Shternshis: There’s no YIVO without its librarians

(Shaula Haitner Pikiwiki Israel photo)

The world of Yiddish studies was shaken this week when New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research fired all four of its librarians, citing a budget deficit.

YIVO is the world’s leading and oldest institution whose sole mission is to “Preserve and foster knowledge of the ongoing story of Jewish life, with a focus on the history and culture of east European Jewry”. Immediately after The Forward broke the news on January 20, 15 scholars, spearheaded by Yiddish studies graduate students, created a petition calling on YIVO to reverse its decision. Within 36 hours, 1,235 people, including numerous Canadians, added their names to the petition. It is a list of scholars, artists, activists, students from all over the world, people who cannot imagine their research and academic endeavours without relying on documents that YIVO contains.

YIVO was established in 1925, headquartered in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). It started with the group of enthusiasts, many of them emigres from the Russian Empire. Cecile Kuznitz, in her book YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (2014), explains that unlike many other research institutes, YIVO relied on zamlers, ordinary men and women who took it upon themselves to work on behalf of the institute in their hometowns. Both professional scholars and amateur collectors worked tirelessly, often without compensation, to save what they believed had been the most important documents and books of European Jewish culture. By the end of 1930s, YIVO had over 30 branches around the world. Its board included such luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. In 1939, Max Weinreich, the founder of YIVO was able to escape Europe and settled in New York.  One year later, the New York-based YIVO’s American branch became YIVO’s headquarters.

Today, YIVO’s website cites a collection containing 23 million archival documents and 385,000 books. Every document in YIVO, every book, every periodical tells two stories: one, contained on its pages, and another one of how it got there. But here is the kicker: YIVO’s library needs its knowledgeable curators, area specialists and meta-data experts, who are skilled in its specific complex collections. Researchers and scholars relied on those unique professionals who know more than even the best inventories can provide, work tirelessly on cataloguing its unique books in many languages and improve access to these precious materials. Most wouldn’t even begin to know where to find these rare publications unless a librarian helps to direct them.


Without a librarian, researchers will write books based only on easily searchable digitized books and documents. They are bound to miss something crucial. Imagine, for example, someone writing a book on history of medicine among Yiddish speakers, and missing crucial works written in the 19th century simply because their titles do not directly refer to medicine, doctors or nurses. Our imagination is limited, and so is our digital word search. Librarians are trained to study their collections and broaden scholars’ range.

YIVO leaders, of course, understand all of that. I am sure that it was an impossibly difficult decision to let go of four librarians in one day. It does not make YIVO look good that one of them worked there for decades, that three out of four are women, three out of four are over the age of 50 and two are immigrants. One of the librarians is world-renowned specialist Lyudmila Sholokhova, originally from Kiev, where she rescued the Yiddish music collections of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. Sholokhova then moved to New York, was hired by YIVO and in then helped countless scholars access archival and library resources.

Why did it happen? As renowned Yiddish writer Y. L. Peretz once stated, in desperate times, even the Torah, “the best merchandise,” has no takers. YIVO’s fundraising goals were not met, and the most vulnerable workers of YIVO, but also some of the most valuable ones, were sacrificed.

It is easy to blame the non-supporting public or donors for not picking up the bill. But one cannot help but wonder why some organizations, such as the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, N.Y., which rescued books from ending up in garbage dumps and digitized them and thus transformed scholarship worldwide,  manages to stay afloat with spectacular success, whereas YIVO, a place where each document and book been collected with the remarkable heroism of hundreds of people over the past 95 years, continues to suffer budget deficits.

Can this story have a happy ending? I surely hope so. YIVO started when the field of Jewish studies was in its infancy.  It continued when the war broke out in Europe and its collections were looted by the Nazis. Today, when Jewish studies are taught at almost every institution of higher education in North America, more and more people rely on YIVO to help them with their work. Let’s hope that one day, 2020 will not be remembered as the year the YIVO fired its librarians, and the field of Yiddish studies began an irreversible decline.