Linda Sanders needed some old Yiddish music to cheer up a 98-year-old woman she visited regularly, and she knew just where to find the obscure recordings — at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, in The Jewish Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard.
Sanders has been one of a small but loyal base of patrons who has always found what she was looking for there — anything from old WW II films or books on Jewish humor to recently released novels, or just a quiet place to take solace with a book of psalms.
But now Sanders is worried the library’s convenience and personal service could disappear, as The Federation, which funds the library, is laying the groundwork for a potential merger of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles with the library at American Jewish University.
The proposed merger would leave the children’s collection at 6505 Wilshire but move much of the 30,000-volume collection of books, music, videos and community archives to the Familian Campus of AJU on Mulholland, off the 405 Freeway. AJU would open the collection to the public in a proposed expanded facility that would serve both academic and community needs, in a location halfway between the major Jewish population centers of the Valley and city.
Proponents of the merger say this could be the best hope for survival for the library, which is chronically under-utilized and which most Jewish Angelenos don’t even know exists in its third-floor office suite. As funding from Federation continues to diminish and the cost of running the library rises, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which manages the library, says it will be unable to sustain the library for much longer.
“There was no determination that a community library is not a worthy project or of value to the community, or even that AJU, in a vacuum, is the best solution. It’s just that, realistically, for the BJE the driving force is it cannot afford to continue to fund the library,” said Marc Rohatiner, president of the BJE.
Some library loyalists contend the library has never been a priority for Federation or BJE. Further, they say that allowing an academic library to absorb the collection would undermine its goals as a community library because of AJU’s location, and because the new arrangement would separate families in their library experiences.
“We are the second largest Jewish population in the United States, and it seems a shanda [embarrassment] for us not to have a Jewish community library,” said Sherril Kushner, an attorney and BJE’s library committee member.
Talks about the move are still in early stages; so far two preliminary meetings and one negotiating session between BJE, AJU and Federation officials have occurred.
The library is the only open-access specialized Jewish collection in the city. While synagogues and universities have libraries, they are usually free for members only, and Jewish collections in public libraries are not nearly as complete or wide ranging. The library at the Simon Wiesenthal Center is open to the public, but specializes in material pertaining to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and modern Israel.
But the Jewish Community Library, founded by Federation in 1947 and located in its high-security office building, is not easily accessible, and its base of clients is currently only about 2,000 people per year.
In the last 10 years, its profile has expanded under the leadership of director Abigail Yasgur, who implemented a full programming calendar and a mail service for those who can’t get to the library.
But over the last few years, the library’s allocation from Federation has shrunk, and its rent subsidy, like those of other Federation agencies, is being phased out.
BJE took on the library in 1990, under the condition that Federation would fully fund it so that BJE didn’t have to.
The library’s budget for 2008-2009 is $296,000, but this year only $166,000 will come from Federation. In 2008, Friends of the Library raised about $85,000 to cover the gap, but as it has in past years, BJE has had to dip into library reserves to make up the remainder. And the reserves are running out, according to Gil Graff, BJE executive director.
BJE itself is also getting less support from Federation for its 150 member schools, and in the coming fiscal year expects to have to double its current fundraising to about $1.2 million.
In part, the library’s woes have been aggravated by Federation’s revamping of its funding mechanisms and its relationships with agencies, but even before those changes the library’s existence was being reassessed. In 2006 BJE set up a task force to determine the library’s future. The task force met in 2007 and 2008.
“The only way that the library might be able to continue to exist seemed to be with a drastic reduction of services, and even that was problematic,” said task force chair Linda Goldenberg Mayman, a past president of BJE.
Just as the committee was struggling to come up with recommendations, Robert Wexler, president of AJU, approached Federation about the library. Wexler declined to comment for this story because talks are in early stages.
According to minutes from a March 2008 task force meeting, Wexler presented drawings for AJU’s library expansion plan, estimated to be completed in three years, which will take the current 9,000-square-foot space to a proposed 22,000 square feet. AJU has already raised $5 million of the $8 million required for the project, and with its two-year-old Festival of Jewish Books has placed itself at the center of Jewish literacy in Los Angeles.
AJU’s library currently has about 115,000 volumes, not including a noncirculating library at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, which the university acquired in 2007. Before and since that merger, AJU has been expanding its activities and trying to broaden its reach into the local Jewish community.
“The task force was not entirely comfortable with AJU’s proposal, because they were afraid the community focus of the library would disappear,” Mayman said.
Task force members were concerned about proper staffing — a community librarian and university librarian meet different needs — what might happen to duplicate volumes, the separation of the children’s library and, most significantly, diminished access for the public. While AJU is adjacent to the centers of Jewish population, the task force worried that its hilltop campus might not be a convenient stop for most people.
Nevertheless, in June 2008, the task force — including library committee members who are now protesting the merger — recommended to the BJE that the library should begin discussions with AJU.
The first meeting took place in late December, covering issues ranging from which volumes might be transferred, to potential severance packages for staff. When some library committee members heard about the talks, they circulated a letter of protest at not being included and at what they saw as a rush to finalize the merger.
Jill Lasker, the committee’s chair, defended the process’ protocol, but said she understood why committee members felt out of the loop. She believes the merger could offer relief to the BJE and at the same time benefit the library, since AJU can provide more visibility and a client base the library doesn’t currently reach, particularly from AJU’s popular continuing education classes.
“AJU offers us the possibility of something quite interesting, so to me this is looking like it could be a good option,” Lasker said.
This is not the first time that the library’s future has been up in the air.
In 1995 Federation convened a committee to explore abandoning the library, but hundreds of library supporters packed an open meeting to testify to the importance of the institution, thwarting the bid.
In 2006, library leaders drafted a vision for a stand-alone facility, but BJE’s executive committee chose to convene the library task force rather than pursue that expensive option.
“We’re not going to succeed where we are,” library director Yasgur said. “Place the library in a visible, accessible ground floor location in a high foot-traffic neighborhood and we could easily double or triple our clients.”
Mayman offered up another possibility. She said she would like to see Federation fund the library for another few years, since AJU’s facilities won’t be ready before then anyway. During that time, she said, the library should be spun off as an independent entity and given a chance to fundraise and dream on its own — an admittedly difficult but perhaps doable task during these economic times.
“I don’t think the library has ever had the opportunity to do that,” Mayman said. “If the library had that opportunity, we would see whether the community really was willing to support a Jewish community library.”