After 36 years, the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center is getting ready to say goodbye. Well, sort of.
"We're not closing, because that gives the idea that we're going under, never to be seen again," said president Carole Le Faivre-Rochester. "As a center that's true, but as an archive that's not true at all."
Beginning early next year, the archives will merge with the Urban Archives at Temple University. The current facility, which houses the community's records dating back as far as 1810, will stay open to the public at its current location, on North Eighth Street, until the end of this year, then move to Temple soon after. Le Faivre-Rochester said the decision as to the archives' future has been in the works for a year; in the end, the organization could no longer afford to keep its doors open in its current incarnation. She called it "probably the most difficult decision this board could ever make."
"We're giving up our independence and ability to make our own decisions as we go, but we have the guarantee on the part of the director of libraries that our records will be secure and preserved," she said, adding that the archives' board of directors will serve as an auxiliary to Temple, and that attempts will be made to continue to grow the collection and maintain educational outreach.
The archive will also maintain its present 501(c)(3), nonprofit tax status, and continue to do much of what it already does, including continuing its current oral-history project between high school students and elderly members of the Jewish community.
Same Place, Different Address
In the process of attempting to find a new home for the archives, the board considered a number of options, including moving to synagogue space or some sort of involvement with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania — moves that, in the end, were nixed because of long-term costs and space issues, respectively.
"In an economy such as we're all facing, we're doing the most realistic thing — most archives in this country are attached to an academic or historical institution," said Le Faivre-Rochester.
The merger between the two facilities has been agreed to in principle, but legal documents still need to be finalized and signed, said Larry Alford, Temple's dean of university libraries.
"Special collections, such as this one, are the heart and soul of research libraries, particularly in the electronic age," said Alford. "These are really important ways to make sure that, 100 to 200 years from now, we understand how our ancestors lived, and how our friends and families lived."
Despite the high-profile construction of new facilities for the National Museum of American Jewish History, Le Faivre-Rochester said the museum and the archives did not discuss a merger. There had been informal talks in the past about merging, she said, though "neither organization saw this as realistic, and serious discussion, beyond a preliminary stage, never took place."
She said the two institutions' missions were distinct, despite their similarities, and that museums rely on archival materials for exhibitions.
"People look at an archive and they think dusty shelves, people sitting around looking at books — it's not true," she said. "But we're not the kind of institution where you're going to have large groups of people traipsing about all the time. I think, in attaching ourselves to an institution like Temple, we're doing what an archive should be doing: making ourselves available to scholars and young students, maintaining our educational outreach."
Once the trucks are loaded and the move is completed, the center's staff will have to move on, as well. Though some paid employees will have to be laid off, the board of directors will continue to function, even adding an academic advisory component. Le Faivre-Rochester said that the center hoped to be able to have its own archivist at Temple, but that $1.8 million would have to be raised (over three years) to endow the position.
Ira Schwartz, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said he had already spoken to a few people to help raise those funds, and he was sure Federation would contribute towards it as well. Federation has provided subsidies to the center at varying levels over the years, including a recent $100,000 emergency grant to help the center stay afloat, while it worked to determine its fate.
"While we're close to the situation, we're certainly not driving it," Schwartz said of the merger. "We want to continue to be supportive and make sure there's a nice, soft, smooth landing there, so they can continue to serve the community at large."
Said Le Faivre-Rochester: "I think we're doing the most realistic and intelligent thing. The bottom line for the whole board was — and still is — that we wanted to preserve the mission of the archives: to collect and preserve the records of the Jewish community in the greater Philadelphia area and, in addition to preserving them, make them available to scholars and the general public to examine."