Mar 04, 2021
This essay is a companion piece to my article, “Freidus, Borokhov, and the Café Royal.” Here I will open the curtain on the research methods behind the article. During the course of this modest research project, I have relied exclusively on what is available online, both free and paid (accessible to me through my academic affiliation), supplemented only by printed books in my personal library and by occasional purchases from book dealers. This work has taken place in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic and the experience has impressed upon me both the enormous benefits of the online tools that have been developed for Yiddish Studies, and the limitations of the universe of digital resources. This project can serve as a case study for a conventional research project in the Humanities during the pandemic and can help students navigate the thicket of Yiddish research tools.
Until early 2018 I was on staff in a major university research library, where I could call upon all of its print holding and online resources, as well as its interlibrary borrowing and document delivery services. After I went “af pensye” (into retirement), I retained my library privileges at Stanford and made frequent use of them. Little did I imagine that, together with practically everyone else, in March 2020 I would be indefinitely cut off from access to the physical collections of research libraries there and everywhere else. Public libraries in my region have remained closed, too, except for curbside pickup.
So now, as I contemplate my research and bibliographical projects, I face obstacles similar to those of many independent researchers with limited access to paid resources or physical reference works typically held at academic libraries. The six-part research guide, Resources in Yiddish Studies, which I published during 2016 and 2017 in In geveb 1 1Resources in Yiddish Studies, by Zachary M. Baker, was published in the Pedagogy section of In geveb from September 5, 2016, to June 20, 2017. The research guide’s six installments are found at: http://ingeveb.org/pedagogy?tag=resources-in-yiddish-studies (accessed October 27, 2020). offers some guidance on online and free resources; yet, like any online reference resource that does not get regularly updated, it has been getting a bit stale: since its publication some of its links have gotten broken and, meanwhile, new resources and tools (such as the Yiddish Book Center’s optical-character-recognition [OCR] application) have been launched.
This discussion of research methods during a time of lockdown is a spinoff from my work on an annotated bibliography of Yiddish plays for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, which I began a couple of months after the pandemic emergency set in. Among the online resources that I have regularly consulted while working on the DYTP bibliography are library catalogs (including WorldCat), the bibliography of the Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays at the Library of Congress, the Historical Jewish Press / JPress, HathiTrust, and of course the Yiddish Book Center’s Digital Library and Collections (online courtesy of the Internet Archive) – plus its recently launched OCR application (which is still in development). How I made use of these resources is described below.
The bibliographical sleuthing took me to the Yiddish play-writing team Di shvester Shomer (daughters of the Yiddish shund author Nokhem-Meir Shaykevitsh, aka Shomer), and from them to the life and times of a solitary, eccentric, and notable Jewish librarian, Abraham S. Freidus, the first chief of The New York Public Library’s Jewish Division. The path then led from Freidus to the Yiddish journalism of Ber Borokhov, a leading theoretician of Socialist Zionism, who also happened to be a pioneering Yiddish linguistic and literary scholar. In May 1917, Borokhov published an effusive appreciation of Freidus in the New York Yiddish newspaper Di varhayt (Warheit). The librarian was not without his detractors, however, including most notably the Hebraist intellectual Reuven Brainin, who in 1923 (shortly after the death of Freidus) published a scathing assessment of Freidus’s legacy at NYPL. To summarize, these are the main phases of this research process, in chronological order:
- Compiling and annotating the bibliography of plays for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project. This work is ongoing (and is not yet online). The bibliography includes a couple of works by di shvester Shomer.
- Searching the Yiddish Book Center’s Digital Library and Collections (along with other online sources) for digitized versions of the plays. Though I didn’t find digitized plays by di shvester Shomer, I did come across an interesting chapter about the librarian Abraham S. Freidus, in a memoir by Rose Shomer Bachelis. Reading her account whetted my appetite to learn more about this pioneer of Judaica librarianship in the U.S.
- Searching JPress for contemporaneous articles about Freidus. This is where I came across Ber Borokhov’s admiring article about the librarian, in an issue of the New York daily Di varhayt.
