Ask An Archivist FAQ

Ask an Archivist FAQ


For Everyone

What is the Center for Jewish History?

The Center for Jewish History (CJH; founded 2000) is an umbrella organization housing four Jewish-related libraries and archives and one museum collection. The partners of the Center are: the American Jewish Historical Society (founded 1892; American-Jewish history), the Leo Baeck Institute (founded 1955; German-Jewish and diaspora history), the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded 1925; Eastern European-Jewry history), the American Sephardi Federation (founded 1973; American and European Sephardi Jewry history), and the Yeshiva University Museum, the museum collection of Yeshiva University. The Center and its Partners maintain their own collections while participating in central services such as processing, digitization, and conservation provided by the Center for the benefit of partner collections.

Does the American Jewish Historical Society have a location in Boston? If so, can Boston collections be accessed in New York or can New York collections be accessed in Boston?

Yes, the American Jewish Historical Society—New England Archives (AJHS-NEA) is located at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), 99-101 Newbury St, Boston, MA 02116. AJHS-NEA cares for all AJHS collections related to the history of Jews in the Boston and Greater New England area.

And unfortunately, no, collections located at AJHS-NYC and AJHS-NEA cannot be loaned between organizations. You may search our shared online catalog for collection holdings located at AJHS-NEA but you will have to travel to the NEHGS in order to access their collections.

Is the American Jewish Historical Society affiliated with or part of the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the American Jewish Archives (AJA), or the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH)?

No. We are all independent museums and historical societies and in the case of the American Jewish Archives, we have some archival collections that work in conjunction with each other. We do partner with these institutions on projects, exhibits, and programs. Some of the best material in the permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History comes from our collections.

Where can I find information about local Jewish historical societies in my town/city/state?

If you'd like to find a local Jewish-related historical society in your area, click here.

How can I access articles from your American Jewish History journal?

The AJHS Quarterly is available online through the following resources:

The Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust various issues until 1961
-The Internet Archive: https://archive.org/search.php?query=American%20Jewish%20Historical%20Society%20AND%20mediatype%3Atexts
-Hathi Trust: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000495706

Project Muse, 1996-present: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_jewish_history/

Our publications are available online at JStor: http://about.jstor.org/rr (you can sign up as a free user and read articles online, they give you a limit per month but you can still use it for free).

How can I contact the staff?

Our staff list can be found here: Contact Us.

How do archivists prepare materials for public access once a collection is donated?  Why must donated materials include funds for "processing?"

It is very time consuming to make the primary source material of a collection ready for public access; most of the cost covers the salary of a professional archivist who follows these steps:

  • Surveys the collection (whether a few inches of papers, a few feet or thousands of boxes) in order to create an intellectual structure for the materials.
  • Physically prepares documents within each folder, often replacing metal paperclips with inert plastic clips; sometimes photocopying crumbling, acidic paper for long-term survival of content; replacing old, acidic folders with new acid-free folders to better protect the documents.  Every effort is taken to streamline the process depending on the variables within a specific collection in order to make new collections accessible as soon as possible.
  • Writes the Finding Aid (including a historical or biographical note, plus descriptions of the collection) and encodes it to be machine readable. Finally, the collection is cataloged so it has a physical location on the shelf and an intellectual location in the catalog.
What is a Finding Aid?

A Finding Aid is a written document that describes the contents of an archival collection. It guides you through a collection so that you can determine if the collection contains the primary source material that you seek.

Can I look at the materials first?

Archival collections range in size from one linear foot to 1500 linear feet or more. It is best to know what you are looking for prior to looking at a collection.

Do I really need to read Finding Aids?

In short: Yes!

  • Reading the Finding Aid's Abstract and Scope and Content Notes help you understand if a collection relates to your topic.
  • Remember: You can only check out six boxes of material at one time. A Finding Aid narrows down your selection of boxes to request.
  • How? By reading the Finding Aid's Box and Folder List as a table of contents to help you figure out what materials to request.

