(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

If book lovers seek encouragement about the staying power of books and libraries, just cruise through the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.

I am a dinosaur. While I spend several hours every day reading online news and stories, when I want to seriously read, I still turn to books. You know, those old-fashioned, paper-based things that you hold in your hands. No scrolling down the screen: When reading a book, you must physically exert yourself and manually turn the page. 

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

Books do take up space in one’s home. Especially, if certain people — not me, of course (wink, wink) — possess a few hundred of these antiquities. 

As an archivist who has spent a career preserving the written word, I have been disturbed by recent reports pertaining to books. In November, the American Library Association reported an “unprecedented rise in attempts to ban books in libraries” for 2021. In Virginia, one school board member vigorously promoted the notion of burning books that did not meet his politics. 

It is one thing for a school board to deliberate about a particular book and whether that volume is appropriate for an age-specific audience. It is another to advocate wholesale banning, or worse, burning. Such attitudes remind me of book burning in Nazi Germany when, regardless of content, books were tossed into the flames, just for the crime of having Jewish authors.

However, if book lovers seek encouragement about the staying power of books and libraries, just cruise through the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. There are hundreds of entries related to Jewish libraries, to say nothing of reviews of individual books on Jewish subjects and/or by Jewish authors, or stories about events like the annual Detroit Jewish Book Fair.

From 2002
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

A few stories caught my eye. In the 1920s, the Detroit Jewish Chronicle published many items about libraries around the world. In its March 18, 1921 issue, the Chronicle noted the opening of the first Jewish library in Glasgow, Scotland. The Aug. 3, 1923 issue has a prominent story about the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York securing the “Greatest Jewish Library in the World.” There are also many reports of new Jewish libraries in Palestine during that decade.

The post-World War II era is very interesting. There are numerous stories in the Chronicle and JN about Jewish libraries being reopened as Nazi-looted books and documents were returned to their owners. See the reports about this phenomenon occurring in Amsterdam (April 5, 1946, JN) and Lublin, Poland (March 15, 1946, Chronicle) or the editorial in the June 1, 1945, Chronicle, “Books for Europe.”

From 2016
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

Libraries still matter today. This past March, retired Judge Avern and Lois Cohn donated more than 500 selected books to the Historical Society of Michigan for its Lois and Avern Cohn Library and Archives (March 24, 2021, JN), and the Detroit Jewish Library opened at Congregation Dovid ben Nuchim in Oak Park (March 3, 2021, JN). Five years ago, the Machom Devorah library also opened in Oak Park (Dec. 8, 2016, JN).

And it’s not all about paper. Modern libraries are increasingly offering digital books and other resources. The first reported electronically accessible Jewish Library in Detroit was at Congregation B’nai Moshe (Nov. 29, 2007, JN).

“The People of the Book” can boast of a long history of supporting libraries, whether paper or digital. I could not find any story of a Jewish library burning books.  

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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