Jewish Books and Libraries: A Match Made in Heaven
by Ellen Tilman
I am in Jewish book heaven. I’ve been dreaming about what new books I will purchase for my congregational library ever since attending the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL).
Why do I attend this conference and what do I gain from it? At the Meyers Library of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, I am the only professional staff member. I work with a loyal and dedicated corps of volunteers, without whom the library could not function. We all work in the library part-time. At AJL, I am no longer a solo practitioner as I network with colleagues from similar situations.
The AJL conference is one place where Jewish books are the primary topic of discussion. The organization has 800 members from mostly the United States, Canada, and Israel. It is divided into two divisions: one for research, archives, and special collection libraries, and one made up of the many synagogue, school, and Jewish center libraries. I participated in sessions designed for the latter group.
The event was interdenominational in many senses of the word. There are libraries representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations. There are large congregational libraries with three or four paid professionals on staff. There are other libraries with a part-time staffer and volunteers. There are volunteer run libraries. There are professionally trained librarians and many volunteer heads of libraries. There are libraries which have generous budgets and others that operate totally on donations.
When I have a technical question about my synagogue library, I contact colleagues or post a question on AJL’s listserve. By attending the annual AJL conference, I met my colleagues from across the nation. I learn that Rachel has a very successful adult book group; Lisa sponsors an afternoon film series; Joel is the expert on catalog questions; Heidi is the social media expert; and Amalia knows about Israeli resources. By networking with colleagues, I now know whom to contact. I put faces with the names that I see on the listserv.
I learn that my problems and concerns are not unique. Other congregational libraries are also struggling to get more patrons into the library and how to share books with teens. During a session about online tools, I was exposed to new technology and learned how it can be useful to my library. I am now planning to produce and distribute a year-in-review of library activities, complete with pictures, events, and statistics, that will be distributed electronically.
At AJL, I shared my successful programs, and I came home with ideas that have worked in other places. Colleagues wanted to hear about my library’s Computer for Novices class and the sessions on Jewish reference books that our Rabbi led. I learned about using e-book readers in a library and purchasing e-books. And as always, I returned home with a long list of book titles to purchase for both children and adults.
Without a doubt, my favorite sessions were the ones devoted to the Sydney Taylor Book Awards. Given by the AJL since 1968, these recognize outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. During the first session, committee members reviewed a selection of books that were under consideration and the reasons why they were not selected as winners.
My handout is covered with comments such as “order this” or “no.” This year I had the unexpected treat of eating lunch next to Linda Glaser, author of the award-winning Hannah’s Way, who shared the challenges of writing children’s books.
This is only a small sampling of what took place at the conference. If your congregation has a library or is planning to start one, consider joining the Association of Jewish Libraries. At just $70 per year, I consider membership to be one of the most worthwhile expenses in my library’s budget. Lovers of Jewish books can join me in Jewish book heaven by attending next year’s annual conference.
Ellen Tilman is the Director of Library Services and Bulletin Editor at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.