To learn more about Finding Aids, click here.

Why conduct research in archives with primary source material when there is an abundance of history books and information on the Internet?

Even the most extensive of history books fail to encompass every important detail and nuance of complex historic events, and are never entirely free from opinions and views of the authors and the influences of the current tendencies in historical science.  The authenticity of information published on the Internet is often difficult to verify. Working with primary source materials in archival collections is one of the most direct, independent, and infallible ways of researching history.

Are your archival collections digitized and available for online viewing?

About 5% of our archival collections have been digitized and put online; most of our collections are not fully digitized for online viewing. The majority of our collections may only be viewed in person at the Center for Jewish History or our Boston location. If a collection has not been digitized, then the researcher may visit the Center's Lillian Goldman Reading Room and request to view the original in its box, or make an online request for a copy. Please note that photocopies and scans of materials are charged according to a fee schedule and are governed by U.S. Copyright rules.

How and where can I access the archival collections of AJHS? Do I need to receive special permission or make an appointment to do so?

The archival collections of AJHS are accessible at the Lillian Goldman Reading Room during its regular hours of operation. While a small number of documents and collections are restricted due to confidentiality or fragility, the majority of our collections are open to the public and do not require special permission or an advance arrangement to be viewed. Optionally, materials can be placed on reserve prior to your visit. A small but growing number of collections are housed off-site and we do require advance notice to call them into the building. Specific finding aids will indicate when this is the case.

How do I order a collection described as "off-site?"

Some collections are housed off-site.  Please note special procedures for requesting boxes from off-site collections within their individual finding aids.

How should I handle archival material?

Researchers visiting the Lillian Goldman Reading Room are advised to adhere to the following general guidelines.

  • We ask that researchers use pencils only when working with collections.
  • Researchers are required to wear white gloves when handling photographs.
  • Oversized material should be handled only on the surface of the desk and should not hang off the edges of the desk which may lead to bending and tearing of the material.
  • For more advice on document handling, please consult: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/document-handling.htm. For more information on the guidelines and regulations of the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, please visit: http://www.cjh.org/readingroom#rules
Why isn't everything in the AJHS collection scanned?

It is very costly to scan collections to the standards established by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in order to insure that digital files will be acceptable representations of the original paper materials for 50, 100 or more years.  A large part of the cost of digitization insures the accurate retention of all the data about an item – the metadata – so that the item will turn up in searches and provide context back to the collection to which it belongs.  The professional staff at the AJHS understands the urgency of scanning as much as we can as soon as possible, but the entire process, from finding the funding to structuring the project to completing the project can take years. If you'd like to donate to help offset the costs of scanning and digitization, click here for more information!

If you would like to discuss funding a particular project in full, please contact our Director of Library and Archives, Susan Malbin at smalbin@ajhs.org.

Why are some collections closed or restricted?

Some collections are restricted due to confidentiality clauses, donor requirements or conservation issues. For instance, the information found in our orphanage records is closed for seventy years after the original date of the records in order to protect the privacy of persons found within the collection. In regards to personal collections, a donor may place specific restrictions on their collections as a stipulation of their donation. In the case of items restricted due to fragility or conservation issues, we make every effort to photocopy or digitize materials that are fragile or are in need of conservation to insure that they are accessible by the public.

Can I view film and/or video recordings listed in your finding aids?

Due to the technical limitations of our reading room, the access to materials on film and video tape may be restricted. If you wish to view such materials please contact us in advance to your visit. 

For Genealogists

I am looking for information on my ancestors. Can you help?

While AJHS can provide you with basic information regarding our collections and other repositories that may help in your family history search, we cannot provide birth and death records or records from United States, local, or foreign vital records collections. We suggest that your first stop of inquiry be the Ackman and Ziff Family Genealogy Institute located at the Center for Jewish History. Their Research Guides are an excellent place to start your family history research!