- Searching JPress for articles by Borokhov in Di varhayt. I was curious to learn how the article on Freidus fit into Borokhov’s Yiddish journalism during his New York years (1915-1917).
- Searching RAMBI – Index of Articles on Jewish Studies for mentions of Freidus in more recent scholarship. This is where I found a citation of a brief article about Freidus by Leonard Singer Gold (a successor of Freidus as chief of the NYPL’s Jewish Division) in the journal Studies in Bibliography and Booklore.
- Searching Stanford’s library catalog, SearchWorks, for Studies in Bibliography and Booklore. Through SearchWorks I learned that this journal is included in a JSTOR package to which Stanford affiliates have access.
- Searching JPress once again, this time for two articles in the newspaper Der tog (The Day) that are mentioned in Leonard Singer Gold’s article on Freidus and also in “Freidusiana,” a bibliography of articles by and about Freidus in the 1929 volume published in his memory. These articles were by Reuven Brainin (in Yiddish) and Samuel Oppenheim (in English).
- Searching abebooks.com for a copy of the Freidus memorial volume, which is available only in print.
These online resources are discussed in greater detail in the next section.
My experience with this project has largely confirmed my response to a Yiddish translator from Houston who in a 2018 email exchange lamented, “My resources here are limited”: “You’re not as far away as you may think,” I told him. At the same time, I’ve butted up against the limitations of online-only research in the Humanities, because full-text access is not available for millions of publications that have already been digitized – and millions more still await digitization. In the case of digitized publications for which full-text access is unavailable, the barriers are imposed by a mix of factors, including copyright regulations (as is the case with millions of books digitized by Google), omissions and exclusions from digital corpora, cutoff dates for digitized newspaper- and journal runs, and gaps in coverage (e.g., missing pages or issues) within specific digitized newspaper and journal runs. I jotted down citations for sources that remain available only in print or on microfilm, but I was unable to follow up these leads as long as libraries have continued to be closed. For example, the list of “Writings about Freidus” that appears in his memorial Festschrift (published in 1929) includes 39 citations. Of these, by my estimate, approximately one third are not available online in either free or subscription online resources. Beyond the realm of print publications, there are vast archival collections that have not been (and may never be) digitized.
On the one hand, I have been able to accomplish more from the comfort of my own home than would have been conceivable just a few years ago. On the other hand, I’ve experienced frustrations that, before March 2020, might have been overcome by visiting a research library or tapping its resource-sharing network. For this particular project, I feel that the loose ends — leads that I could not follow up due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic — were fairly marginal. Fortunately, the bulk of the books and newspapers that I needed to consult are readily accessible in digital collections. I would have faced copyright-related impediments if the chronological focus of the project had been closer to the present — and I would almost certainly have been out of luck had this been a project requiring access to archival documents.
In a way, my choice of Freidus and Borokhov as a research topic was opportunistic in nature. The pandemic had already been underway for several months by the time I stumbled across the chapter by Rose Shomer Bachelis that sparked my curiosity. By consulting online collections and databases I was able to amass a substantial amount of material and, eventually, produce what I hope is a reasonably serviceable essay about the NYPL librarian and the cultural milieu in which he functioned. But for my project to succeed during this period of lockdown, it was necessary for most of the sources to be available online. For that reason, I refer to my experience as a case study (as opposed to a model) for how research in Yiddish Studies can be conducted under the conditions imposed by the pandemic.
What follows is a summary of the resources that I consulted, together with their advantages and limitations. In addition to shedding light on my own experiences with a specific research project, the following section can serve as a partial refresher and update to the Resources in Yiddish Studies research guide.
1. Library Catalogs and Indexes:
- RAMBI / Index of Articles on Jewish Studies. Free resource. I used this index for keyword searches “פריידוס” and “Freidus” (the English spelling of the surname). (The English search yielded four results: three in English and one in Russian. The Hebrew/Yiddish search yielded three of the four results found in the English search, including the Russian citation.) Although other online indexing and abstracting services include Jewish Studies in their areas of coverage, RAMBI (provided by the National Library of Israel) offers both the most focused and the most extensive coverage of the field; this index draws from a wide range of sources in several languages. It should be noted that the older (ALEPH) search interface for RAMBI has been phased out since Resources in Yiddish Studies was published. For anything more complex than a single-keyword search, I recommend using RAMBI’s Advanced Search.
