Jewish Scholarship and Technology ‘Join Hands’

Center for Jewish History conference explores the use of digitization to integrate and distribute a wealth of Jewish resources.

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Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, Michael Glickman, Stanley N. Katz, Deanna Marcum, Oren Weinberg on a panel at "From Access to Integration," a two-day conference in New York City on the digitization of Jewish resources. Photo courtesy of John Halpern.

NEW YORK—The libraries of the 21st century aren’t quite like the ones frequented by your bubbe and zaidy.

“A traditional library has natural selection. With digital material, selection is much harder,” said Oren Weinberg, Director General of the National Library of Israel, while discussing his personal challenge of moving information into the digital world during a two-day conference at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

Stanley N. Katz, Director for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, opened a series of interactive discussions and presentations on using digitization to integrate and distribute a wealth of Jewish resources at “From Access to Integration,” held Nov. 9-10.

“Technology in general has matured to a point where scholarship and technology can join hands in an unusually close participation,” Katz told a room full of professionals from universities, institutes and museums spanning the globe.

Weinberg and Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for the Library of Congress, discussed the struggle to select materials that will be useful on a public level, without ostracizing the needs of scholars and other niche audiences. Weinberg, whose National Library of Israel now operates independently, admitted that the library receives flack for veering from researchers needs.

Therefore, Weinberg works with universities to hone in on Israel’s general interests, but believes that the library’s expansion into the public realm is ultimately beneficial to all.

“Researchers have more opportunities for things they didn’t even know existed,” said Weinberg.

The discussion was followed by a host of demonstrations on how digitization is being implemented not only to house and integrate millions of documents, photographs and songs on the Jewish experience, but also to bring “born-digital” projects to life. Louis Kaplan, a co-applicant of Mapping Ararat, presented a virtual world based on Mordecai Manuel Noah’s vision of a Jewish homeland at Grand Island in the Niagara River.

Ararat, which is comprised of a cartographic installation and a website run by social media, is supplemented with a walking tour through Grand Island’s grounds. By downloading a program called Layar to an iPhone, users can see Ararat’s buildings and monuments virtually embedded in the landscape as they tour through the premises while also gaining access to additional articles and photographs on the site.

Kaplan emphasized how digital format projects like Ararat thrive on the continuance of resources’ digitization. He explained that only three primary source letters from the guide to the papers of Mordecai Noah have currently been found. Kaplan urged organizations to digitize their materials for open access on a global scale, to allow projects like Ararat to work with the raw materials they need.

The Center for Jewish History, whose partners include the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is home to over 100 million Jewish artifacts. The center has already begun to tackle its own digitization projects through a thematic approach, partnering with the University of Frankfurt to digitize1,000 volumes of the Wissenschaft collection.

Additionally, the center’s Holocaust Resource Initiative is currently processing 110 collections otherwise unknown to anyone but archivists and creating a record that allow the archives to be fully recognized through a search engine. The center’s current online library operates via a single-search online public access catalog across all formats. By logging on to search.cjh.org, users can gain access to archival and library materials, museum collections and digital materials by using a single keyword to search across various institutions.

Michael Glickman, Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Jewish History, explained in an interview with JointMedia News Service how the center’s online material has also boosted interest in its physical resources. Glickman said that when the center puts something of interest online, it almost always sees the number of physical researchers increase specific to that collection. In turn, that helps the center focus its energy on better understanding what the user is looking for.

“I think the goal for us is to further democratize access,” Glickman said. “Sitting on this wonderful repository we have an obligation to come together and think about how we can make the user experience that much more successful.”

Posted on November 14, 2011 and filed under Features, U.S..