The AJHS has several archival collections that may help in uncovering basic information regarding your ancestors. Our Family History Databases focus on our New York, Brooklyn, and Boston-area orphanage records; our immigration-related records from the Industrial Removal Office (IRO), the Jewish Immigration Information Bureau (JIIB), and Baron De Hirsch Fund collections; our benevolent society (Landsmanschaften) incorporation records; our World War I and World War II service records; and several marriage and divorce records collections.

Our collections also contain many family trees and self-published family histories. You may search for these collections through our library catalog by searching on the family name.

Do you know where my grandparent's synagogue was located?

The AJHS at one time actively collected histories, newsletters, and collections related to local synagogues, and various other organizations. While our collections on local history in the United States are not comprehensive by any means, you may search through our catalog for the name of your particular town or synagogue or organization and its location in order to uncover potential information. You may also take a look at our Subject Files collection containing hundreds of files regarding local Jewish life in the United States.  Contact your local or nearest historical society or Jewish history-related historical society in your area or your local government offices for more information as well.

For Donors

How can I donate a collection to the American Jewish Historical Society?

The AJHS seeks important and representative materials that illuminate seminal aspects of American Jewish life. The collecting strategy is documentation of the evolution of American Jews that includes both how we lived as Jews and as Americans. By definition that covers the broad spectrum of Jewish family, institutional, and communal life. Importantly it includes our role in America, ranging from politics to sports.

If you are interested in donating materials to the American Jewish Historical Society, please contact our Director of Library and Archives, Susan Malbin at smalbin@ajhs.org.

For more information on how to donate please see our Donate Collection page.

Please note that we can only accept collections within the scope of our collecting policy. If we cannot take your collection, we will be more than happy to suggest other repositories for your materials. Funding for the processing of personal papers and institutional records collections donated to the AJHS is always welcomed.

How can I get started on creating an archive?

Family histories and collections are very important! For those interested in creating a personal or family archive, please see: Creating Your Family Archive.

Do you accept monetary donations to further your important work?

We do! Your monetary donation helps to fund our staff, process our collections and make them available to scholars, lay researchers, and genealogists. We also produce a wide-range of exhibits and programs throughout the year. As a non-profit organization we rely fully on the generosity of our Board of Directors, patrons, members, and donors like you. To learn more, check out our Donation page.

For Scholars and Lay Researchers

How do I ask a reference question?

The easiest and fastest way to ask us a reference question is to send a reference request to: reference@ajhs.org. Please note that due to the volume of reference questions we receive and the size of our staff, it can take a few weeks to respond to your request. Be assured, however, that we will get back to you as soon as possible. Give us as much information as possible regarding your request.

If you do not have access to email, please contact Senior Archivist Tanya Elder at 212-294-8301 x6176 or Reference and Photo Archivist Boni J. Koelliker at 212-294-8301 x6209. We will take your information down and will get back to you with an answer to your question within a few weeks. Please note that we cannot provide you with definitive answers to your queries over the phone.

Can you help me with my research?

We are more than happy to get you started on your lay or academic research. In fact, that is why we exist in the first place! However, please note that we have a very small staff answering hundreds of reference questions per month. As such, we can only provide you with twenty minutes of reference research to get you started on your project.

We suggest that your first line of inquiry would be to search out your topic at our online Catalog. You may be able to find the materials that you are looking for through a simple catalog search.

We understand that in some circumstance—particularly in academic research—you may need to speak with a professional for a more in-depth focus on your research needs. You may write to Senior Archivist Tanya Elder (telder@ajhs.org) regarding your research project.

Can I hire a researcher to work on my request?

Certainly! If together we determine that your request will take more than our twenty minute time allotment, we can provide you with a list of researchers who can help you find collection information for a fee. Our fee schedule is located here: Fee Schedule.

How do I cite a collection reference?

When citing a collection, please follow the citation rules found under "Preferred Citation" at the beginning of the Finding Aid. Our format typically follows the following pattern: Identification of item, date (if known); Collection Name; Collection Number; Box number; Folder number; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.