- WorldCat.org. Free resource. As its name suggests, WorldCat is a global bibliographical network, with access to cataloging for two billion library and archival items in many formats: books, journals, newspapers, music scores, audiovisual materials, archives, and more. I often consult WorldCat to verify which libraries and archives have a specific title or archive. (This information is useful for the purposes of making interlibrary loan and document-delivery requests; or for identifying institutions for future research in situ.) One caveat concerning the total number of items in the WorldCat database: There are often multiple catalog records for the same work or edition, because of variations in the regnant bibliographical standards that are applied in different regions or countries. For example: The NLI contributes catalog records to WorldCat, but in contrast to U.S. and European libraries, titles in the Hebrew alphabet are not romanized in the NLI’s catalog records — so the NLI’s holdings of works in the Hebrew alphabet have their own, separate catalog records in WorldCat. (In addition to WorldCat, the NLI’s holdings are listed in its own online catalog: https://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/english/Pages/default.aspx.)
- Stanford Libraries SearchWorks catalog. Free resource. For me, it is convenient to consult the Stanford Libraries’ online catalog because, through it, I have access to Stanford’s online and (in non-pandemic circumstances) print and microform resources. The SearchWorks portal links to Stanford’s library catalog and an “Articles+” index. For this project I used Stanford’s library catalog to search for the journal Studies in Bibliography and Booklore, which contains the article by Leonard Singer Gold that I was seeking. (Studies in Bibliography and Booklore is accessible through JSTOR, described below.) If you are affiliated with academic institutions, I advise you to consult your home institution’s library catalog. Also, many public libraries offer access to databases from information aggregators such as ProQuest and EBSCO. These subscription databases may include indexes of journal articles (often with full text) and collections of electronic editions of books published by academic presses. In some cases, access could require an in-person visit to the library (if it is open, that is). Subscriptions to these databases are expensive, and the extent of coverage is dictated by academic institutions’ and public libraries’ budgetary circumstances.
2. Digital Library Collections
- Yiddish Book Center – Digital Library & Collections. Free resource. The search interface is restricted to author, title, and “everything” (allowing for combined author+title searching). Searches can be carried out in either the Latin/English or Hebrew/Yiddish alphabets. There are advantages and disadvantages to searching in each alphabet. With Yiddish searches it helps to know the spelling of the author’s name or the work’s title (spelling practices vary widely in Yiddish). With English searches, authors’ names are usually entered under the forms established according to international library standards, and titles are romanized (transliterated or transcribed) according to standards adopted by the Library of Congress — which deviate somewhat from other romanization practices, such as those established by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Depending on the search terms one uses, results lists can be very long. In contrast to online library catalogs, the Yiddish Book Center search interface offers no advanced-search option and no obvious way of narrowing down one’s search results.
This, despite the fact that the books digitized by the Yiddish Book Center are also cataloged by YBC staff according to international library standards, and their full catalog records are included in the WorldCat bibliographical database (which does offer advanced-search options).
I searched this source for digitized works by Rose Shomer Bachelis and found one that contains a chapter about Freidus.
- Access to the YBC’s Digital Library & Collections is provided in collaboration with the Internet Archive, “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” Free resource. The Internet Archive’s own catalog interface is a geeky platform that makes few concessions to the more familiar approaches taken by online library catalogs or the algorithm-driven Google search engine. It is the epitome of user-unfriendly.
