The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) was established as an archive to preserve the history and culture of German-speaking Jews. While the LBI archives contain valuable information for family researchers, archivists in the past who collected and catalogued the materials were more likely to have research scholars in mind when indexing the collection.
How then can archives like those at LBI be made more accessible and useful for genealogical research purposes? To answer this question, we at LBI have been examining new trends in archival processing (e.g., digitization), cataloguing (e.g., metadata), and inter-institutional cooperation. Our goal at the Leo Baeck Institute is to improve the connection between archivists and genealogists, support increased use of German-Jewish archives by family researchers, and encourage the inclusion and recognition of the social, cultural and historical context in genealogical research.
What is the Leo Baeck Institute?
The German-speaking, Jewish exile community founded the Leo Baeck Institute and appointed Rabbi Leo Baeck our first president in 1955. Offices were established in the great outposts of the exiled community: London, Jerusalem and New York, with New York as the home of the library and archival collections. In 2014, we opened an office in Berlin staffed by a representative of our New York office.
Since its founding, the Leo Baeck Institute has become the premier research library and archive devoted exclusively to documenting the history of German-speaking Jewry.
Our mission has remained consistent for sixty years: to preserve and promote the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry. In fulfilling our mission we have focused on collecting, preserving, and cataloguing materials.
Our collections consist of:
- The LBI archives preserve over 2,000 memoirs, 25,000 photographs, and thousands of feet of correspondence, genealogical materials, and business and civil records.
- LBI’s 80,000 volume library is internationally recognized as the world’s foremost collection focused on the history of German-speaking Jews.
- From engravings depicting early Jewish life in German lands to abstract works by German-Jewish émigrés in the second half of the 20th century, the works in the LBI art collection complement the archival and library collections as a visual record of German-Jewish history.
LBI is committed to expanding access to critical resources while preserving the unique and fragile materials in our collections. We have nearly completed digitizing the archival holdings and we have begun to digitize our art collections as well as many rare books and periodicals.
Our work is far from done. We are still collecting materials, many family papers are still out there. We seek to acquire original documents and photographs and we advise families that we have the capacity to preserve original documents. However, if families wish, we are willing to digitize and return the originals.
How can LBI support family research?
Access to our collection has always been an issue given that our archive is located in New York City. LBI had the good fortune to have a single donor fund DigiBaeck, a project that resulted in the digitization of nearly our entire archive, many of our books and some of our art. DigiBaeck is an important part of how we hope to make LBI more easily accessible and searchable by genealogists.. We are creating search parameters that will identify community histories within the archival and library collections, and that will make communities and names that are within the finding aids of a collection more easily accessible..
For the last several years, LBI has been engaged in a planning process with Dr. Frank Mecklenburg, LBI’s Director of Research, and Karen Franklin, our Family Research Project Director. Our goals are:
- To facilitate interest in and access to German-Jewish family research resources at the Leo Baeck Institute.
- To reach out to family researchers who may not know about LBI and its resources.
- To attract a new generation of LBI supporters through research on families with German Jewish backgrounds, including families who immigrated in the 20th century and even families who reached American shores in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Our strengths are:
- As noted above, nearly all of the LBI holdings are digitized which allows remote access to the materials.
- LBI can offer a view into the social, historical and cultural perspectives of the family histories
- With Karen Franklin’s oversight and the assistance of a knowledgable staff, LBI is in a position to offer family research services.
As we develop our direction, we are careful not to duplicate existing efforts. We currently receive a large volume of requests for help that may take us a few weeks to answer. Almost 50% of those requests are from family researchers. We respond to many of those requests with referrals to other sources (e.g., JewishGen, Alemannia Judaica, GERSIG listserv).
LBI’s next steps in support of family research.
So far, we have identified three priorities for our work in family research: creating a web portal specifically for family researchers; developing a targeted program called Family Matters, and providing family research services.
Web Portal. We plan to create a “portal” or entryway into LBI’s web site for family research. The portal will provide an introduction to our collections, including family histories and trees; community histories and records; memoirs and photographs; and, maps. The site will also contain a guide to using DigiBaeck, frequently asked questions, and an opportunity to give us feedback.
Family Matters. We have initiated a new, multigenerational program to develop new audiences through our family research initiative. LBI’s strength is in providing in-depth access to the social, cultural and historical aspects of our forbearers’ lives. We hope that family researchers will be interested in the “forest” and not just the trees. Through targeted “affinity” groups, e.g., by city/town/region, by profession, by émigré experience, we are working to inspire intergenerational interest among families and communities.
Family Research Services. We are exploring different options for providing family research services. Individuals with a beginner’s interest in their family histories are encouraged to seek out the Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History where they receive some support from the Center’s reference staff and free access to subscription services (e.g., Ancestry, Heritage). Karen Franklin continues to offer programs on German-Jewish family research at meetings and conferences throughout the country.
We have outlined LBI’s vision for supporting family research. We need your help and advice on how to proceed. We welcome your participation at every level of the Leo Baeck Institute’s work, as a researcher, volunteer, donor, or participatant in our programs. Please contact us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-744-6400.
Author: by William H. Weitzer, Ph.D., Executive Director, Leo Baeck Institute – New York