Nov. 29, 2012

Cornell labor archive seeks Yiddish speakers for project

A new project seeks Yiddish speakers to help create an archive of journals and newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Two archival repositories -- the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, U.K. -- are jointly digitizing more than 1,500 pages from journals and newspapers written for working-class Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

They are relying on individuals to help translate the publications, which include newspapers The Polish Yidel and Hashulamith and The Ladies' Garment Worker journal of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, and cover the period 1910-18. As the project continues, more Yiddish items relating to labor, particularly in the garment industry, will be added as pages are transcribed.

Participants in the project register, select a journal and type translations into a text box. Perfect translations are not required; an overall sense of the documents and the content is more important.

Much Yiddish archival material is unavailable to researchers because it only exists in Yiddish, and people who know the language are becoming increasingly rare. A recent census study showed that knowledge and use of Yiddish declined by half between 1980 and 2007. Yiddish speakers in the United States now number less than 160,000, with even fewer in the U.K.

"The drastic decline in the use of the Yiddish language, as well as the continual decrease in the percentage of speakers, reveal an urgent need to get the material translated," said Kathryn Dowgiewicz, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union project archivist at the Kheel Center. "Crowdsourcing [using volunteers to perform a specific task] in libraries and archives has recently become popular, because it not only increases awareness and access, but also creates new communities of users who are actively involved, invested and excited in the projects."

After pages are digitized and translated, they are available -- free and completely searchable -- on the project's wiki. Recently translated passages show up right next to their scanned pages.

"These Yiddish translations will support the research of historians and others scholars as they seek to enrich their understandings of how workers organized themselves at the beginning of the 20th century," said Kheel Center Director Cheryl Beredo. "Questions of how to effectively organize across differences -- whether language, nationality or culture -- continue to be timely, and we hope these new resources will assist scholars in finding their answers."

The Kheel Center, part of Catherwood Library, is committed to the preservation of original source materials relevant to the history of American labor unions, management theory as it applies to labor and industrial relations, and the history of employees at the workplace.

Across the Atlantic, the Modern Records Centre serves as one of the UK's major repositories, collecting social, political and economic history with a special concentration on labor and the national history of industrial relations and politics.

In this cooperative crowdsourcing project, two archives will unite to create one of the first digital transatlantic modern labor history resources, which archivists hope will lead to projects in the future.

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer for Cornell University Library.