- Yiddish Book Center – Digital Library & Collections, OCR. Free resource, sign-in required. In 2020, the Yiddish Book Center launched its very promising optical-character-recognition (OCR) engine (powered by Jochre and still in beta development), which enables full-text searching of the YBC’s corpus of almost 11,000 digitized books. Results lists can be very long, depending on the search terms used. The OCR engine offers advanced-search options by author, title, date range, “strict” searching, chronological sorting, and YBC ID number. Results for individual items include the following display options: (1) digitized text fragment, (2) transcribed text, (3) page view. I tested the Yiddish Book Center’s OCR engine with the simple keyword search “פריידוס.” The OCR engine’s advanced-search options can be rather complex; for guidance, the site includes a helpful User’s Guide.
- Historical Jewish Press Project / JPress. Free resource. JPress is a collaborative project between the National Library of Israel and Tel-Aviv University, drawing upon the resources of libraries outside of Israel as well. Its new, much more robust and versatile search interface was launched in November 2020 and JPress now functions under the umbrella of the NLI Newspaper Collection. (For those, like me, who had grown accustomed to the older interface, the results screen for each search includes a help button for guidance in use of the revamped interface.) As of December 2020, JPress included 196 Yiddish titles worldwide. The New York Yiddish daily press is well represented, though only the Forverts is accessible past the mid-1920s, thanks to an agreement with the Forward Association which authorizes access to that newspaper’s issues from 1897 through 1979. Copyright restrictions apply to publications from the mid-1920s and later, even those that have been defunct for many years. (JPress does, however, provide access to some Polish Yiddish newspapers and magazines up to September 1939.) OCR of the digitized newspapers and journals is hit-or-miss, for a variety of technical reasons.
The results screen for searches conducted in JPress (new interface) includes a header within the column on the left side of the page: “Why may this text contain mistakes?” Clicking on the header leads to a popup which provides the following explanation: “The level of accuracy depends on the print quality of the original issue, its condition at the time of microfilming, the level of detail captured by the microfilm scanner, and the quality of the OCR software. Issues with poor quality paper, small print, mixed fonts, multiple column layouts, or damaged pages may have poor OCR accuracy. The searchable text and titles in this collection have been automatically generated using OCR software. They may not have been manually reviewed or corrected.”
For this project, using the old interface, I conducted the following searches:
- keyword searches “פריידוס” (Freydus) and “Freidus.” It was when I searched the JPress database under the Yiddish spelling that I first came across Ber Borokhov’s article about Abraham S. Freidus. Searches under the English spelling of his surname yielded additional articles about Freidus in English-language sources .
- keyword “באָרוכאָוו” (Borukhov) + source “דיא וואַרהײַט” (Di varhayt) + date range 1914-1917. Using this combined search yielded results for dozens of articles by Borokhov in the New York Yiddish daily Di varhayt (Warheit). However, due to the resource’s “dirty” OCR, it soon became evident that some of Borokhov’s articles in that newspaper were omitted from the results list, because several articles that were retrieved through this search mentioned other articles by him that were not included among the original search results. (Note: Borokhov’s byline in Di varhayt was spelled ב. בארוכאָוו [B. Borukhov], rather than ב. באָראכאָוו [B. Borokhov]. 4 4 My gateway to Borokhov’s articles in Di varhayt came when I searched for פריידוס in JPress. When I pulled up Borokhov’s article on Freidus I immediately noticed that the byline was spelled באָרוכאָװ and not באָראָכאָװ. )
- browse source “דיא וואַרהײַט” (Di varhayt; Saturday and Sunday issues, 1914-1917) for additional articles by ב. בארוכאָוו (B. Borukhov). By browsing issue-by-issue through Di varhayt’s weekend editions, I discovered at least a dozen articles by Borokhov that were not included among the results of the keyword+source search and added them to a folder containing PDFs of a comprehensive collocation of his articles in that newspaper.
- browse source “דער טאָג” (Der tog) for articles by Reuven Brainin and Samuel Oppenheim. I found citations for these articles in the article by Leonard Singer Gold and also in the Freidus memorial volume. Der tog is included in JPress, through January 1924. Brainin’s article appeared in the December 23, 1923, issue of that newspaper, and Oppenheim’s in the January 20, 1924 issue. Had either of these articles been published after January 31, 1924, I would have been out of luck.
