Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Cairo Geniza and JTS library renovations

STORAGE: Say Goodbye to This Treasure Trove of Rare Texts — Until 2018 (Josh Nathan-Kazis, The Forward).
The greatest collection of rare Jewish historical documents in the United States will be boxed up later this year and put into storage until at least 2018, the Forward has learned.

The library at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary — Conservative Judaism’s largest rabbinic seminary — holds the most impressive compilation of Jewish historical materials outside of Jerusalem: hundreds of ancient Jewish marriage contracts, thousands of unique manuscripts, and tens of thousands of fragments recovered in Egypt from the famed Cairo Genizah.

Now, the future of this collection is a matter of heated debate in Jewish scholarly circles as JTS sells off real estate assets to help ease a years-long financial crunch. Over the next few years, JTS plans to sell two buildings now serving as residence halls to developers, along with air rights to its main campus. The school will also replace its current library building with a new library and conference center.

In addition to the temporary closing of the rare books collection, other, longer-term changes are coming, too. The library’s circulating collection and its archives will largely be stored off-site once the new library is constructed. Meanwhile, the school’s beit midrash, or religious study hall, will be built into the new library.

This is not an uncommon situation, perhaps because the corpus of scholarly books has reached a critical mass and libraries are finding it impossible to continue to display it all in the traditional open stacks. The Library of the University of St. Andrews recently made similar changes, sending the bulk of the collection to outside storage and setting up a dedicated reading room (the building of a former local church) to consult the (extensive and important) special collections. If you need a book in storage, it will be brought in, usually within a day. So far the system seems to be working well enough.

More on the Cairo Geniza collection at JTS is here and here.