Spotlight on the Archives

Posted on July 24, 2012 by

Executive Director Marvin Pinkert asked Jennifer Vess (archivist) and myself (photo archivist) to prepare short articles highlighting the paper and photographic archives here at the Museum. I think they turned out rather well and decided to share them here with you on the blog! Hope you enjoy.




By Jennifer Vess, Archivist

Our archives serve as the repository for Jewish Maryland.   What is special about our archives is that in addition to preserving the papers of large organizations like Baltimore Hebrew University and local leaders and international figures such as Henrietta Szold, our collections also help tell the story of less well-known individuals – those who ran department store chains and those that worked in sweatshops, those who owned their own little store and those who took the trolley to their office then back home to the suburbs. Is your family important enough to end up in our museum’s collection? The answer is yes!

Putting the Records to Work

Why do our archival collections matter?  People use them.  Our archives are open to outside researchers.  Most come to do genealogical research – to find information about their families.  We also have college and graduate students visit the JMM to conduct research in our archives for papers and dissertations on topics such as cookbooks, department store employees, desegregation of public parks, and Family Circles.  Our archives also provide assistance for authors and historians who are looking for more information for their books or for photographs to illustrate their books.

But perhaps the most frequent users of our archives are our staff.  Every exhibition we develop requires time spent researching our archives for documents that support exhibition themes.  The education department also makes use of our archival collections when developing school programs. Furthermore, our archives are also consulted when researching articles for Generations and when we pull information for programs.

Keeping Track and Keeping Safe 

The biggest task for 2012 is to complete the archives inventory.  Inventory of the collections takes place every three years and 2009 was the first time that we did a complete inventory of all of the archives.  It took the better part of a year to accomplish and it was a major accomplishment.  At the time we had well over 18,000 archival records and 1028 linear feet of material.  This year we have added a new dimension to archival inventory – our volunteers, interns and staff are writing brief descriptions about the condition of each individual document. While this is extremely time consuming, this is an important step that will help us determine if special care or conservation is needed.  To date we have completed inventory of 46% of the archives.

Other tasks involved in maintaining our archives are ongoing, mainly processing the collections – getting them into a state that will protect them and make them available to researchers.  At the beginning of this year we reached a big milestone – our 200th manuscript collection.  We are already up to 210.

Community Participation 

At the JMM, we are dependent upon a team of staff, volunteers, and interns to assist with archival processing. As the JMM archivist, I am responsible for all of our paper collections, which means whether we receive a donation of two books or 161 boxes, it is my duty to preserve the collection and prepare it for researchers.  It would be impossible for one person to do all this work which is why we are so appreciative of the assistance of our volunteers and interns.

Bernie Raynor, Allan Blumberg and Sidney Rankin are our front line volunteers for archival processing. They work on one box of materials at a time, making sure that all documents are appropriately placed into new archival folders and boxes, copying labels and making sure that everything stays organized.  They also remove staples…lots and lots of staples. Why? Because staples rust and damage the documents.

We also rely on volunteers who serve as typists.  If you want to find anything in the archives you need a document that tells you what is in each box, which means someone has to type up a list of folder titles.  Volunteers who help with this aspect of archival processing are: Sidney Rankin, Betsey Kahn and Bobbie Horwitz.  Bobbie is currently hard at work typing up the information found within the record books of midwife Rosa Fineberg – names of children, dates of birth, names and origins of parents and their occupations.  These books are goldmines for genealogists.  They are also a big project.  Rosa delivered approximately 2,000 babies during her career!

Because we have documents that are written in other languages, we are dependent on the translation services of Irv Weintraub and Rose Cohen. Other valuable archival volunteers are Krana Dworkin who writes new finding aids (MS 207 the Hebrew Young Men’s Sick Relief Association Papers so far) and Robert Battista who is assisting with inventory.

