The Klau Library at HUC-JIR

This is the second installment in our series documenting the Stacked web loggers’ visits to some of Cincinnati’s unique libraries.  You can read the first installment here.

Last Friday afternoon, I hopped on a 17 bus and headed uptown to the Klau Library at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (hereinafter HUC-JIR) in Clifton.  HUC-JIR, if you aren’t aware, lives in those impressive brick buildings overlooking Clifton as you head down the hill from Clifton Heights to the Gaslight, between the Skirball Museum (formerly a Masonic Lodge) and Good Sam.  Its Library, the Klau, is in its third building since HUC-JIR moved into its current digs from its previous location downtown many years ago.  As Dan Rettberg, the Rare Book and Manuscript Bibliographer who showed me around puts it, the Library keeps moving west as it outgrows its previous spaces.  At this rate, it will be in Camp Washington by the end of the decade.

Like the Mercantile, the Klau recently went through a bit of a touch up, but unlike the Mercantile, they had the good sense to do it before the financial crisis hit, rather than at its height.  I didn’t see the place before the renovation, but the current space is modern, yet welcoming.

HUC-JIR itself has been around since 1875, so it’s no surprise that the Klau holds the 2nd largest collection of Judaica in the world, second only to the National Library in Israel.  And like any old-timey Library worthy of the name, its catalog is cobbled together from several previous catalogs, updated as technology and the Library’s needs and collection evolved.  The first one was active from 1875 all the way to the late 1960s.  The second runs from the late 1960s to 2000, which gave way to the current catalog.  Sound confusing?  It’s not, if you know the right order to search the catalogs.  The friendly staff do, and they’re happy to help.  You can also search the collection online, and even if you don’t see what you’re looking for, it doesn’t hurt to ask.  If it’s Judaica, there is a good chance they have it, and since they Klau uses the Library of Congress cataloging system, there’s a good chance they can figure out where it is.

A big reason the Klaus’s collection is as extensive as it is is Adolph S. Oko, who served as the Klau’s Librarian from about 1906 to 1933.  Oko made many buying trips around the world, and after all the frequent steamer miles had been tallied, he’d picked up something like 18,000 works, including an extensive Spinoza collection and an impressive collection of musical manuscripts and archival material.

The Klau’s stacks are open, and Dan informed me (to my surprise) that borrowing privileges are extended to anyone who lives roughly “within 71 and 75”  (after providing one’s vital information at the front desk, of course).

There are some pretty mind-blowingly amazing things in the Klau’s rare book stacks.  While the bulk of the collection dates from the 10th Century on, the Klau holds some perhaps 3,000-year-old clay tablets from Iraq, as well as some fragments from the Cairo Ganizah. Dan showed me an early rabbinic bible (or Mikraot Gedolot) published by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in the 16th Century, and this polyglot bible from the 1670s, which features six languages, each accompanied by its own Latin translation:

While it was great to see some amazing old texts up close, the best part of my visit was the opportunity to listen to Dan, who is that rare and wonderful combination of informed, passionate, and able to communicate his vast knowledge clearly.  In addition to telling me all about Daniel Bomberg, the rubrification process, and much more, Dan and I talked about the idea that Libraries must be about their patrons first and foremost.  At the Mercantile, if we can check something out to a patron we will, and if we can’t, we will happily supply him or her with white cotton gloves and a quiet place to work. The Klau seems to have a similar attitude.

Just before I (reluctantly) left, I asked Dan whether he had a favorite volume from the collection.  Without hesitation he told me about a miscellanea commissioned by a rabbi in a small town in Germany in the 1390s, and written by his nephew, a ritual scribe.  Given its contents, Dan speculated that the book was intended to serve as a handy one volume desk reference containing the information the rabbi needed from day to day.  There are older and more glamorous books in the Klau’s collection, but to Dan, what sets this book apart (aside from its beauty) is the fact that, despite its humble origins, it has a story whose telling continues to this day, some 600+ years after the book’s creation.  And now Dan has told me about it, and I’ve told you, so we’re all a part of this book’s story. That’s pretty amazing, and something worth keeping in mind next time someone asks whether we even need libraries in this day and age.

Thanks to Dan Rettberg and the Klau’s staff for their time and hospitality.

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Published in: on June 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] my fascinating conversation with Dan Rettberg at the Klau Library about rare books and the bibliographizing thereof a few weeks ago, I was fully primed to appreciate […]

  2. […] you with an in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, like we did for the Klau and the Lloyd Libraries, but unfortunately the Stacked travel budget is, shall we say, meager.  Or […]

  3. […] like to arrange a trip to New York so I could write about this place as part of our Special Libraries series, but unfortunately the Stacked Travel Fund currently consists of $1.17 in cash, a 1991 Mobil […]


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