One hundred years ago, Jews gathered in Montreal to found the Yiddishe Folks Bibliotek, which thrives today as Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (JPL).
It was evident to them and their successors that what they were doing was of historical significance. They were culturally ambitious. Already in 1919, JPL president H.M. Caiserman pointed out that the Jewish division of the New York Public Library had 150,000 volumes, the JPL, 3,100. How many years, Caiserman asked, would it take JPL to catch up?
The first JPL report includes a statement of principles worthy of note: “JPL is of and for the people.” JPL already felt its responsibility to strengthen and shape Jewish cultural life in Montreal.
That same document stated “that all [JPL’s] endeavours carry a cultural/esthetic character and attract all the intellectual forces of our city.” It was not merely a library, but an institution dedicated to bringing the public closer to Jewish cultural life.
Who were the people with such ambitions? JPL founders included Reuben Brainin, the charismatic editor of Montreal’s Yiddish-language daily, Keneder Adler, and the young intellectual, Yehuda Kaufman. However both of them left Montreal soon after the library’s founding. The JPL report for 1917 states plaintively: “Now the steering committee has no ‘leaders,’ only plain dedicated members.” They were unduly modest.
What else can we learn about the JPL’s leadership? JPL’s founding principles said this: JPL was to be directed by a committee of 23 members, and it was to meet weekly.
JPL leadership, in its early decades, was a constant, collective endeavour, week-in, week-out. Weekly meetings of the board, on Tuesday nights, were a feature of JPL institutional life until 1950. In the spirit of the Labor Zionism that motivated so many of the JPL’s founders, the leaders referred to each other as “comrade” – chaver and chavera. This convention also lasted until the 1950s.
The founders of JPL were intensely Jewish, dedicated to the Jewish People heart and soul, but not religiously observant Jews. This can be seen in JPL’s original policy on opening hours and lending: JPL was to be open daily with the exception of Yom Kippur and the seder nights. It was to lend books daily except for Shabbat and holidays.
Having the library open on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays was galling to the strictly Orthodox Jews of Montreal, but certainly expressed the character of the people who led the institution in its early years.
Another fundamental principle rewards our attention: ”[JPL’s] mission is to collect all printed treasures of the Jewish People, especially in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as to collect the ‘classic’ books of other peoples in their languages.”
The founders thus showed a clear preference for Yiddish and Hebrew as vehicles of Jewish cultural expression, but also demonstrated a cultural openness to the changing world around them. Linguistic purity did not last long. Nor could it do so if JPL was to maintain its cultural relevance to a Jewish community that was rapidly acquiring English and would later add French to its vital languages.
JPL has been many things to many people. A century of experience has shown that it is easy to enumerate but inherently difficult to prioritize its multiplicity of functions. Over a century, when leaders had a moment between worrying about mortgage payments and payrolls, they wondered about JPL’s future.
Executive director Eva Raby summed up much of their dilemma in 2005: we continually play a balancing act between fulfilling the library’s mandate to purchase Judaic materials and meeting the needs of patrons whose reading needs extend to general interest books and fiction.
In 2013, JPL asked an existential question. Are libraries still relevant? With the Internet and ebooks, why would people still be interested in libraries?
Another question remained unspoken: if libraries, in whatever reinvented form, are still relevant, will Montreal Jews be sufficiently interested to devote their time, effort and resources to give JPL a second century? Like all good questions involving the future, this one yields no completely clear answer.
Ira Robinson is interim director of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.