- JSTOR (via Stanford Libraries SearchWorks catalog). Subscription resource. JSTOR is a not-for-profit database that “currently offers more than 12 million academic journal articles, 85,000 books, and 2 million primary source documents in 75 disciplines.” I have access to JSTOR through my affiliation with Stanford, via Stanford’s SearchWorks library catalog (see above). (Many academic institutions subscribe to JSTOR.) One of the journals that is available online through JSTOR is Studies in Bibliography and Booklore, which includes an article about Freidus by Leonard Singer Gold.
- Hathi Trust. Free resource, offering full-text or index access to digitized content, depending upon copyright status. The Hathi Trust Digital Library, based at the University of Michigan, “is a partnership of academic and research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world.” As of 2020, more than 17 million items were included in the Hathi Trust Digital Library. The majority of books digitized by the Google Book Project are included in the Hathi Trust’s corpus; full-view access is generally limited to publications issued before the mid-1920s.
5The search interface is modeled on those used for online library catalogs (as opposed to Google’s relevancy rankings). In terms of my own research, Abraham S. Freidus contributed articles and bibliographies to the NYPL Bulletin; the NYPL Institutional History and digitized issues of the NYPL Bulletin collection are available through HathiTrust.
3. Association of Jewish Libraries, Conference Proceedings. Free resource. AJL’s conference proceedings are accessible online and many participants choose to have their presentations posted there. When I searched RAMBI for articles about Freidus, among the results was the 2011 conference presentation by Vanessa Freedman, “The Maskil, the Kabbalist and the Political Scientist: Judaica Classification Schemes in Their Historical Context.” The Judaica classification system that was devised by Freidus for the New York Public Library is discussed there and also in Ms. Freedman’s 2010 M.A. dissertation from University College – London. With the RAMBI citation in hand, I located the full text of her AJL presentation online, in the Conference Proceedings for 2011.
4. Online Bibliography
- The Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyrighted Yiddish Plays at the Library of Congress: An Annotated Bibliography, [compiled] by Zachary M. Baker; with the assistance of Bonnie Sohn. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2004. The Marwick Collection bibliography serves as a core reference source for the annotated bibliography that I am compiling for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project. The bibliography lists over 1,200 Yiddish plays that were registered for U.S. copyright through 1950, among them entries for plays by di shvester Shomer, Rose Bachelis Shomer (who wrote about Freidus in her memoirs) and Miriam Shomer Zunser. Scripts for plays that were registered from July 1909 and later were deposited at the U.S. Copyright Office. (Copyrighted plays prior to that date were listed in the published copyright registers, but the scripts themselves were not deposited.) Although this bibliography is of interest mainly to those doing research on the Yiddish theater, I include it here because it ties into my research on Freidus and Borokhov.
5. Book-trade websites
- Abebooks.com and addall.com. Free resources. On a few occasions during the pandemic, I have purchased books to supplement my research because I did not have access to library copies. I searched these aggregators of antiquarian and out-of-print booksellers’ holdings for available copies of Freidus memorial volume (1929), which is not accessible online. (N.b., abebooks.com is owned by amazon.com.) There are only a handful of specialized Judaica antiquarian booksellers remaining in the U.S., and they welcome direct inquiries concerning titles of interest. 5 5 For example, during a later stage of my research, I decided to purchase a volume of Ber Borokhov’s essays and correspondence, Shprakh-forshung un literatur-geshikhte, edited by Nakhmen Mayzil (Tel-Aviv: I. L. Peretz Publishing House, 1966), even though it is accessible online via the Yiddish Book Center. I contacted a bookseller in Los Angeles, Henry Hollander, who has an extensive stock of Yiddish books, and he provided a copy of this book. It contains Borokhov’s best-known writings on Yiddish philology and bibliography, as well as a number of the articles that he published in Di varhayt. Some of these booksellers’ holdings are not listed in the websites of aggregators such as abebooks.com.
