In the 10 years that I have been on the board of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association (RIJHA), we have had three offices at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center in Providence.
First, we had two rooms, one of which was an archive. That room was then taken over by the preschool, so we moved down a room and settled into the “old” Bureau of Jewish Education library. Then, this fall, we moved into our new quarters, near the new back entrance of the building in part of the “old” Holocaust museum. As you can see, space gets repurposed at the JCC, but this new office was designed just for us – and will, we hope, be our permanent home.
This space is perfect for the RIJHA: two rooms, with a door between, so the archive and library can be kept at the proper temperature and humidity, and the office itself can have a climate better suited to humans. We love it!
But, what to do with all the “stuff” that we had accumulated in the old space? We do have an off-site storage unit, but it’s getting quite full. So the task was to decide what is needed in the archive, what can be safely stored and what we don’t need.
Obviously, anything that researchers use on a daily or weekly basis must be readily available. For example, City Directories are frequently used to find out if someone lived at a certain address. I would like to have a set of maps on the computer that will show those streets, so people can plug themselves into the neighborhood they want to investigate.
This is especially important since many of the old neighborhoods have been torn down/redeveloped and whole streets are gone in the North End and University Heights, for example.
We also need to keep close at hand our oral history tapes, which were digitized a few years ago with money from the Bliss, Gross, Horowitz Fund of the Rhode Island Foundation. These items are very popular, as is the old Jewish Voice and Herald (now The Jewish Voice) archive, which we are in the process of negotiating to have digitized. When something is digitized, the original is still kept, but it can be at our off-site unit.
Now, we must examine our VCR tapes, and other technology that is outdated, to figure out what should be preserved.
Then there was the issue of books, books, books. What do we need for our mission of collecting and preserving all historical material relating to the Jews of Rhode Island? Do we need three copies of a book about Jews in Rhode Island, or is one copy sufficient? Are history books about the world before 1500 necessary? After all, the information is easily accessible on the Web (and I say this as a former Latin and Greek teacher!). How about information about Jews in other states? By the time we finished this task, we had managed to pare down our collection to books that really matter to our mission.
Then there are newspaper articles and clippings about Jewish life in R.I.: temples, organizations, businesses and people. These are vital, and were all kept. Some go back to the 1950s (which doesn’t seem that long ago, but is really more than 60 years), and we add to them daily.
And there’s a gray area, such as plaques and commemorative awards. We just don’t have the space to keep them all, so they will be photographed and then returned to the families. We also have photographs donated by families, some from before World War I. We will digitize them all, keep the best as photos and return the rest.
How do we pay for all this? We have just completed an extremely successful Capital Campaign, which brought in over $250,000 to pay for movers, outfit the archive and office space, design a new gallery wall and organize photographs and other collections. In addition, we are actively applying for grants. And of course, we ask you, our public, for any contribution that you can make.
We want to show off our new office and space. Please join us at our Open House on Sunday, Jan. 21, from 2 to 4 p.m. You’ll be able to see what we’ve done, and we can tell you more about our vision for the future.
RUTH BREINDEL is president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.