A strong argument can be made that the center of the Yiddish world is on West 16th Street in New York City. That’s where YIVO Institute for Jewish Research is located. It is one of the jewels of the Jewish world, with some 23 million items. Its library has nearly 400,000 volumes and contains the largest collection of Yiddish-language books, pamphlets, and newspapers in the world.
Last week, after YIVO laid off its entire library staff to plug a budget shortfall, the institution reminded us that there’s more to a library than its books. YIVO was founded in Vilna, Poland, in 1925, as the Yiddish Scientific Institute. During World War II, the Nazis plundered YIVO, looking for works to place in their planned “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Everything else was to be shredded.
According to the history on YIVO’s website: “The Jews assigned by the Nazis to sort through the archival and library materials risked their lives to hide rare artifacts. Calling themselves ‘the Paper Brigade,’ they smuggled books and papers to hiding places in the Jewish ghetto and the homes of friendly non-Jews. They concealed documents under floorboards and in walls and buried them in secret underground bunkers.” The end of the Holocaust led to YIVO making a permanent move to New York.
Given so much heroism in its history, and so much risked to build its singular library, the layoffs are deeply troubling, and prompted some 700 scholars, students, and former employees to write to the YIVO board, in English and Yiddish, seeking to have the librarians reinstated. “Given YIVO’s commitment to Yiddish Studies scholarship and to the history of Eastern European Jews, it is disheartening that a full-time library staff is not one of YIVO’s main priorities, budgetary concerns notwithstanding.”
While YIVO hasn’t made clear exactly why it faced the budget shortfall, it appears that it is suffering not from a lack of funds or a lack of interest in Yiddish, but from a trend in philanthropy that limits use of contributed dollars. According to YIVO’s social media post: “In 2019, YIVO experienced a shortfall of $550,000 in our projected unrestricted operating revenue.”
Unrestricted donations allow an institution to spend money as it deems necessary — be it on computers, new furniture, or librarians’ salaries. But increasingly, donors direct their money to what they are most passionate about and where it will best reflect their values. Nonprofits encourage such directed giving as a way to increase donor loyalty, and the YIVO librarians may be a casualty of that trend.
We hope that YIVO succeeds in raising necessary funds to reinstate its librarians and fund its ongoing operations, as it would be a shame to lose the very valuable, historic YIVO library collection.