The Online Revolution
Tue, 05/03/2011
Still from OPAC Digital Animation, New York, 2010. Center for Jewish History
Still from OPAC Digital Animation, New York, 2010. Center for Jewish History

The current revolution in computing and information technology is rapidly transforming the entire library world. The first indications of the potential of digitization emerged more than twenty years ago when libraries realized that they could convert their card catalogues to digital formats so that they could be much more easily searched. The next, obvious, step was to mount the digital catalogs (now called OPACs, or online public access catalogs) on the Worldwide Web. The result was a rush to convert analog catalogs to digital form, and, over the next decade, to create a rich, international web of OPACs. Since previous to the digital revolution very few analog card catalogs had been printed, most library catalogs could only be searched on-site. After the OPAC revolution, however, a user anywhere in the world with Internet access could search the catalogs of virtually all the libraries in the world.

The next step was the digitization of text and image. Libraries and archives realized that it was possible (and increasingly affordable) to convert both text and image to digital form, to mount the resulting databases online, and thus to make the actual content of their collections available on the Web. Thus, researchers could not only have remote access to the records of holdings of both books and manuscripts, but, increasingly, to the actual content of those materials. This movement has proliferated to such an extent over the past decade that researchers can now consult massive amounts of content online, thus freeing them from the need to travel to collections. But of course remote access is only one of the advantages of digital collections. Perhaps more important is the fact that digital databases can be both searched and otherwise manipulated in ways that analog materials cannot. The digital revolution in books and manuscripts has thus fostered entirely new forms of scholarship in all fields of the humanities.

One of the most exciting aspects of the creation of the Center for Jewish History ten years ago was that it emerged at a time when the promise of digital technology was manifest, even if its full potential was not yet clear. With the crucial support of the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (a part of the federal National Records and Archives Administration), the founders of the Center developed an innovative OPAC for the collections of its partners. They need to confront the challenge of working with four different sorts of collections scattered among the holdings of the five partners of the Center: print materials (books, serials, newspapers), visual materials (photographs, video, posters, works art on paper), three-dimensional objects and sound recordings of many types. After a period of research and experimentation, the Center has now fully developed and deployed a supple and rich multimedia OPAC.

The Center next turned its attention to the digitization of the materials held by the partners so that they could be made accessible through

Thus far, as you can see if you consult the Digital Collections page of the Center for Jewish History website (, the range of digital holdings available online is already impressive. The Center has a wonderful section of Collection Highlights, including artists’ illustrated books; children’s books in Hebrew and Yiddish; the records of a New York charitable organization founded in the late 19th century; the amazing collection of Raphael Lemkin (the man who initiated the notion of “genocide”); a collection of traditional Torah binders; and the 15th-century manuscript of the trial of the Jews of Trent.

Each of the partners has digitized important parts of its collections, so that portions of the entire history of the Jews can be viewed online. And the general categories of digital collections can be accessed by searching the digital collections by type, ranging from “albums and scrapbooks” to “dissertations and theses” to “technical and architectural drawings.” Skimming the Center’s website is an intellectual and technical adventure. You can view an astonishing photographic collection drawn from the American Jewish Historical Society archives that depicts the experience of American Soviet Jewry. Or a collection of fascinating oral interviews with leaders of the American Sephardic community housed with the archives of the American Sephardic Federation. You can view a gorgeous sculpture of the head of Albert Einstein by Nathan Helmuth in the holdings of the Leo Baeck Institute. You can consult the records of Lithuanian Jewish communities in the YIVO collections, or read Yiddish children’s books held by the Yeshiva University Museum. Each of the partners, and the Center, is continuing to digitize analog materials in its possession, so the public and the scholarly community will have a fabulous opportunity to sample and study the Jewish heritage online.