If you have skills you would like to contribute contact Ilene Cohen (

Learning by Doing

Our volunteers contribute to nearly every activity that occurs in the archives, as do our interns. Every summer and often in the fall and spring, we are fortunate to have the services of hard working archival interns.  Our interns learn how to process archival collections, write finding aids, digitize documents or photographs, inventory collections, and handle many other tasks.  We have had many interns over the years.  Currently we have two: Leslie McNamara who is working on the Baltimore Hebrew University collections and David Broadway who is working on writing finding aids for several collections.  And occasionally we have an intern who has so much fun that he or she comes back to work for us as a volunteer. This is the case of Rebecca Louderback who interned with us last spring and is back this summer as a volunteer.

A Few Highlights of the Archives 

Our oral history collection includes 775 interviews and this number is constantly increasing. In OHV 11, a video oral history, Rabbi Manuel Poliakoff talks about his experiences as a Chaplain in World War II.

Three collections of materials related to Rabbi Benjamin Szold, his wife Sophie, his five daughters, and his grandchildren.  The collections cover topics ranging from Reform Judaism to education to Zionism to literary figures.


The Hendler’s Ice Cream collection including schematics for machines, family photographs, and images of the ice cream plant in action.


Scrapbooks are some of the most amazing and challenging items in the collection.  We have two identical mass-produced scrapbooks called “School Days” in our collections.  At least they look identical on the outside.  The content contained within the scrapbooks is personalized.





By Rachel Kassman, Photo Archivist

In addition to the manuscripts and papers, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is very proud of its exceptional visual record of the community.  Over the last five years (my tenure here at the Museum) the photo archives have come a long way. We completed the first full inventory of the cataloged print collection in 2008 – this means we physically looked at every single, cataloged photograph printed on paper to make sure they were all where they were supposed to be. A daunting job when (at the time) the catalog had over 30,000 photograph records. Now we’re nearing 45,000 catalog records and have begun the second inventory. While these records include digital photographs, institutional archive images, and some miscellaneous pieces like negatives and slides, the print collection still spans over 40 shelves. We’ve got our work cut out for us!

The Images We Remember 

1963.002.001 Sonneborn workers whose discharge precipitated a 16 week strike at the plant lasting from September 10 to December 23, 1914. Gift of Jacob Edelman. This is one of the first photos to be donated to the Museum.

When the Museum decides to tell a story (and isn’t that really what we’re all about, stories?) one of the first questions we always ask is: do we have a picture? Whether an exhibition like Voices of Lombard Street, a book like Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore, or a program like Making Ice Cream Social, our photo archives allow us to explore, expand and enhance our projects.  As the photo archivist it’s my job to take care of this part of the collection – to properly organize, house and catalog each individual photo (both print and digital!) so that the photographs stay in the best condition possible and are as accessible as possible. Cataloging each photograph individually makes it easier for researchers, staff and any other interested parties to find them. As one of the most heavily used portions of the JMM collections, taking care of our photographs is a pretty big job!

What’s in Our Scrapbook

2009.040.413 Baltimore Hebrew University commencement exercises, 1996. Gift of BHU.

The photo archive here at the JMM covers the gamut – we have baby photos from the 1850s to the 1950s, photos of buildings old and new (and sometimes no longer standing), photos of religious life, and photos of backyard barbeques. If it happened in Maryland and involved Jews we want a picture of it and our collections reflect that. Often it is easy to convince potential photograph donors that the lives of their parents and their grandparents are important but it can be a challenge to convince them that their own lives, and their children, and their children’s children are equally so! This has meant that our photographs skew to earlier dates and cover certain periods of time fairly well, such as the 1930s and 1940s. Recent projects have seen us calling to the community for more contemporary images – our upcoming joint exhibition with Johns Hopkins University, Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945-1968, meant a lot of new collecting for appropriate photographs.

