Make the Universal Yiddish Library a Reality

Help us join forces with other visionary libraries to transform Yiddish into the first fully accessible literature in history

I’m writing to ask you to help us match an anonymous challenge that will do for Yiddish what has never been done for any literature before: making virtually every Yiddish title in our collection and those of other libraries available to everyone, everywhere, free of charge, 24 hours a day.

Forty-three years ago, when we first set out to save Yiddish books, we couldn’t have imagined a project of this magnitude. Back then, our technology consisted of an electric typewriter and a secondhand offset press that we used to print lists of duplicates. In the 1990s we were among the first to digitize Yiddish titles and generate reprints on demand. Ten years later we posted them online, where they’ve been downloaded close to five million times. Four and a half years ago we introduced software that made it possible to find any name, word, or phrase in millions of pages of Yiddish books in a matter of seconds.

Openness to technological innovation has always served us well, and never more so than during the pandemic. Even after we temporarily closed our doors, our resourceful staff members, working from home, managed to keep our books online without a moment’s interruption, even as demand skyrocketed to levels we’d never seen before.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, in a time of danger and upheaval, that interest in Yiddish came roaring back. Yiddish was, after all, the spoken language of three-quarters of the world’s Jews for a thousand years, and it gave rise to a vast modern literature that has more to say now than ever before. I’m forever grateful to you for your vision in helping us rescue 1.5 million books and share them with new readers.

We’re enormously proud of that accomplishment, but we’re also keenly aware that our work is still far from over. Part of the challenge lies in the breadth and variety of Yiddish literature. Most of the books we saved came from the homes of everyday Jews, which means they were, by definition, the most widely read. Lucky for us, the most popular Yiddish titles were usually the best. Yiddish, however, is a global culture, and there remain thousands of other titles that we haven’t found. Some were printed in small runs in far-flung places like Santiago, Montevideo, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Birobidjan. In other cases they were simply overlooked, as evidenced by the recent “discovery” of extraordinary but little-read works by women writers. All told, our collection comprises roughly 17,000 unique titles, while the total number of Yiddish titles is thought to be about 45,000. In short, even after recovering more than a million volumes, two out of every three titles are still missing from our collection.

How can we provide access to books we don’t have? It’s unlikely, at this late date, that we’re going to find missing titles in basements or attics. Fortunately we don’t have to, because many do exist on library shelves. The obvious solution, therefore, is to join forces with other libraries to provide access to all our combined digitized holdings through a single, searchable online portal.

Commonsensical as that may sound, it has until now been easier said than done. For years most Yiddish organizations hobn gemakht shabes far zikh—they celebrated Shabbos alone, refusing to speak to, let alone work with, their perceived ideological opponents. But times have changed: for a younger generation cooperation and communication are the norm, and isolation is a luxury we can no longer afford. That’s why we believe the time has come to work together in what we’re calling the Universal Yiddish Library.

We’ve been dreaming of a combined effort like this for the better part of a decade, but it took two big changes to make it happen. The first was technological, and the second was demand, which has grown dramatically since the pandemic. Three libraries with extensive Yiddish holdings—the National Library of Israel, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the New York Public Library—have already joined us. Together we possess the preponderance of Yiddish titles, and other libraries, both large and small, are waiting in the wings to supply the rest.

With a strong coalition in place, Amber Clooney, our brilliant director of digital collections (and the person most responsible for keeping our books accessible throughout the pandemic), has identified four practical steps that we need to take now to make the Universal Yiddish Library a reality:

  1. Figure out who’s got what. Counting multivolume sets and variant editions, the 45,000 extant Yiddish titles represent almost 20 million pages. Scanning them one page at a time is a gargantuan task, which is why each of our partners will digitize their own Yiddish holdings. But first we need to figure out who has what in order to avoid duplication. Historically, cataloging conventions varied from library to library, which makes electronic comparison difficult, if not impossible. Recently, however, our colleagues at the National Library of Israel stepped to the plate and compiled a Yiddish Union Catalog, a complete list of all our holdings we’re now analyzing to coordinate priorities among multiple institutions.

