Observing the Leo Baeck Institute

The information space I chose to observe for this blog post is the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI), my workplace.  The Institute is named after Leo Baeck, a Jewish Rabbi in Germany during the time of the Second World War and a survivor of Theresienstadt concentration camp.  Its mission is preserving the vast collection of documents, books, and artworks created by and describing the history of German-speaking Jewish people. Housed in the Center for Jewish History, LBI is one of five partner organizations that contribute to the expansion of access to Jewish history and culture.  My job at LBI is to physically process books to be added to our searchable collections and then page those books when requested for the reading room. I often get to work with many different people as my job goes through different parts of the museum.

I sat down one day and made notes about the exchange of information going on in the Institute.  Not only do I interact daily with my coworkers to complete tasks and learn new parts of my job, but I also watched how LBI workers interact with visitors and teach them about our mission.  As a reasonably small office, there are very few formal communication procedures between employees. Generally, if we must get in touch with someone that is not only a few desks away, we make use of email.  Usually, though, we can walk over and talk in person about a specific book or database question.

On a typical day, LBI receives about five to ten requests for books to be paged to the reading room that the Center for Jewish History shares among its partner organizations.  For patrons to receive the information they wish to research, they must call the material in Aeon, a workflow management software specifically for libraries. LBI’s website features a complete online collection of our holdings that patrons can browse.  Once they find a book they are interested in, they make a request, and I get an email from the system telling me which volume to pull from the stacks. Once I retrieve that, I bring it down to the reading room, and the librarians there give it to the researcher.  The process is straightforward, and the exchange of information is streamlined.

The Leo Baeck Institute is very privileged at the wealth of materials we have in our collections and available to researchers.  As we are focused on German-Jewish history, the collections librarians must scrutinize the donations we receive to make sure they follow this subject matter.  In the past, when we accepted a gift, the donor would give a whole stack of books, whether they had anything to do with us or not. The current librarians are much more critical of what we take in, but there is still a massive backlog of books waiting to be processed and cataloged.

Reflecting on our international theme, LBI has three branches spread out across the world.   The Jewish Museum Berlin has access to duplicate copies of our microfilm collection. Over 4,500 microfilms are housed there, making LBI’s collections accessible to researchers at the heart of our topic.  London and Jerusalem are also home to LBI centers, allowing our organization to maintain and deepen relations with scholars, Jewish Communities, and the wider public.

One of the things I find most interesting about LBI is the people I have met.  Our volunteers are a great source of wisdom and information. Two of whom are in their 90s, they are very sharp still and come in about once a week to work on translating documents from Hebrew and German, as well as telling their own stories from their home countries.  Every year the Institute takes on interns from Austria and Germany who come to New York to study. They translate documents from their original German and process other materials. I find it fascinating the way that their countries have dealt with the events of the Holocaust.  One intern who hails from Austria is working on a project on how her country likes to gloss over Austrian participation in World War II and pretend they were only following Hitler’s orders. She uses LBI materials to prove her view that Austria did, indeed, have a hand in the construction of the Holocaust.

This project reminds me of Sharon Macdonald’s article, “Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’?”  As a library whose materials deal with the perpetration of atrocities against a people, we must take extra care to adequately respect the subject matter while still being able to work around and with it every day.  Though we represent the Jewish people who have been subjugated throughout history, LBI has actually very few people who belong to that population. This poses a question of not only diversity practices, but what to do when white people represent a religious and ethnic minority.  In Jennifer Vinopal’s “The Quest For Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action,” she explores the needs for diversity in library workplaces. According to the International Federation of Library Association’s IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto, “libraries of all types should reflect, support and promote cultural and linguistic diversity at the international, national, and local levels, and thus work for cross-cultural dialogue and active citizenship.”  Despite the fact that our mission is very close to this statement, LBI would be better prepared to genuinely serve its visitors by employing librarians from the community it aims to help.

Overall, the Leo Baeck Institute is a library that provides valuable cultural and historical knowledge to those seeking to research German-Jewish topics.  Expanding on more than just WWII, LBI preserves the traditions and scholarship of Jewish communities.

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