- E-mail correspondence with Vanessa Freedman, University College – London, who provided a PDF of her 2010 M.A. dissertation (UCL), The Maskil, the Kabbalist and the Political Scientist: Judaica Classification Schemes in Their Historical Context. In my experience, scholars are often quite willing to share their research — especially if it has already been published — and offer suggestions concerning useful sources.
- E-mail correspondence with Lyudmila Sholokhova and Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigel, Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library. Amanda Seigel sent me Hathi Trust links to issues of the NYPL Bulletin that are accessible online and, via Google Docs, shared copies of articles (cited by Vanessa Freedman) by and about Freidus, which as of 2010 were accessible online via legacy.nypl.org but are no longer online. Librarians are happy to respond to informational inquiries (it’s in our job descriptions!) such as the one that led me to the NYPL Bulletin.
Print sources consulted (from my personal library):
Chajes, Saul. Otsar beduye ha-shem = Thesaurus pseudonymorum quae in litteratura Hebraica et Judaeo-Germanica inveniuntur. Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1967. Reprint of 1933 edition (Vienna). The Yiddish press is replete with contributions by authors writing under pseudonyms. Chajes’s volume is the authoritative source for Yiddish and Hebrew authors’ pen names, through its publication date. (Zalmen Reyzen and Berl Kagan published lists of Yiddish authors’ pseudonyms for subsequent periods.) I’ve had the reprint edition in my personal library for many years and I consult it frequently.
Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature). New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1956-1981. 8 vols. Updated successor to Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon (described below). A number of important Yiddish authors refused to have their biographies included in this Leksikon because it received West German reparations funding through grants from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. The Leksikon is not accessible online, but I have a set in my personal library. The entries were translated into English by Joshua Fogel and are accessible on the Yiddish Leksikon blog: http://yleksikon.blogspot.com. Fogel has filled in some blanks and updated some entries with information from Berl Kagan’s Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (New York: 1986), which includes biographies and bibliographies of Yiddish authors and a list of Yiddish authors’ pseudonyms.
Reyzen, Zalmen. Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye. Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1926-1929. 4 vols. Also accessible online via Yiddish Book Center – Digital Library & Collections. Reyzen’s Leksikon includes biographies and bibliographies — some of them quite extensive — for thousands of Yiddish authors. A supplement volume was being readied for publication when World War II broke out; it did not see the light of day. Although it can be viewed online, I find it more convenient to use the print edition and have a (crumbling) set in my personal library. (The Yiddish Book Center offers these options for viewing books in its digital corpus: online via its full-screen book viewer, or PDF download.) Reyzen’s Leksikon has a brief entry for Abraham S. Freidus (with his photo), who is described there as “one of the best Jewish bibliographers, a living encyclopedia of Jewish knowledge, with an incredible memory; a friend of Yiddish literature and the Yiddish theater… his death aroused sincere sadness in the Yiddish literary circles of New York, where he was very popular and beloved” (vol. 3, col. 197).
Studies in Jewish Bibliography and Related Subjects in Memory of Abraham Solomon Freidus (1867-1923). New York: The Alexander Kohut Memorial Foundation, 1929. Copy purchased from bookseller on Abebooks.com. See especially “Freidusiana: A List of Writings by and about A. S. Freidus,” pp. xi-xxii. Some entries in that bibliography are accessible online via JPress; however, many have not been digitized and are unavailable online.
Zylbercweig, Zalmen. Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre). New York: 1931-1969. 6 vols. Also accessible online via Yiddish Book Center – Digital Library & Collections. Similar in concept to the bio-bibliographical lexicons of Yiddish authors, Zylbercweig’s Leksikon covers thousands of Yiddish theater personalities, along with profiles of a number of Yiddish theater troupes. Although the six volumes are accessible online, I prefer to use the print edition, which I have in my personal library. The six volumes were indexed by Faith Jones when she was a librarian at the Dorot Jewish Division of The New York Public Library (Freidus’s old haunt!), and are accessible at: https://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/lexicon_combined.pdf. The unpublished seventh volume, Encyclopedia of the Yiddish Theatre (in page proofs), is accessible via the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project: https://web.uwm.edu/yiddish-stage/encyclopedia.