Building a Virtual Library – A Case Study at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

The following chapter excerpt is from the second section of Digitization in the Real World; "A Diverse Digital Landscape: Digital Collections inPublic Libraries, Museums, Cultural Heritage Institutions,and Knowledge-Based Organizations"  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF)    or purchase online at

Access the collections here.


Naomi M. Steinberger  (The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)


The goal of this chapter is to show how a medium-size research library with rich resources in special collections has succeeded in the past decade, in building a digital library. The chapter focuses on building a strategic plan for a digital library and assessing The Library’s collections for digital readiness. Planning the digital library includes making many decisions ranging from software, prioritizing collections to digitizing, metadata schemas, and more. Funding for digitization can be grants, gifts in kind where the funder provides the institution with a digital photographer, to funders who want a specific collection digitized.  There is a discussion of some of the challenges such as hardware capability and staffing. The important lessons learned through experience and plans for the future of the digital program are discussed. 

Introduction & Background

The mission of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the intellectual and religious center of Conservative Judaism, is twofold:  to serve as the pre-eminent center for the academic study of Judaism outside of Israel, as one of the pre-eminent centers world-wide, and as a training center to advance that study; and to educate Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the spirit of Conservative Judaism for the total community through academic and religious programs, both formal and informal.

In accordance with the Seminary’s overall goals, The Library’s mission is to collect, preserve and make available the literary and cultural heritage of the Jewish people.  The collection includes 25,000 rare books, 11,000 manuscripts, 400 archival collections, and many other historically significant items. Among the particular strengths of its collection are its 35,000 fragments from the Cairo Genizah (representing the lives of Jews and others in the eastern Mediterranean from the 11th to the 19th centuries), its collection of ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts)—the largest in the world—and its unparalleled collection of Passover haggadot (the traditional text of the holiday, combining narrative and ritual). The Library is also home to the world's largest collection of Hebrew incunabula (early books printed before 1501).

The Special Collections are open to students and researchers from around the country and the world. Scholars of Jewish history specializing in virtually any period or place rely on the Library’s unique holdings. Scholars of American Jewry are particularly reliant on The Library’s archives. The Library is also the center for scholarly dialogue within The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the focal point for numerous public events devoted to Jewish culture and books.

Currently, The Library employs 15 librarians, five subject specialists and eight support staff. JTS has 40 faculty and 200 staff serving 500 students.  In fiscal year 2010, after budget reductions, The Library’s operating budget of $1.7 million plus approximately a half-million dollars in designated funds each year.  Budget designated to digital collections is lest than $12,000 per year.

In The Library’s 2005 strategic plan, digitization is emphasized as a method of preservation of the original item, because “more damage is done to rare materials through human handling than by any other means.” “The more readers can gain access to images of rare materials and forego handling the materials themselves,” the document continues, “the better they will be preserved.”  (Strategic Plan, 2005.)

Large external digitization projects such as The Google Book Project (Google Book, 2010) and the licensing of the Otzar Ha-Hochma collection of 19,000 fully-digitized Hebrew Books and are viewed as efforts to take care of the need to digitize modern printed books, allowing the Jewish Theological Seminary library to focus resources on only digitizing materials unique to the library’s collection.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at


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