Sunday, February 14, 2021


Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman 
September 2000

This is my first column as an independent consultant. My company will be involved in the management of knowledge. I will have two foci-- advising organization on how to better turn information into knowledge and the cataloging of Judaica library materials. I wish every a Shana Tova u-Metukah (happy and sweet New Year) may this year be one that share something that you learned.

This is an expanded version of my monthly column. Usually the difference between the print version that is published for the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the web version is minor. Changes are usually based on the needs of a different audience. The version contains more material because I ran out of space in the print version.

Center for Jewish History

I was in New York over the Labor Day weekend preparing for my new venture. I visited the new Center for Jewish History on West 17th Street in Manhattan. The building actually has entrances

on both 16th and 17th Streets. This new building is just opening to the public this month. The Center is joint effort of YIVO, the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardic Federation and the Yeshiva University Museum. These organizations have performed a great service for students and scholars of Judaica by pulling their resources to form one organization.. The logistical problems to move the library collections were daunting. The American Jewish Historical Society was previously housed on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. The other institutions were in New York City.

Like many new buildings, they are still trying to solve climate control and other technical problems. These institutions have different roots and missions, but they share a mission to save and preserve the past in order to educate future generations. To find out more visit their joint web site : www.centerfor This site has links to each of the constituent organizations. One of their joint missions is to act as a resource for the study of Jewish genealogy. They will shortly have a computer system in operation to help researchers find the information in any of the constituent libraries. The libraries share a reading room.

While all four institutions want to help preserve the Jewish past they complement each other rather than overlap. YIVO seeks to collect materials in Yiddish and about Jews from Yiddish speaking countries; the Leo Baeck Institute collects materials concerning central European and German speaking Jewry; and the American Jewish Historical Society collects materials about the United States. For current materials published in the United States all three libraries may want to purchase them; but for ephemera, manuscripts, and archival materials they would logically go to one institution based on their collection development policy.

YIVO (Yidisher Visenshaftlikher Institut) = Institute for Jewish Research

Since I will be working with YIVO I would like to share a little about the organization's history. (A fuller story can be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica v. 16.) YIVO was founded at a conference that took place in Berlin, August 7-12, 1925. Vilna was selected as its center and YIVO reached its peak in 1935 when they held a conference attended by leading scholars from the world's Yiddish speaking communities. By 1940 when the Nazis occupied Vilna, YIVO's library had amassed over 100,000 volumes and over 100,000 manuscripts and archival items. About 50% of these items survived the Holocaust and were sent with the help of the U.S. Army and State Department to the New York headquarters. YIVO's Library is dedicated to collection, preservation, and study of Eastern European Jewish culture and the places to where Eastern European Jewry immigrated. Today, the collection contains over 300,000 printed volumes and over 500,000 non-book items and includes religious and secular materials that mirror Jewish life in those countries.

The Vilna Collection is part of the core collection of the YIVO Library. The Vilna collection includes over 20,000 books from the Mattityahu Strashun Library. (The other surviving Strashun Library books are now part of the Jewish National Library at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.) This collection of rabbinica (mostly in Hebrew) that belonged to the Strashun Library was cataloged on cards during the 1960's by the late Rabbi Hayim Lieberman.

Mattityahu Strashun, 1819-1885, was a talmudic scholar born in Vilna. His family was well-to-do and he married the eldest daughter of the wealthy. Joseph Elijah Eliasberg. He had an extensive knowledge of philosophy, history and astronomy in addition to his Jewish scholarship. He was a Jewish communal leader and was appointed to the Vilna city council. The oldest books in the collection date to the early 16th century. Since he died childless, he willed his collection of 5,700 books, many with his marginal annotations, to the Jewish community of Vilna. In addition, he left money for a building and maintaining

the collection. The first director of the library was Samuel Strashun, his nephew. The collection was kept current. In 1928 the library started collecting every book published in Poland in Hebrew or Yiddish. By 1939 the library contained over 35,000 volumes and included 150 manuscripts and five incunabula.

I first visited YIVO when I was library school student in the early 1970's. The institution was on prestigious, 5th Avenue. The building looked more like a mansion than a place of learning. I learned about Judaica librarianship from their librarians in a joint course between Columbia University and YIVO1 When I learned there the institution already had a long history of Yiddish scholarship. Their periodicals are important sources of Jewish scholarship. Their librarians have a long history of contributing to the field. The late Dina Abramowitcz when she was the director of the library, edited the list of Yiddish books for the Jewish Books Annual.

Cataloging Knowledge

There is a source in Torah that gives us a clue to the need to catalog and organize knowledge. In Parshat Bereshit (the book of Genesis) we read of the story of creation. After God created the universe, he separated the light from the darkness and separated the waters and formed dry land. This is the first act of organizing the world. Organization of data what cataloging is all about.

Learning is a process that is usually defined as change in behavior based on experience. Knowledge is the something that has been learned from experience or another person. When the knowledge is integrated into the person we say that learning has occurred. Knowledge can be gained from input to any of our senses. This knowledge is based on information. Information is interpreted from data and data are formed from symbols such as letters and numbers. In organizations, one person's data becomes another's information and one person's information becomes another's knowledge. Knowledge is the result of integrating information. Each step of the process adds value to a previous step. The human mind attaches meaning to the unfamiliar. When confronted with symbols such as letters, numbers, the mind tries to interpret them and make words. If the word is familiar the mind attaches some linguistic meaning to the symbols. Based on the knowledge in the person's head words form and soon the symbols are new information for the person. The difficulty about writing about this process is that while we observe people working, it is difficult to determine the dividing line between information and knowledge. Every input that one of our senses detects is referenced to our experience that is previous knowledge. For example, the word triangle names a geometric form that has a definition. However, the word triangle creates a mental image that is unique for each person.

I would like to choose a library model to demonstrate how knowledge is saved, cataloged and distributed. I define books as the frozen knowledge of the author(s). Books are based on the information, data and experience of the author. The act of writing and publishing is a "freezing" of this knowledge because in the real world people are always learning and changing their internal knowledge. A book enters a collection as information. The cataloger takes the data from the title page and enters it based on rules into a catalog system. Once in the system the book is represented by symbols. The book is then labeled and placed on the shelf at the "address" that the cataloger assigned. If a reader wants to find that book (s)he looks in the catalog, following the rules for searching, locates the address of the book and then is able to get the book. Once the book is read, the frozen knowledge of the author can become part of the live knowledge of the reader.

Cataloging is both a science and an art. A process based on rules and practices is a science. A process applying those rules to the needs of a particular library is an art. Two catalogers may both follow the rules and create different catalog records that are both correct. A "cataloger" not following the rules may create a situation that makes if difficult for readers to find books in the future. Cataloging is a process to communicate with library users at a future moment. The reader who understands the rules can find books more easily then those who don't understand how to use the system. Catalogers are source for information; reference librarians are the interpreters and guides to information and the end reader becomes the one who internalizes knowledge. At any moment the librarian can be a gatherer of data, a distributor of information, and a source of knowledge.

The difference between chaos and the world is the act of creation that put order into the universe. The difference between a collection of books and a library is the organization and cataloging. The skill of the cataloger is understanding the world of books and knowledge and the ability to organize and describe them based on rules to enable readers to find them. This adds value to the books and makes the collection more valuable.

In future columns I will continue this discussion on knowledge with more examples. Please do not hesitate to contact me to give ideas and suggestions for future columns.



1. Columbia University and YIVO have many co-operative efforts in the area of Yiddish studies.

©2001 Last revised March 23, 2001, Feb. 14, 2021