Banner image: Rare book. Ma’aseh Toviyah (Venice : Stamparia Bragadina, 1707). Courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives and Special Collections, Montreal.
A capacity-building grant from the Azrieli Foundation is enabling the Archives at the Jewish Public Library (JPL) in Montreal to innovate how it shares its work.
Founded in 1914, the JPL Archives and Special Collections have collected and preserved hundreds of thousands of archival records. Part of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, a full-service lending and research library, the Archives provide access to original documents, photographs and recordings that share the history of Montreal’s Jewish community.
The organization fields reference requests, hosts a variety of workshops and group tours and has offered practicum and internship opportunities to university students. The Archives also translates documents from Yiddish to English and curates exhibitions and special projects featuring archival materials.
The Azrieli Foundation has supported the JPL since 1990 with donations totaling $230,000, as part of a mandate to preserve and share Canadian Jewish history. In 2022, to ensure the Archives’ sustainability, the Foundation made its biggest commitment to date: $978,000 over three years.
The grant supports the Archives and Special Collections’ staffing needs, giving it the resources to strengthen its foundation and find the best ways to curate and display its materials. The JPL Archives is part of the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network, which brings together databases and digital materials from organizations countrywide. This grant could encourage closer collaboration among Jewish archives on a national scale.
Upon receiving the grant, the Archives’ most pressing task was to address a backlog in the cleanup and categorization of its collections. Staff digitized parts of the Archives using AtoM (Access to Memory), a web-based, open-source collection management software. With the files digitized and given standardized descriptions, many items and documents are now accessible to the wider community. The Archives’ AtoM website launched in April 2023.
The grant has also enabled new projects like JPL Curates, a digital exhibit that shares some of the unique materials from the Archives and Special Collections selected by archivists and librarians. To take high quality photographs of materials for their digital projects, staff constructed a lightbox – a device that provides strong uniform light from a translucent surface. Many of these new lightbox photos are featured in the collections on the JPL Curates website.
Another innovative project was The Archives Roadshow, a series of three virtual events in November and December 2022. Eleven archivists from across the country shared objects from their collections that tell a story of the history of Jewish Canada. Recordings of all three sessions are available on YouTube.
The team is excited to breathe new life into their prized materials. They plan to host more grassroots, in-person events in public places like synagogues, churches and schools, and to update the space to display the collections.
The work of the JPL Archives and Special Collections goes beyond displaying artifacts and documents as static objects; it paints a picture of past lives lived, bringing history into the present.