Summer 2011 letter from Aaron Lansky
I’m writing to ask you to help us take advantage of an astonishing opportunity that will allow us to tackle a massive backlog of books and serials, save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and make the entirety of Yiddish literature instantly available to eager readers everywhere.
As you know, we posted our first Yiddish books online in March, 2009. They’ve already been downloaded a quarter million times! Many additional books have arrived since – but scanning has lagged behind. We now have a backlog of 4,500 recently recovered titles, most so rare we’ve never seen them before. And that’s not to mention 1,500 crates of Yiddish journals and magazines, and a warehouse full of boxes yet to be sorted.
Why haven’t we digitized these crucial volumes until now? The answer, quite simply, is lack of funds. As interest in Yiddish continues to grow, we’re acting on many fronts at once: internships, fellowships, online courses, a Yiddish Language Institute, a summer program for high school students, and a far-reaching plan to translate Yiddish literature into English. It cost us $5 million to digitize Yiddish books 12 years ago; we had no choice but to wait for a breakthrough – more money, new technology – before we could scan the rest.
That breakthrough has finally come in the person of Brewster Kahle, the visionary founder of the Internet Archive, the non-profit group that hosts our online library. He’s been following the growing online demand for Yiddish books, and when I met with him recently he encouraged us to scan the rest of the titles in our collection – making Yiddish the first fully accessible literature in history.
When I explained that we didn’t have the money, Brewster leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath, and made an astounding offer: “Aaron, I’ll install a state-of-the-art scanning station in your building in Amherst at absolutely no cost to you. All you have to do in return is promise to hire the staff to keep it running 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year.”
I did the math in my head. A scanning station costs $120,000, plus countless thousands more for software and support. Hiring trained technicians would cost us $16 an hour, or $33,280 for the year. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Brewster has already made good on his side of the bargain: his staff came out from San Francisco and delivered the scanning station to our Amherst headquarters. Now it’s up to us, to you and me, to raise the $33,280 we need to hire technicians for the coming year. (We’ve asked a major foundation to pick up the cost in subsequent years.)
When I think where most of our books were before you helped us save them – in musty basements, attics, demolition sites and dumpsters – I’m incredibly heartened by the thought that we’ll soon be able to scan them at will and make them available for free to everyone. Future students, scholars and book lovers of all ages will be grateful to you for your foresight in preserving our parents' and grandparents’ yerushe, their cultural inheritance.
There’s no time to lose. Please – won’t you help us seize this opportunity by making your most generous, tax-deductible contribution right now, while it’s still on your mind?
Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),
P.S. If you’re out our way this fall please stop by: our newly hired, Yiddish-speaking technicians will welcome you to the scanning station and give you a personal demonstration of how it works. But first we need to raise the funds to hire them. Please, won’t you make a tax-deductible contribution today to help us take advantage of this astounding opportunity? A sheynem dank – my personal thanks!