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On the Myriad Capacities of a University Librarian

Michelle Chesner

Who are the librarians at your university, and what can they do for you? There are different types of librarians in a university library: catalogers, selectors/bibliographers, reference librarians, rare book librarians, and many others. Some, like me, do all of the above. I buy rare and contemporary books and other media for the Jewish Studies collection at Columbia University, catalog or supervise cataloging of rare Judaica and Hebraica, and provide reference help to students and faculty within my institution and beyond it. So what would a scholar of Jewish Studies need to know about the librarians?

1. They have advanced degrees – often more than one. At many research institutions, librarians are required to have at least a Masters’ degree in their field of specialization in addition to a Masters’ in Library Science, and many have Ph.D.s. in their subject areas (from another perspective, librarianship is a good “alt-ac” option for scholars looking for positions outside of the traditional teaching environment).

2. They buy books. This means that librarians have to know the current state of the field in order to maintain an up-to-date collection. They also welcome input from scholars about potential purchases.

3. They buy databases (and know what’s in them). Librarians evaluate and purchase digital collections varying from a collection of digitized Old Yiddish literature, the Bar Ilan Responsa Database, primary sources for the study of American Jewish History, and many more.

4. Many librarians are involved in Digital Humanities (DH) projects. DH projects often involve content found in libraries, and use concepts that are very familiar to librarians, such as metadata and knowledge organization, and so libraries often provide access to the tools (both digital and human) for significant digital humanities endeavors.

5. Librarians are well-connected to their colleagues in other collections around the world. This is especially helpful for scholars traveling abroad for their research who need access to specific collections. Librarians are happy to reach out to their colleagues at other institutions to ensure that a researcher will have the necessary access to research materials.

6. Providing access to researchers is a librarian’s main goal, and librarians collaborate extensively to make this happen. This may mean purchasing commercially available products, but it can also mean digitizing materials ourselves, such as the recent American Jewish newspapers added to the Jewish Historical Press project online through a partnership with NYU Libraries, NYPL, Columbia Libraries, Tel Aviv University, and the National Library of Israel. In the print world, it means that we work together to share our print collections via consortial agreements such as Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan, so a scholar is able to access the majority of secondary sources for research without leaving campus.

7. The most important thing to know about Jewish Studies librarians is the importance of communication. If we don’t know that you are doing research on Hebrew printing, we may not tell you about the incunabulum that we just purchased, or the recent digitization of a particular manuscript at another institution. If you don’t tell us about the book missing from the stacks that is critical to your research, we can never purchase a replacement. If you don’t ask us to come to your class to demonstrate resources, then your students may miss some critical sources in their papers.

Big issues in the library world today mostly surround the digital. Librarians are actively working on creative solutions to deal with the high costs of vendor products for critical resources. An example of this is the American Jewish Press project, mentioned earlier, where libraries collaborated to pay for digitization of materials that would be open access and freely available. Collaboration is probably the most important concept in libraries today, through shared collections, interlibrary loan, open access, and many scholarly projects and endeavors.

Michelle Chesner is the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University.