one of the few most significant collections of rare Judaica in the world. The founders of JTS believed that there can be no great center for the training of Jewish scholars and leaders without a great library.
Their vision, enabled by the remarkable 50-year leadership of Dr. Alexander Marx, our first librarian, was to collect the cultural and documentary heritage of the Jewish people not only for the students and faculty of the Seminary but on behalf of the entire Jewish community. This expansive vision gained particular urgency in the 1930s as the Jewish communities, and libraries, of Europe were threatened. Through dedication and vision, the Library accumulated exceptional collections of Jewish works – manuscripts, art, and printed matter – as well as archives, music and other media. Our dedication to this mission remains vital, as the collections continue to grow and we make them available to the global community through new technologies and, recently, the opening of a new state-of-the-art library facility.
Alexander Marx, the first librarian of the JTS (© Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin)
The world's most complete collection of Hebrew incunabula
The Library’s Special Collections are comprised of 32,000 rare printed books, nearly 11,000 Hebrew manuscripts, 370 scrolls, more than 400 archival collections, and much more. Outstanding parts of the collection include its 43,000 fragments from the Cairo Genizah, the largest collection of ketubot in the world, and an unparalleled collection of Passover haggadot. The Library is also home to the world's most complete collection of Hebrew incunabula. Given the depth and breadth of the Library’s Special Collections, it is a destination for students and scholars from around the world, and the Library fulfills its special responsibility to preserve these collections for the future in its secure, climate-controlled storage rooms and its state-of-the-art conservation lab.
The Library’s collections of current Judaica are extensive, providing essential resources not only for JTS students and faculty, but for users of diverse backgrounds from near and far. The collections are comprised of approximately 350,000 volumes, as well as 13,000 reels of microfilm (primarily of Hebrew manuscripts), more than 4,200 historical and current periodicals, 1,600 video recordings, 3,000 sound recordings, 6,600 musical scores, and extensive digital resources.
Beginning in the 1990s, evolving digital technologies had an enormous impact on libraries and their services. Users are now able to access digitized materials from anywhere in the world. Course-readings are primarily accessed via course-management software. These and other changes have not been one-time events but progressive developments. In addition, many details and directions remain unknown, and the pace of change requires us to be cautious in our investments as the future impact of technology on libraries is unpredictable.
Indeed, initial expectations for the impact of the digital information revolution on library usage proved to be misguided. Studies have found that many users continue to prefer printed books, which have certain advantages in learning and research over their digital counterparts. This preference is particularly pronounced in the humanities, where book-length, monographic studies will continue to be essential to higher-level study and research. Perhaps most important, given the uniqueness of the JTS Library’s collections, is our recognition that while digital images can supplement access to the physical originals of rare materials, they will never replace the originals. For the scholar and for others, there is no substitute to actually viewing an original, hand-written copy of a centuries-old text.
Inside the library (© JTS)
What this means is that the best humanities/religious studies/rare book library is one that integrates books and related materials of diverse types, allowing users to use digital and physical objects simultaneously. Sometimes a user will prefer the printed transcription of a manuscript due to the greater ease of reading it; sometimes the digital image will be superior because it allows for re-evaluation of dubious readings; and sometimes the physical artifact will be essential for the testimony it offers regarding the scribe’s skills, the author’s process, or the patron’s wealth. The best libraries must support all these modalities, and the JTS Library aspires to achieve this as advances in technology unfold.
JTS: resource – community hub – educator – custodian
In response to changing technologies and library practices, and with the goal of enhancing the Library’s role at JTS and in the broader community, the Library drafted a strategic plan in 2009. That plan reaffirmed the Library’s mission “to collect, preserve and make available the literary and cultural heritage of the Jewish people” while specifying the Library’s four basic functions: as resource, as community hub, as educator, and as custodian. These functions could best be realized only by providing broader access to the Library’s materials, forging an enhanced role for our librarians, expanding programming available to the community inside and outside JTS, and building a new library to support all our goals.
In response to this vision, in 2016, JTS engaged the renowned firm, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, to design a new library fully integrated with an enhanced JTS campus. Opening in stages as I write, the new facility will support the Library’s purpose and mission in many ways, allowing us to integrate new approaches and services while facilitating far greater access to and engagement with our unique rare collections. To be specific:
The Library’s new tighter floorplan will allow librarians to roam the floors to proactively engage users and ensure they have access to the breath of our collections that may support their research, sparking new discoveries.
The Library’s Rare Book Reading Room has been moved to the first floor, just inside the main entrance. Its visibility and proximity to our general collections will allow newly trained reference librarians to guide users in integrating both contemporary and rare materials into their researches and studies.
Enhanced exhibition space is located directly inside the entrance to the Library off the new central court of the campus; here, the Library will mount creative exhibits of our exceptional materials, inviting the public at-large to learn from and be inspired by our collections.
A presentation room, immediately adjacent to the Library’s entrance, will provide space for small groups to experience the Library’s rare materials in an intimate, highly controlled environment.
To help generate vibrant learning interactions, the Library is adjacent to JTS’ central court as well as to outdoor spaces, creating a central hub for the campus and a productive, exciting environment for all users.
Library leadership recognizes that a building is only as good as what happens within it. Accordingly, in early 2017, the Library conducted a new planning process to re-assess the Library’s purpose and initiatives in light of the opportunities afforded by our new space. More recently, the shut-down and remote operation necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic offered new lessons for what the Library could and must be. While we are enthusiastically moving into our new facility, where students, researchers, and the public will discover Jewish history in person, we are also building our enhanced and very successful programming for audiences world-wide. This programming includes a wide variety of literary and cultural initiatives for online access. And while some might journey to the JTS Library to enjoy our riches in person, we will guide others on virtualjourneys, employing our heritage to access Jewish historical chapters of the distant and not-so-distant past, allowing us to imagine as yet unimagined futures.
David Kraemer is Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics.
© Title image: public domain (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewish_Theological_Seminary_of_America_(51241367198).jpg)