Please note that the above format is for archival collections only. To cite books, pamphlets, and articles, please consult your preferred style manual.

Why do I have to ask for permission to use AJHS items found online or that I photograph myself during my research in the reading room? 

The American Jewish Historical Society and members of the staff are required to abide by U.S. copyright lawCopyright covers textual information found in a collection and governs the use of photographs, audio files, and other formats.  The forms you sign in the reading room governing the rights and responsibilities of both the researcher and the repository when making analog photocopies or digital photographs of archival materials explain just the basics of U.S. copyright law.  Libraries and archives are allowed under "Fair Use" to make copies available to researchers for scholarly and educational purposes, whether staff makes a photocopy or the researcher takes their own digital photographs. Researchers need to be aware that the intellectual content of some materials within the AJHS collections belong legally to a third party, separate from who owns the physical copy.  One common example of this are letters, which do not belong to the recipient, in whose collections they normally reside, but to the writer, who was most likely not consulted when the collection was turned over to AJHS.  Copyright is a complex and evolving area of the law.

How do I apply for "Permission to Publish?"

Please note that "Permission to Publish" and requesting permission to purchase the rights to a visual representation of one of our photographs or archival collections for a film, television, print or web publication are different requests. For purchasing the rights to use a visual representation see, "How do I request a photograph for use in a film, documentary, newspaper, magazine, or publication (print and websites)?," below.

If you intend to quote from the archival collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, you must request permission to publish said quotes. 99% of all requests are granted. We require that you to tell us what materials are being quoted so that we know how our collections are being used and whether your requests must be forwarded to other individuals or organizations to obtain permission. For instance, it is stipulated in the personal papers of Rabbi Tobias Geffen that permission to publish must be obtained from his family prior to publication. You would first write to us to request permission, and we would then be able to inform you that permission needs to be obtained from his estate. We will establish contact between you and the estate in order to begin the process.

To obtain permission to publish from collections at AJHS, please email us at reference@ajhs.org that you intend to publish quotes from materials and we will send you the guidelines to request permission.

The AJHS is always pleased to acquire copies of publications relating to the Jewish experience in the Americas, particularly if our primary source materials are quoted.  A donation of one copy of your work would be greatly appreciated.

For Film, Documentaries, Newspapers, Magazines, and Publications

How do I search for American Jewish Historical Society photographs online?

If you are interested in searching for AJHS photographs online, follow these steps:

  • Go to our online catalog at www.search.cjh.org
  • Enter your search term(s) in the white box just above "Welcome to the Center for Jewish History"
  • Filter by partner, on the left, by clicking on "American Jewish Historical Society."  Filter by resource type or other terms that appear on the left.
Are there fees involved for using a photo or archival collection in print, the Internet, or film?

Yes. You can visit our Fee Schedule for a list of Non-Profit and Commercial Fees.

Why do I have to pay for photographs to use for my book/website/film/television production?

We charge fees to cover part of the cost of maintaining a large, historic collection in many formats. The costs are high to maintain the collection in a climate-controlled environment, for digitization, and the necessary encoding, to provide materials as needed with captions and other context, all performed by professional staff to do the work. As a non-profit institution, we charge fair licensing image fees, which in turn contribute to care and preservation of photographs and audio visual collections in our archives.  A very small portion of these costs are recovered by the fees we charge, which are comparable to the fees charged by other repositories. These fees are assessed by the AJHS as the owner of the physical collection material.

Please note usage fees are separate from copyright. The customer is responsible for securing copyright permissions. For more questions and information about copyright law go to http://www.copyright.gov/ and read http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf

How do I request a photograph for use in a film, documentary, newspaper, magazine, or publication (print and websites)?

If you have found an image that you want to use or need help to research potential images to use, you may contact our Reference and Photo Archivist, Boni J. Koelliker at 212-294-6209 or reference@ajhs.org.