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Library Resources and Jewish Studies Scholarship

Zachary M. Baker

Information Literacy and Jewish Studies

Information literacy is a buzz phrase that is often invoked in the professional literature that crosses my computer screen. As defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, “information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.’” Librarians play a pivotal role in guiding students and faculty through the complex landscape of publishing and scholarship.

Consultations with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty concerning their research form a regular (and gratifying) feature of my daily grind. These problem-solving exercises frequently begin with such phrases as: “How do I find,” “Where is,” and “Is there literature on…” Sometimes a ready answer is available, but more often the conversation entails a process – attempts on my part to tease out what researchers are “really” after and then formulate strategies that might enable them to proceed with their research quest.

Most colleges and universities do not have designated Judaica specialists on their library staffs. Rather, they have “subject liaisons” who are responsible for covering multiple collecting areas in their libraries. These liaisons do not necessarily possess the focused language or academic expertise that is available in large research libraries and institutions that operate under Jewish auspices.

As a consequence, “information literacy” in Jewish Studies is something that graduate students and faculty are likely to attain unsystematically and on their own. To its great credit, AJS has played a proactive role in informing its members about resources in Jewish Studies, not least through the Perspectives on Technology columns authored by my Stanford Libraries colleague Heidi G. Lerner, which appeared in AJS Perspectives from 2003 to 2011. More recently, in October 2015, AJS cosponsored its very first webinar (“Resources for Eastern European Jewish Studies,” led by yours truly), together with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. And Internet forums such as H-JUDAIC and Ha-Safran (under the aegis of the Association of Jewish Libraries) are also useful sites for the dissemination of announcements concerning new and promising research tools, online text collections, and the like.

An emphasis on online resources reflects the realities of much scholarship and teaching today. When I first led a graduate-level course on Research Methods in Jewish Studies, in 2002, most of the sources that we covered were print-based: bibliographies, encyclopedias, dictionaries, concordances, and foundational texts. To be sure, RAMBI – The Index of Articles on Jewish Studies was online and the course syllabus did include some useful websites. Mass digitization projects were still a few years in the future, however, and CD-ROMs (such as the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, which is now also available online) were considered to be the state of the art. By 2010, when I last taught the Research Methods course, our focus was almost exclusively on online resources. There is a constantly expanding universe of electronic databases and collections of texts available to researchers, and such formerly indispensable print publications as Shlomo Shunami’s Bibliography of Jewish Bibliographies (1965-1975) are unlikely to be of much practical use to the rising generation. It is with a degree of wistfulness that I make this observation.

When all is said and done, we are the beneficiaries of a positively breathtaking Age of Discovery. That said, here are a few concluding observations concerning the online resources that libraries make available to their constituencies:

  • Not everything that you see on the web is free. For every (free) there is an Otzar HaHochma (paid subscription service). I could easily provide additional examples; this revolution can and will be monetized!
  • Scanning is cheap; digitization is expensive. A considerable investment is required on the part of agencies – private and public alike – that produce collections of digitized publications and documents. These texts require layers of software that enable their pages to be turned and (optimally) that render their contents searchable. Metadata, provided by human intervention, is also required in order to make these texts “discoverable” through library catalogs and finding aids. Plus, even Google and other search engines require engineers to write and then tweak the algorithms that make them “tick.”

There is nothing “forever” about the web – or digital resources in general. The sites that have been preserved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine are but islands in a vast archipelago of defunct websites. Libraries have begun to pick up the slack, through highly selective, in-depth web archiving initiatives. And long-term preservation of digital content – through institutional repositories and services such as LOCKSSCLOCKSS, and Portico – is still a work in progress. Storage costs for the digital files also carry a price tag.

Zachary M. Baker is the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections and Assistant University Librarian for Collection Development – Humanities and Social Sciences at Stanford University Libraries.