Yiddish Tomes Go Digital With DIY Scanner
National Yiddish Book Center Device Preserves Works of Literature
It’s a scenario that the Yiddish writers of yore could never have predicted, and yet by which they likely would have been tickled: Today, their work is being digitized with the help of a home-made scanner built by a former Baptist from Indiana who lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
As of mid June, the scanner is the newest acquisition of the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. It will be used to digitize the center’s books — some of them a century old — that are stored in a climate-controlled vault.
This is the first scanner owned by the center. Previously it digitized books using a scanner loaned from the Internet Archive, a not-for-profit digital library. Other tomes were scanned at the National Library of Israel and at a factory in Pennsylvania, where “everything was automated and nobody read Yiddish,” said Catherine Madsen, the center’s bibliographer. “They sliced the spine off the books and fed the pages through a machine. It was upsetting that the books had to be destroyed in order to be saved.”
The new scanner, which uses two Canon DSLR cameras to capture the Yiddish text (without cutting books), was donated to the center through circuitous means. A New York software executive (who asked to remain nameless in the Jewish tradition of anonymous giving) originally purchased a kit for the scanner from Daniel Reetz, creator of the do-it-yourself book scanner project. The executive was unsure of what he would do with the scanner. His wife had been in touch with an Australian living on a kibbutz in Israel, who had been involved in digitizing yizkor books — that is, books written by Holocaust survivors to commemorate the communities that were destroyed. The Australian put the executive in touch with Joel Alpert, a retired electrical engineer in Boston who was involved in efforts to publish hard copies of the yizkor books. Alpert was aware of the National Yiddish Book Center’s need for a scanner.