Letter from Aaron Lansky - National Library of Israel project will double online Yiddish Books
Sholem aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to help us complete a simple task that will more than double the number of Yiddish books available online.
You’ve already helped us rescue more than a million Yiddish books and place most online. Over the past three years they’ve been downloaded an astonishing 350,000 times, and demand continues to grow, especially among young people.
We’re working hard to keep pace. With your help we’re scanning additional titles. And we’re working with a brilliant computational linguist named Assaf Urieli to make Yiddish books searchable. You’ll soon be able to look through millions of pages of Yiddish literature to find family names, place names, and other information. Research that now takes ten years will take ten seconds instead.
The books we’ve posted so far are generally the most popular – not surprising since that’s what most of the older Jews who gave them to us actually read. But we’re still missing thousands of other titles: rare volumes that seldom made it into immigrant homes, but that are no less crucial for a full understanding of Jewish history and culture.
Make your most generous tax-deductible contribution today, and help us work with the National Library of Israel to more than double the number of Yiddish Books available online!
For years we’ve encouraged other libraries to work with us to fill these gaps. Now there’s a major breakthrough: The National Library of Israel – arguably the world’s greatest Jewish library – is undertaking a massive project to digitize all of its Hebrew-alphabet collections, Yiddish included. Over the coming years, they will scan close to 24,000 Yiddish titles. Combined with our own efforts, this will make every Yiddish book available online, firmly establishing Yiddish as the first completely accessible literature in history.
The National Library’s Judaica Curator and the chairman of their board visited the Yiddish Book Center in July. They’ll host their books on a secure website in Israel and also post copies to the Internet Archive, where our books are stored. We in turn will post copies of our holdings to the National Library’s site – a redundancy we find reassuring.
But scanning of Yiddish books in Israel cannot begin until we complete a crucial organizational task here: in order to avoid duplication, we need to compare our holdings against theirs and provide them with a definitive list of the books that have not yet been scanned.
Sound easy? That’s what we thought, until it occurred to us that we catalog our Yiddish books in Yiddish, and the National Library does so in Hebrew. Although the two languages share an alphabet, that’s pretty much where the similarities end, and we could think of no easy, electronic way to compare one list against the other.
We tried. We hired Backstage Library Works, a Utah-based company that’s solved thorny database problems for us in the past. After four months they threw in the towel. “It would be easier,” they told us, “to compare the lists by hand.”
I guess it’s comforting to know that there are some things people can do better than machines. But it also means that we now face the daunting task of cross-referencing 16,000 Yiddish records with 40,000 Hebrew ones, one book at a time. It’s painstaking work that will take an estimated 1,300 hours to complete.
Fortunately, we know where to find people who can do it. Among our fellows and alumni are graduate students with the requisite knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew – and who’ll be happy to have the work. The cost will be roughly $20,000.
I think you’ll agree that’s a modest price to pay to make all of Yiddish literature accessible to everyone forever. But it’s an expense not included in our regular, bare-bones budget. Which is why I’m writing to you, to ask for your help.
It’s hard to imagine an appeal that promises a greater return on investment: all we need to do is identify the titles, and the National Library will assume the vastly greater cost of scanning them. If, mirtseshem, we manage to exceed our goal, we’ll use the extra to implement searchability and pursue other pressing bibliographic and educational priorities.
There’s not a moment to lose. The National Library of Israel is fully committed and ready to start scanning Yiddish books as soon as we deliver the list. We’ve therefore set the ambitious goal of raising the full $20,000 within the next two weeks.
Can I count on you?
You can make your contribution online right now at www.yiddishbookcenter.org/list.
Rarely does a small, focused task have the potential to make such a big difference. Please – won’t you help by sending your most generous, tax-deductible contribution right now, while it’s still on your mind?
Mit a hartsikn dank – with heartfelt thanks,
P.S. We’re already lining up Yiddish-speaking alumni, but we can’t give them the green light until funds are in hand. We need to raise $20,000 in the next two weeks. Please, won’t you do your part by making your tax-deductible contribution today? A sheynem dank – my personal thanks!