The JTS Library for the 21st Century

The JTS Library houses the most significant collection of Hebraic and Judaic manuscripts and rare printed books in the world outside of the State of Israel (and some would argue in the entire world). At JTS, we feel a tremendous responsibility for enhancing, conserving, and increasing access to this unparalleled treasure of the Jewish people. Articles such as the one published here by Naomi Stillman (September 16, 2015), which contain numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterize the goals and purposes of the JTS campus redevelopment project, are hurtful to those of us who take that responsibility seriously. Moreover, they undermine support for the Library and its mission, which Ms. Stillman and thousands of other people hold dear.

Although nostalgia for a golden-hued past is a common emotional reaction to change, it cannot be a substitute for meeting the evolving needs of the future. The present JTS Library was built in the 1980s, which may seem not so long ago until you realize that 30 years ago the Internet revolution had not transformed the way we receive and disseminate information, digitization was not yet available, eBooks did not exist, and the numerous technological developments that allow rare books to be showcased and studied without harm to their fragile condition were not even considered. Perhaps even more importantly, 30 years ago libraries were mainly used as spaces for silent, individual scholarship, which is at odds with the advanced thinking of today that emphasizes the value of collaborative learning.

Had JTS merely decided to preserve the present Library and ignore these seismic changes—as some have suggested—we would have done a major disservice to the remarkable collection and the history it represents. Instead, the leadership of JTS—the Board of Trustees, the administration, and the leadership of the Library—embarked on one of the most exciting ventures in JTS history to ensure that the treasures of the Jewish people are better conserved, more widely disseminated, and more accessible to the world of scholars, students, and lay people with the purpose of enriching and inspiring new generations.

The present plan is to house the new library within a new 100,000 square foot complex for Jewish living, learning, and inspiration. We have retained world renowned architects who have designed some of the most creative and beautiful academic libraries and public buildings in the United States and abroad. At the center of the new Library will be a new beit midrash to highlight the importance of this unique form of Jewish collaborative, text-based learning. The entire rare books collection (11,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 25,000 rare printed books) will be onsite, protected by a state-of the art environmental control system as well as a modern conservation lab. A new digitization lab will allow JTS to make these treasures  more available to scholars and students wherever they reside. Finally, with the help of new technology, we will be able to expose students and the public at large to these works without risking harm to centuries-old materials.

The entire Library will house more than 100,000 books and manuscripts, so there will be plenty of opportunity for those who enjoy simply browsing the stacks to do so. The remaining portion of the general collection will be securely stored offsite, but it too will be browsable via the library’s “virtual browse” technology, and any book will generally be retrievable within 24 hours. The books stored offsite will be those volumes that have not been requested for many years, if ever. Much of the space freed up by offsite storage will be utilized for additional technology-enhanced, collaborative learning spaces and social areas, such as a coffee bar, so that the library will enhance the sense of JTS as a living and learning community.

At JTS, we seek to revere the past while also charting new and exciting paths for the future of Jewish life in North America. We are deeply indebted to the former leadership of the Library, including Dr. Menachem Schmelzer, who spearheaded an earlier moment of change at the Library 30 years ago. Now a new generation of leadership is seeking to meet the challenges of even more dramatic change and thereby maintain the Library’s position as the preeminent Jewish library in the world. Each year, thanks to its many supporters, JTS spends millions to maintain the Library and provide necessary services to those who use it. As part of the JTS 21st Century Campus Project, we will invest tens of millions more to ensure not only its future, but its cutting-edge vitality in a rapidly changing world. We must do so if we are to stay true to both our legacy and our mission on behalf of generations to come.

About the Author
Marc Gary is executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
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