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National Library News
September 1999
Vol. 31, nos. 9

No Mystique Necessary

Cheryl Jaffee,
Curator, Jacob M. Lowy Collection

Image of Jerusalem. From Hayim Vital's Sha'ar Ruah ha-Kodesh. Jerusalem, 1912
Jerusalem. From Hayim Vital's Sha'ar
Ruah ha-Kodesh
. Jerusalem, 1912.

While scanning the cultural offerings in a recent issue of The New Yorker, the bold heading "Museums and Libraries" stood out among the dozens of theatres, cinemas, concert halls and galleries. "Yes!" I exulted. There is no vagueness in this town about what libraries are. Seeing libraries hold their own among the great cultural venues of the city was an exhilarating moment for a librarian who has been curating exhibitions regularly at the National Library, and more often, poring over local publications, making a game of where the event might be listed.

Libraries and museums are home to our cultural treasures, our many "heritages", and they hold artifacts of blessed diversity. The provision of fundamental services to library clientele ought not obscure the larger picture of what we hold, nor should the accessibility of its treasures diminish their value. The democratic nature of the institution is at the root of its strength. But the institution flowers through the interpretive work of its librarians and curators. Its most beautiful and interesting blooms are seen through the eloquent medium of exhibitions. Less formally, its treasures are brought before the public for small seminars, private visits and group tours.

The Lowy Room houses the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare Hebraica and Judaica. This serene and beautiful room allows small groups to gather around a large wooden table, to see up close what the paper, typography and bindings of centuries-old books look like. For some, it is a first look at antiquity and a chance to consider the difference between what is old and what is a facsimile, and why it matters. For others, it is a first encounter with Hebrew and other Jewish languages, and a place to hear about the historical circumstances under which printers and book owners lived and died. There are moments when one is humbled by history while actively involved in its study.

A recent researcher to the Jacob M. Lowy Collection reminded me how unique and how valuable it is to be able to sit in the Lowy Room, surrounded by rare books and manuscripts. This well-travelled researcher marvelled at how she could browse, have the curator's assistance as required, and not to have to apply, cajole, or wait. Clicking bridges into place is what we are privileged to do for a living.

My role as a librarian of rare Hebraica and Judaica is multifaceted. Depending on the circumstances, I am a curator, storyteller and writer, bibliographical detective or research assistant. We are engaged in bridge-building, book by book. As we do this, we are also reconstructing the enormous puzzle of our past. What more justification is needed for libraries to take their rightful place alongside the leading cultural centres of this city?