The Association of Jewish Libraries will host a conference at Weitzman

AJL conference attendees at the 2019 conference, the last time the organization met in person | Courtesy of the Association of Jewish Libraries

Jewish librarians are more than little old ladies with tight buns and glasses. And being a librarian is more than looking for a dusty book on a shelf.

Library and information science is a multidisciplinary field, incorporating books, archives, technology, multimedia, and any tidbit of information, preserving it and making it more accessible to those who need it.

For Jewish media, such as ancient texts and historical objects that have survived anti-Semitic attacks and centuries of attrition, finding a steward for these objects and information is crucial.

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Jewish librarians are champions of this effort. As “people of the book,” these librarians, as part of the Association of Jewish Libraries, meet each year to learn from each other on how to do their jobs better.

From June 27-29, the AJL will host its 2022 conference, themed “Together Again,” in Philadelphia at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. This will be their first in-person conference since 2019.

“The AJL conference is like the opportunity to be in a whole room of people who are all doing the same thing as you, and to be able to problem solve and troubleshoot, brainstorm and get ideas from people,” said Rachel Kamin, National Conference. chairman of the AJL conference committee and librarian at the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois.

The committee expects over 200 conference attendees; 23 sessions are planned with more than 60 presenters.

Over the past two years, libraries, like all other institutions, have had to deal with the pandemic. For librarians, that means finding new technologies to use and getting creative with getting books to people.

At the start of the pandemic, Kamin set up a way to deliver books to devotees. They emailed and called with book requests, and Kamin drove to their house when the book arrived. It has since become the default for requesting and delivering books.

Gael Shirazi, an Israeli and Judaic librarian in the Asia and Middle East division of the Library of Congress, believes that COVID has been a mixed blessing for libraries. Although many have closed, it has given others, like the Library of Congress, the ability to prioritize and digitize resources.

“[COVID] increased the need for e-resources, and the library is really doing everything possible, at top speed, to acquire the e-resource database,” Shirazi said.

While some librarians were able to share their pandemic-induced innovations virtually at conferences in 2020 and 2021, the virtual space does not allow for the same in-between moments that generate connections and new ideas.

“The ideas and questions that can be answered so easily, and the ideas that can seep in, face to face – that I think everyone has missed,” Shirazi said.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many of these small, fleeting conversations have led to very big projects,” added Michelle Margolis, vice-president/president-elect of the AJL.

In the coming years, AJL will alternate conferences between in-person and virtual formats. While in-person gatherings allow for a better natural flow of ideas, virtual conferences allow for more diverse attendees.

AJL serves libraries of two categories: schools, synagogues, public libraries and community centers; and academic and special collection libraries.

Margolis, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University, appreciates the conference’s ability to connect the two groups. As an academic librarian, she can empathize with high school librarians about gaps in knowledge and skills of enrolled students, so high school librarians can better design curricula.

The AJL was founded in 1966 with the merger of the Association of Jewish Librarians and the Association of Jewish Libraries. The organization’s focus on Jewish librarians sets it apart from the larger missions of library associations.

Jewish libraries have a unique set of challenges, said Sean Boyle, librarian at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown.

“Secular libraries don’t worry or know how to determine whether a damaged resource should be placed in a genizah (synagogue repository) or not,” Boyle said. “They also don’t know which are the best LGBTQ+ books for Jewish young adults to buy to build a collection that might currently have none.”

Boyle said the AJL is the only Jewish library resource the synagogue has to deal with these issues.

Libraries are also the foundation of many Jewish institutions, used by more than just an individual seeking to consult a book. Just as much of Jewish thought comes from the written word, Kamin said, so much of Jewish life comes from access to Jewish resources.

“The library supports preschool; the library supports religious education; the library supports the clergy, the ritual committee, the ritual director, the Sisterhood,” Kamin said. “Every department relies on the library as a sort of central hub.”

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