  2. Scan remaining titles. Almost thirty years ago, when the Yiddish Book Center began scanning Yiddish books, the technology was in its infancy, and it was necessary to remove a book’s spine and feed its pages one by one through a xerographic scanner. Today scanning is performed photographically, which does not require unbinding and therefore not only saves the book but dramatically reduces the cost. Thanks to your vision the Yiddish Book Center has a big head start, but we still need to scan 5,000 additional volumes from our own collection, which will be added to those scanned by others.

  3. Build a common portal. The beating heart of the Universal Yiddish Library is the shared portal that will allow participating institutions to combine their respective digitized Yiddish holdings and provide “one-stop shopping”: a single search that will yield results from every library at once, with the full text of each selected book appearing almost instantly on the user’s screen. We’re working with a tech firm in Brighton, England, to develop a “harvester” that will allow us to easily integrate additional titles into the shared corpus, both now and in the future.

  4. Integrate OCR. For the past eight years we’ve been working with Assaf Urieli, a computational linguist in the French Pyrenees, to perfect optical character recognition (OCR) that converts facsimile images into searchable Yiddish text. Our plan is to support ongoing development and make this cutting-edge technology available for free across the entire Universal Yiddish Library. This means that users will be able to type in any search term—a family name, say, or a word or phrase—and in a matter of seconds see on their screen every instance where it appears across millions of pages of Yiddish literature.

It sometimes happens that horrific events—like wars and pandemics—spur technological innovation and cultural change. We believe that that’s exactly what’s happening now. We were prescient in digitizing Yiddish books when we did, and therefore light-years ahead when the pandemic struck. Now we have a chance to take a giant step further by making every title in every partner library available to everyone.

The staff members spearheading the Universal Yiddish Library are hardworking and endlessly resourceful, and if anyone can pull it off, they can. Once the Library is up and running, other innovative projects will inevitably follow. An initiative by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, is using our online books to create a linguistic model that shows how Yiddish has changed over time. And an ingenious project at the University of Edinburgh is creating authentic audio versions of Yiddish titles by sampling the voice of a talented Yiddish actor recorded at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal many years ago.

But first we need to build the Universal Yiddish Library itself, which is expected to take two to three years to complete. As the founding institution, the Yiddish Book Center’s share of the total cost will be $750,000. An anonymous foundation has offered a remarkable 1:2 challenge: they will contribute $250,000 if we can raise the additional $500,000 on our own. Two longtime friends of the Center pledged $300,000 toward that match. That leaves $200,000 to go.

$200,000 is still a formidable goal—but not so formidable, perhaps, when you consider that it will transform Yiddish, once on the brink of extinction, into the first fully accessible literature in history.

It’s been said that a people with no past has no future. Yiddish books are a chronicle of our collective memory. As the world grows more unsettled and antisemitism more virulent, the need to know ourselves becomes ever more essential. Simply stated, we can’t defend ourselves or build a better world if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.

This isn’t the first time I’ve asked you to help us achieve the impossible. Without you and others like you more than a million Yiddish books would have been lost forever. Now we have a chance to build on our success by bringing Yiddish books to everyone—at a time when they’re wanted and needed more than ever.

Will you help us?

  • For a leadership contribution of $36,000 we’ll make critical improvements to your software that will allow users to search the full text of every Yiddish book in the combined collections;

  • $20,000 will bring technical innovation and cutting-edge design to the Universal Yiddish Library’s web portal, including easy-to-use navigation and the ability to view illustrations from our collection;

  • $10,000 will cover two years’ use of the servers where the digital books and their metadata are stored;

  • For $1,000, your name will be included on the Universal Yiddish Library website, and for $360 or more we will thank you by name in the spring issue of Kvel, our English-language newsletter that reaches tens of thousands of members and supporters.

Our goal is formidable, and large gifts are appreciated, but whatever you can afford, no matter the size, your contribution will make a difference!

We’ve come so far in the 43 years since we first set out to save Yiddish books, and the Universal Yiddish Library will be a culmination of everything you’ve helped us achieve. I look forward to hearing from you soon!

A hartsikn dank—My heartfelt thanks,

Aaron Lansky