Going Digital

Friday, March 23, 2012

On November 9th and 10th of 2011, the Center for Jewish History gathered a remarkably diverse and distinguished group of 150 library and archival professionals, scholars, private collectors and community leaders.  This moment in time was part of a year-long set of events marking the 10th anniversary of the Center. Scheduling the conference during the two calendar days that mark the commemoration of Kristallnacht was self-conscious, though not made explicit in the public program. To honor the nights of “broken glass”—which were part of a lethal process to shatter and destroy Jewish existence—the Center hosted a conference intended to integrate access to the scattered fragments of Jewish history and, in so doing, initiate a new kind of digital historical tikkun. Indeed, the event offered a concrete opportunity not only to reflect backward in time, but also to look forward and begin planning a new, global leadership role for the Center and its partners in the future of Jewish historical study.  

The meeting was conceived as a practicum, a working group by invitation only, seeking for the first time to explore in a systematic way new approaches to coordinating and integrating the digitization of Jewish historical sources around the world.  Stan Katz—Director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and advisory board member of the Center for Jewish History—formulated the key term “integration” for participants in the following two senses: “1) ‘knowledge integration,’ i.e., enhancing knowledge of Jewish history around the world by making everyone aware of the resources currently available and how these resources are being used;  2) ‘technological integration,’ i.e., the capacity to interface across databases, to conduct scholarship in the digital medium, and in general to reconstitute the very nature of research and learning by making it inherently digital.”  The first sense, Stan explained, is broadly speaking “connective integration.” The second is perhaps best described as “transformative integration,” or providing entirely new ways to think about and conduct such activities.

In conceiving and hosting the conference, the Center inaugurated a very important leadership role for itself in this project of integration—not a top-down authoritarian role, but a new mission dedicated to facilitating coordinated communication and technological integration among its peers.  In many respects, this model was a direct outgrowth of the Center’s own success over the previous decade in building integration among its own five independent partners.  In the Center’s federated structure and integrated online catalog we find a microcosm of the larger challenge that faces Jewish historical and cultural initiatives around the world: how to connect distinct groups and entities to each other in meaningful and trustworthy ways that enhance the existence, nature and understanding of each of the individual collections, while guaranteeing the autonomy and respect that each member deserves.  In short, the Center’s 10-year history offers a practical model and example of how to formulate and bring unity out of disparate parts without sacrificing the integrity and autonomy of any one.

Institutional leadership cannot be separated from the individual people who take on the risks and work to secure the success of projects small and large.  At the Center for Jewish History, Michael S. Glickman (Chief Operating Officer) and Judith C. Siegel (Director of Academic and Public Programs) bore the weight of this initiative on their shoulders. So, too, did Center board members, the Center’s visiting committee and academic advisory council, and the leaders of the different partner organizations. The partners’ collective flourishing, especially during these difficult economic times, is significant. The Center was uniquely positioned to convene the conference and ask itself: “How can we help other people around the world achieve the same kinds of success and integration?”

This 10th-anniversary conference—“From Access to Integration: Digital Technologies and the Study of Jewish History”—thus started a new process for networking information about the Jewish experience as we move beyond providing access to resources and toward integrating knowledge. Given that we already know how access opens doors, conference participants wanted to find ways to integrate globally disparate Judaic projects and in so doing to generate transformative tools and methods for intellectual search and discovery.

To some, digital technologies represent a threat; to others, a creative opportunity.  This tension was the subject of the keynote address by Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University.  In a masterful presentation on the final evening of the conference, Professor Grafton delivered a critical reminder to everyone present that the material and the digital do not have to be forced into adversarial relationships.  At the same time, he movingly reflected upon the dangers facing the fragile ecosystems in which traditional bibliophilia has thrived. His talk was a fitting culmination to a conference on Jewish history and digital technologies, and a cautionary note to those who see in digital tools the be-all and end-all of the future. 

What is distinctive and challenging about the conditions facing contemporary Jews—as a diaspora with a modern nation-state as a home, but with primary sources, resources and experiences scattered around the world—is to find ways to bridge distances and communities.  Digital technologies, it was shown, offer unprecedented opportunities to preserve local historical records and support living communities while making it possible for people around the world to visit those cultures and communities, learn from primary sources that document lived experiences and discover connections that otherwise would not be visible.  In other words, digital technologies allow us to preserve local autonomy, ownership and control and at the same time open up access to invaluable primary historical sources.  Perhaps most importantly, digital technologies compel curators, collectors, and communities leaders to think about how no collection is a stand-alone entity and no place is unrelated to any other.

In her summary session reflecting on the previous two days of presentations, Professor Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett—University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies at New York University—stressed that data does not equal knowledge, and that scholars also need to integrate themselves into digital humanities initiatives. It is not sufficient, she argued, to assemble and aggregate vast amounts of data in digital form.  We must do more than simply recognize the tectonic shift that has occurred from a culture of withholding information to a culture of open access. Scholars and intellectuals must confront and become part of the next stage, from integration to transformation.  They must be part of imagining the new “what,” namely the wedding of creative, critical inquiry to the potentialities of new technologies.  If  Kirschenblatt-Gimblett moved the conversation from integration to transformation, Douglas Greenberg—Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University—during the same summary session insisted on the presence of the “why” alongside the “what,” and the imperative to make clear and self-conscious the purpose and meaning of these initiatives. Notably, Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, like Grafton later that evening, challenged participants to understand and appreciate traditional forms of sociability, such as libraries as social spaces, and the value of face-to-face talking and networking.

One clear outcome of the conference was the sense that all of its attendees are part of a larger web of interdependent relationships. The opportunity to connect with one another in person provided for unique occasions of sociability that technologies cannot replace. In some sense, the material and the digital, the spiritual and the virtual, all came together and were transformed over the course of the two-day conference, thanks to the work being done at 15 West 16th Street.  

Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at Penn.

Center for Jewish History Photograph by John Halpern

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