Challenges of the Digital Age 

1985.090.014 East Baltimore Street and Lloyd Street, with Second Presbyterian Church, Talmud Torah Hall, Carroll Hall, and Philip Mirvis Store, February, 1909. Gift of Earl Pruce.

This focus on more recent images presents its own challenges, beyond just convincing people that their lives and stories are just as important as those of previous generations. We live in an increasingly digital age, and like the introduction of Kodak’s first camera in 1889 (which created the first amateur photography craze by making the supplies and equipment cheap and easy to use), the digital camera has changed the face of photography. Photo albums and shoeboxes of prints are being replaced by online scrapbooks and external hard drives and those of us in charge of preserving, cataloging and making accessible these images for future generations are hard pressed to keep up with changing technology and create new ways of handling photography collections. This is not a complaint!

1998.047.004.182 Hendler Creamery Company Advertisement. Anonymous gift.

In fact, the Museum has committed itself to the high resolution digitization of our entire photograph collection. Don’t worry; we’re not planning to throw out any of our prints! But digitization offers us a few large benefits – creating digital files of our photographs through scanning allows us to make our collection available to a larger audience without the constraints of distance or even time. Because our collections catalog Past Perfect is available online, people can look at our digitized images at any hour of the day or night, from as close as up the street to as far away as the coasts of Australia. Digitizing our images also extends the life of their print counterparts – the less a physical item can be handled, the less deterioration or accidental damage is a risk. Digitization is also a kind of insurance policy against wholesale catastrophe. Our digital files exist both here at the Museum and at an offsite location, to protect against total loss in the case of fire, flood or alien invasion.  The percentage of the photograph collection that has been digitized over the last five years has more than doubled through the dedicated efforts of myself, archivist Jennifer Vess and the invaluable help of more than a dozen interns and volunteers.

Still More Interns 

Speaking of interns – they’re not just scanning photographs! Here at the JMM we pride ourselves on our internship program, from our bevy of full time summer interns (we’re up to a baker’s dozen this year) to our swiftly expanding “winternship program,” which takes advantage of the break most university students have between the fall and spring semesters, to our more traditional semester interns. These interns are truly priceless. It is the work of interns that has allowed us to catalog and digitize so much of our photography, especially those that come in from large institutions – for instance, the 5,000+ photographs that arrived with the Baltimore Hebrew University Collection in 2009 would not be completely organized, housed, and cataloged today without the hard work of interns Shelby Silvernell and Megan Dalrymple. The efforts of this summer’s photo archive interns, Matt Oliva and Kenny have seen the 700+ collection of Hendler Creamery Company images not only cataloged but scanned – and their internship is only half over! Interns Katie Avery and Ryan Wiggins helped get the first photo archive inventory rolling; Rosemary Fitzsimmons made major progress on the 3,000+ Friedenwald Family photographs, describing photo after photo of landscapes and travel. Interns Kim Machado, and Berkley Kilgore were instrumental in handling a huge incoming collection and Rachael Gilman made significant inroads in scanning. Last summer, Mary Dwan and Emilie Reed scoured the collection for images to illustrate two different JMM publications, as did Ginevra Shay over the winter. I could not ask for more productive, enthusiastic , and helpful budding professionals!

We’re Counting on You to Document Our History

1987.112.007.001 Max Meyers, Phil Weinstein, Sol Cohen, Lewis Bomstein, and Al Meinen carrying Torah scrolls during the closing of Lubawitz Nusach Ari on Quantico Avenue, 1969. Photo by Jerome F. Esterson. Gift of Max R. Meyers.

The JMM’s photo archive is large, and (in my own humble opinion) invaluable. Nowhere else will you find Maryland’s Jewish population so well represented and in such an encompassing way. The scope of our photographic collection ranges from the intensely personal to the broadly public and everything in between. Whether telling the story of an individual immigrant, the rise and evolution of a national business, or charting the course of an institution in pictures, our photo archive can show it – and we’re always looking for more.

So get snapping!

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