NEH and DFG to Fund Initiative to Recreate Seminal Judaica Collection

Book digitization (cc) Stanford University Library

A major international grant will fund an initiative by the Center for Jewish History, Leo Baeck Institute, and the Frankfurt University Library to digitally recreate a seminal collection of Judaica that was scattered in the Holocaust.

The $180,000 grant, jointly funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG), will allow for the digitization of  about 1,000 books that have been identified as missing from the Frankfurt Library’s Judaica collection.  The digitization will occur at the Center for Jewish History’s Gruss Lipper Digital Laboratory.

The funds will also pay for the bibliographic cataloging and metadata encoding necessary to integrate the digitized books into Frankfurt’s catalog as well as optical character recognition to make the full text of the books machine searchable.

As a result, scholars will be able to search, cover to cover, the world’s foremost collection on an influential period of Jewish scholarship as it existed before 1933 and access the content from anywhere in the world instantly.

Founded at the Frankfurt City Library with support from Frankfurt’s Jewish Community in 1898, the Judaica Collection was an exception in an era when Jewish scholarship was largely confined to Jewish institutions. Its curator, Aron Freimann, built it into the most important Judaica collection on the European continent before the Nazis dismissed him from his post in 1933. Despite losses during World War II, It remains the most important Judaica Collection in Europe today at the Frankfurt University Library, into which the City Library’s holdings were later incorporated.

About 11,000 of the titles Freimann catalogued at the collection’s peak in 1932 were related to a movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums. The “Science of Judaism” was a scholarly movement among European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that engaged with pre-modern Jewish religious texts from a scientific perspective, replacing theological exegesis with the tools of history, archeology, and sociology.

Many of the Wissenschaft volumes Freimann catalogued in 1932 survived, ironically, because they were confiscated by the Nazis for the establishment of an “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.”

As the Frankfurt Library began to digitize these collections, however, they identified about 2,200 titles that were missing. By cross-referencing its own holdings with Freimann’s 1932 catalog, Leo Baeck Institute discovered that it had copies of about 1,000 of the missing books, many of them donated by refugees who brought their own scholarly libraries with them when they escaped from Germany to the US in the 1930s.

Although locating and identifying the rest of the missing books will require collaboration with more institutions, this project points the way forward for international cooperation among libraries that increases access to once rare materials while reducing the cost and effort involved in digitization.

Not least, of course, this initiative will increase understanding of an influential that movement laid the foundations for such intellectual projects as Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Conservative and Reform Judaism in general.

National Endowment for the Humanities Grant Announcement

Frankfurt University Library: Judaica Collection

New York Times: Jewish Texts Lost in War are Resurfacing in New York

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