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Of De-accessioning Books There Is No End

Anne Lapidus Lerner

An article in The Jerusalem Report recently cited the contemporary Israeli writer Haim Beer as saying that when he is in his library he feels that he is in the presence of the God of his ancestors. Reading Beer’s words just two months after I completed the dismantling of my Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS] office set me thinking about the symbolic action that I had undertaken. While my office collection was predominantly modern Hebrew literature, a field that tends to take issue with the God of my ancestors, it often does so by hurling the language and metaphors of the sacred like missiles against the Holy. That deep engagement with the sacred surrounded me in my small personal space.

In well over four decades on the JTS faculty and administration my office had served as a home, a refuge, a workplace – and the place where I housed some of my most important and beloved books. Although modern Hebrew literature was the core, other interests were reflected there as well: rabbinics, women’s studies, Bible, Jewish history, practical rabbinics. An essential French literature library, some my late father’s, others mine, recalled the journey I had taken. Some Latin, some Yiddish, some American Jewish literature. Books that were well-thumbed and books that were aspirational. Where might my interests turn and what might I have time and energy to pursue?

When four years into my retirement JTS indicated that it would need to reclaim my office, I tried to stay grateful both for the years that I had the use of it and for the way the staff worked with me to lessen the impact. At the same time I was confronted with somehow dealing with hundreds and hundreds of books, not to mention many running feet of files. Yes, my first piece of advice is start before a deadline looms; once you have a key and move in, you can start. Needless to say, I received this good advice but did not follow it.

Back in the ancient period, when my husband and I were first married, we talked about our union as bringing together two large libraries with overlapping Judaica collections. Over time our holdings multiplied; we used to think that they might fund our retirement. Second piece of advice: the market for books is slim; don’t bank on it.

Third piece of advice: try to figure out what you need. I started with a shelf-list, compiled by students whom I hired. Initially I naively thought that a list would facilitate selling my collection. While that did not happen, it has provided me some comfort in that I know the breadth and scope of the collection.

Selecting books to keep and those to give away forces one to confront the bittersweet issues that retirement itself brings. That’s part of why it’s so difficult. How do I want to spend however much time and capacity I am granted? Do I want to continue writing academic articles? Popular? Am I to become a blogger? Dusting off my Latin? But I always meant to reread Proust. Amichai at a poem a day? Each of us will respond differently and those responses shape our decisions.

In practice, what have I done with the books? Most of all I resisted the thought that they might be trashed, so I contacted a few bookdealers to see what they wanted. Dan Wyman was particularly lovely to deal with. He bought a few, as did Aron Lutwak of Ideal Books. I was lucky to be able to donate a good chunk of the modern Hebrew literature to the Academy for Jewish Religion. A few cartons were donated to JTS. Most of the French literature went to Columbia’s French Department to distribute to students gratis. Some are awaiting my town’s library sale. I got a few bites because a friend circulated my list to the Association of Jewish Librarians. Donations do have a small tax-advantage but, more importantly for me, they shift the onus of final disposition from my conscience. Many went into storage because we have yet to triage the books in our home, some of which will be replaced by part of my stored collection.

I know that I am not alone in seeking an appropriate final resting place for my library. As we say, tsarat rabim hatsi nehamah, a problem shared by many brings with it half a measure of comfort. This may, in fact, be an area in which AJS can help. Along with retirees’ libraries that are downsizing, there are Judaica programs that are new or expanding. Perhaps through a joint effort, AJS and the Association of Jewish Librarians could help these groups find each other. In the meantime, I must get back to my books.

Anne Lapidus Lerner is assistant professor emerita of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.