Recap: The Politics and Meaning of Jewish Archives

On March 12, the Berman Archive hosted an online event, “The Politics and Meaning of Jewish Archives.”  Eitan Kensky, Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford Libraries (lower left), moderated the wide-ranging and insightful discussion with Lisa Leff,  Professor of History at American University (upper left); Stefanie Halpern, Director of the Archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (upper right); and the Berman Archive’s Director Ari Y Kelman (lower right).

The conversation covered ways in which Jewish archives have changed, cultural ownership, the connections between collections practices and the Jewish experience, and whether or not preserving Jewish heritage for the broader sake of the commons comes at a cost to the individual and individual experience.

Lisa Leff described how her understanding of Jewish archives has changed through working on her projects—both her own research and writing, and through her work with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “When I started writing The Archive Thief, I had a utopian view of what was possible with digitization,” she said, describing visions of boundless possibilities and access. “It’s not actually so simple—you still need a degree of coherence, a place where people would understand to go.” This plays out in her work with the USHMM, which has a vast collection of copies of other collections that cover just the years related to the Holocaust, creating an artificial break in the history. “Any time you’re creating a collection you’re creating a boundary,” she said.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” said Stefanie Halpern in response to a question about the meaning of digital collections. “You can’t assume a description being used 50 or 60 years ago will be useful today,” she said. This observation is meaningful in both directions, Stefanie explained. As YIVO is a third of the way through a project digitizing millions of documents, she realizes that the assumptions she makes today might not compute, saying, “it’s humbling to know that in 50 years someone else is going to be redoing the work we’re doing now.” Digitization of a document or artifact isn’t the end of the archival process. Often it’s the beginning of a process of curating, tagging, and storing. 

This is the crux of so many archives, Jewish and otherwise. “Holding things is good but you need to make it findable,” said Ari Y Kelman. He elaborated a little later in response to a question from Eitan about a theory of the digital commons and whether or not it comes at the expense of the individual. “Expertise, search terms, and the ability of a well structured archive to have a kind of search expertise is something that is a hedge on the free floating imaginary from the digital commons. Each archive has different expertise and metadata structure.”

Lisa Leff said something that serves as a solid summary of what was an interesting and fruitful event: “What’s special about Jews is that so many different versions of these archives—in Israel, at YIVO, and the Berman Archive—are interested in the multiplicity of ways of defining Jewish peoplehood and each is going to have their own documentation practice.” The meaning of archives, over a long enough timeline, is always in flux.


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