Friday, June 23, 2017

Library Magic and Plundered Books

Library Magic and Plundered Books

Rarely do I get reference questions that are interesting enough to write about.  This week I had two and one of those I was the information seeker.  

A senior scholar asked about the word “abracadabra.”  She wanted to know the meaning.  She said that the word sounded like it was from Aramaic, but she couldn’t find it in her Talmud dictionary or in the Talmud at all.  She heard that the word meant, “he created as he spoke.”  This folk etymology explanation is offered by the magician Steve Cohen in his book, Win the Crowd.[1] Cohen is a magician, not a linguist and should have read the subtitle to his book.  I told the scholar that I wrote an article on the topic in December 2002 and forwarded the link to her.  You will have to read the whole article[2] to understand that “abracadabra” is a magic word used by magicians to distract audiences. 

I recently read the book, Book Thieves[3], by Anders Rydell.  I wrote a short review for professional publication, AJL Reviews, but my interest in the topic of stolen books was piqued. Rydell talks about millions of books that were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis and a few that made their way back to the owners or their heirs.  I will be writing a longer article connected to the topic of the book.  Forever, my views on book ownership, the source of the books, and the de-acquisition of library items are changed.  

I remembered when I was a student working in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library we had thousands of books with the book plate from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. See illustration to the left.  These were “ownerless” books from Europe that were distributed to Jewish libraries and the Library of Congress mostly in the United States and Israel.  Since Rydell wrote about the ownership records of books I wanted to know if the JTS library had recorded which books were from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction.[4] 

I searched the term, “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” in their catalog and got more than 44,000 hits.  This is way more than the 12,000 items the JTS Library was supposed to have acquired.  I looked at the catalog records and found many had “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” in the added entry MARC field 710. There was no 500 note or other field that would explain the reason for a 710 entry.  I called the JTS Library reference desk.  After explaining the catalog entry, the reference librarian didn’t know the answer.  She had to consult with the catalogers.  I am waiting for the answers and will share them when I publish the full article.  The full article will have example titles.

Formulating the proper question is half-way to getting a good answer.  I have students ask all the time for “a book.”  It takes many questions to figure out what they want.  I am always amused at the amount of words the students waste telling me the story of their life before they get around to the question they need us to help them with.  

Don’t you just burn on the inside when some clueless administrator says, “Can’t a work-study student do that?”  Some of the librarians have more degrees and years of study than the faculty and administrators. Library collections are curated, selected and organized by experts; books don’t appear on the shelves by magic.  Just by using the magic of abracadabra I cannot teach management, the understanding of historical context, and critical analysis needed to run a library. To answer many challenges that I see as routine, one must travel around the sun many times and view each day as a learning opportunity.

[1] Win the crowd : unlock the secrets of influence, charisma, and showmanship.  New York : Collins, 2006, ©2005.

[2] Stuhlman, Daniel D. “Abracadabra”  Librarian’s Lobby December 2002.

[3] The Book Thieves : the Nazi looting of Europe’s libraries and the race to return a literary heritage / Anders Rydell, translated by Hening Koch. New York : Viking Press, 2017.  

[4] I had to check my personal collection for pre-war books from Europe.  I found only three and I am certain they were not plundered.

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