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Second Conference of Judaica-Collection Curators

On November 4-6, 2014 (11-13 Heshvan, 5775) the National Library of Israel hosted its Second Conference of Judaica-Collection Curators. The conference was attended by more than 100 library and archive professionals from more than twenty countries around the globe. Individuals who curate Jewish collections, no matter where they are, have great deal to learn from one another, and they share many needs and professional concerns. Since so many developments in contemporary libraries are collaborative and occur between two or more institutions, face-to-face meetings between representatives of diverse collections is critical for creating the professional networks that will move the whole field forward.​

I will make no attempt to summarize every issue raised in the course of the three days. Instead, I want to organize and summarize some of the key themes that came up in the presentations of many speakers, and which are reflected in the conference's title, "Toward a Jewish Digital Culture." Libraries in general, and Jewish libraries in particular, are adjusting and readjusting to the digital nature of the future of library work. Digital technology and the Internet change virtually everything about how information and knowledge is created, distributed, stored, searched, and consumed.


Judaica collections, like other collections, make use of digital technologies for two primary reasons: first, the digitization of already existing physical material, and second, preserving the almost infinite quantity of digitally born material, for which there simply is not any physical item of which the digital is a copy.


Jewish libraries around the world are creating photos and scans of manuscripts, rare books, Jewish newspapers, and archives. Digitizing existing physical materials Jewish serves two primary functions: preservation and accessibility. Physical books can crumble, develop mold, or simply disappear. With advanced technology digital copies of books change the preservation equation. Digitizing a book, and then saving it in such a way that it should not be corrupted or that the file not become technologically obsolete (and it is not as simple as it sounds), preserves it. Representatives from, for example, Harvard University, The Biblioteca Palatina in Parma, or the British Library described at the conference in great detail the past and current projects designed preserve and make accessible the highlights of their own collections. And smaller libraries, or libraries with only small Jewish collections, can increasingly use digital items as ways of getting more cache from their Jewish collections.

 


 


Physical books also have the disadvantage of being located in only one place, while digital books can be made available, within the limits of copyright law, to anyone anywhere, making it possible to access manuscripts, rare books, or historical newspapers from the privacy of your living room or a scholar's study. This opens up vast possibilities for new creativity, whether in more predictable forms, such as the fulltext search of historical materials in the National Library's JPress initiative, or in totally unexpected directions, such as the British Library's encouragement of the gamer community to use items from its collection in creating scenes for their historical gaming environments.


Jewish libraries are also being challenged by the increase in digital born material, material for which there is no original physical copy. Call it what you will -- the information explosion, data flood, information overload -- The simple quantity of information available through any Internet connection is vast and ever-growing. Historical books will always, in one form or another, remain critical for readers and researchers who want to access the past, before the digital age. We know how to collect and preserve that material. But how do we collect and preserve digitally born materials?


Given that something posted online can be removed almost instantaneously -- the suggestion that something put on the Internet cannot be removed is nonsense – what roles could libraries play in preserving and archiving digital born material? Dr. Anat Ben-David, of Israel's Open University, described key differences between an archived website and the original one, since it does not have the same hyperlinks, embedded videos, banners, or cookies. Furthermore – and deeply ironic – copyright issues make it very difficult for libraries to give readers access to the archived Internet, and often one cannot simply search, find or save an archived webpage, certainly not to the general public.


Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli pointed to ironies in the digital age. Too much optimism about freedom of information can mask more complicated dynamics, in which people get lost in the sea of "too much information", in which they do not read carefully, or in which the possibility of meaningful and coherent memory becomes difficult when everything is preserved. In fact, as Prof. Yoram Eshet-Alkalai argued in his thought-provoking opening lecture, in order to locate themselves in the maze of digital information, people find themselves reverting back to pre-modern forms of literacy. Note, he cited as an example, the similarities between early writing, which was based on pictures, and the emoticons of our cellphones.


Libraries have the job of pushing forward this digital revolution of accessibility. But digitization also represents an existential challenge to libraries. Libraries have been for millennia centralized institutions. But part of the digital revolution involves a diffusion of authority and a democratization of power. The wisdom of the masses, the power of big data, organized through Web 2.0 in which the boundary between creators of information and consumers of information are blurred (think about Wikipedia or YouTube), raises questions of the precise place of centralized libraries, even a national libraries. These are critical matters that will have to concern all of us into the future.

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