Jewish Exponent Archives Find New Life At Gratz College

A storage room is filled with boxes and black filing cabinets.
Jewish Exponent file cabinets that house clippings and photos dating to the 1950s | Photo by Sasha Rogelberg

“G” is for Green Party, Grenada, Graterford Prison, Gratz. “H” is for Habitat for Humanity, halacha, Halley’s Comet, hate crimes. 

The mishmash of categories finds order in a drawer marked “GRA-HEB,” the bottom of three drawers in a filing cabinet among 33 others of its kind, each with stacked drawers flush with files labeled with subjects and names.

Since the 1950s, the Jewish Exponent has kept its archives of clippings and photos in these filing cabinets in its 2100 Arch St. office in a room known lovingly as “the morgue.” Packed like sardines and lining all four walls of the room, the files — the epitome of organized chaos — were not only a resource to the paper’s reporters but were also representative of decades of Philadelphia Jewish history. On the opposite side of the wall in the hallways, one could find bound volumes of the Exponent storing issues from the publication’s 135-year history. 

These archives will no longer just be accessible to the Exponent staff, housed in a room with a name connoting lifelessness. In mid-July, the Jewish Exponent archives found a new home and renewed purpose at Gratz College’s Melrose Park campus, where the library staff will organize, digitize and put online the publication’s archives over the next 12-plus months. 

The move of the archives comes in tandem with the move of the Exponent staff office to Gratz.

A black and white photo shows David Ben-Gurion speaking behind a podium on a stage iwht several other men in suits sitting on the stage.
Former Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion speaks at Gratz College | From the Jewish Exponent archives

“There’s a file on everything from radical reform synagogues in the 20th century to the Philadelphia Yeshiva, from Holocaust aid and rescue efforts to burgeoning restaurants and music festivals, the free Soviet Jewry movement. It’s a phenomenal repository of the impact and efforts of Jewish Philadelphia,” Gratz President Zev Eleff said of the archives.

After the organization and digitization efforts, the archives will be available on a website free to the public. It will be part of Gratz’s expanding digital archival footprint, which also includes online Holocaust oral history transcripts and audio files and a compilation of 800 Rebecca Gratz letters detailing the Philadelphia Jewish community after the Revolutionary War and the establishment of Gratz College.

The Exponent archives take up about 320 linear feet, the de facto measurement of archive size, making it one of the college’s largest archives, according to Donna Guerin, Gratz’s director of library services.

Gratz’s long-established focus on online learning means it already has the infrastructure to take on another extensive archival project. Holding its first online class in 2001, Gratz’s strong online presence was built to accommodate its non-traditional student body. The college boasts 5,000 students spanning across 36 states and six countries. Seventy-five percent of its Holocaust and genocide studies program students live out-of-state; most students in its other graduate programs are public school teachers in the commonwealth.

While Eleff was interviewing as a job candidate for president at Gratz, he identified the school’s online presence as a strength.

“It became very clear that, as a college that has a very wide online footprint, we needed to point our library services directly at our degree programs and also to support broader learning opportunities, resources for the extended Gratz and Philadelphia Jewish community,” he said.

Before Eleff’s tenure, the Claims Conference awarded Gratz with a grant to digitize their Holocaust survivor oral histories, the nation’s second-oldest Holocaust testimonial archive. It received a naming gift from the Barbara and Fred Kort Foundation. Concurrent with creating the Holocaust Genizah Project with the digitized oral histories, Gratz will digitize the Exponent archives as part of a Judaica Americana collection.

A Jewish Exponent front page has a large graphic on its left side
The Jewish Exponent front page from Sept. 8, 1995, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gratz College | From the Jewish Exponent archives

Once a website is built to house the collections, it will primarily be used by Gratz students, who are also teachers, to help build curricula and identify primary sources for research.

With the initial grant money, the college bought technologies to digitize and store its materials, creating a precedent of how to continue its long-term archival work. The process of maintaining and digitizing the archives, however, endures.

Gratz’s Holocaust oral history project began in 1979, and though it has accumulated 900 interviews, about 300 have complete transcripts, according to Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust oral history archive. One hundred and twenty-four are available on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Originally, the oral histories were recorded on cassette tapes and sent to USHMM to be converted into digital files. Using funds from Yad Vashem and USHMM, Gratz hired transcribers; now, they mostly rely on volunteers, but the transcription process is challenging, particularly because the survivors sharing their stories are not native English speakers and often have thick accents.

“It’s very, very time-consuming and very meticulous, which is why we have not gotten through the whole collection, and that won’t happen,” Fisher said. “We’re not going to be able to get through all of that, not at this point.”

While the Holocaust oral history digitization is ongoing, digitizing the Exponent archives presents its own challenges. Attempting to digitize all of the files chronologically or cabinet by cabinet is a tall order, Guerin said. Likely, she will put together a collection that will be relevant to Gratz and includes files on its history and programming and also relates to current events.

A black and white photo shows a rabbi leading a seder in front of three young women sitting at a table.
A Passover seder at the Rebecca Gratz Club, which provided support for young women working in Philadelphia | From the Jewish Exponent archives

Guerin, like Fisher, is not put off by the mountain of work before them.

“This is common with any digital collections that college libraries are doing,” Guerin said. “There’s the caveat that’s on the website that says, ‘This is an ongoing project’. This isn’t everything. This isn’t a finite thing. It’s not like, ‘We’ve done the scanning, and now it’s up there, and now it’s over, and we’re moving onto something else.’ They’re all living collections.”

JEVS Human Services Franklin C. Ash summer intern Isabella Duarte has spent the last three weeks scanning the Jewish Exponent files, first on her phone and then on industrial scanners, matching clippings with original photos, and documenting the photos’ fronts and backs. She organizes the scanned files into digital folders.

Each folder has 60-100 clippings and photos, Duarte said, and each drawer contains 50-80 folders.

When handling newspaper archives, archivists need to make special considerations about the files, Guerin said. Newsprint, unlike other papers, is acidic, meaning it will break down if not stored properly. Newspaper clippings also tend to be folded, which speeds up paper deterioration.

Because newspapers are laid out in thin columns and stories may span over a few pages, individuals often use paper clips or staples to keep clippings together. The little metal pieces can rust and damage the paper further.

“You want to make sure that you’re removing anything that’s going to damage the items further than they already are,” Guerin said.

Several newspaper clippings are piled onto a manila file folder.
Newspaper clippings from a 1969 visit from former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir | Photo by Donna Guerin

Digitizing the files means that, even in the case of having severely damaged clippings, the source will find a new home online. 

“The big overarching driving force that we have is really access — access and preservation — to show people what we have,” Guerin said. “It’s sort of like a tree falling in the woods, right? If no one hears it, did it happen? Same thing with libraries. If no one knows these collections exist, then they might as well just not exist. That’s the big, sort of, takeaway from this project.”

When Duarte spent her first day with the Exponent archives, she sat with a bound volume for more than two hours, reading over old issues. Born and raised in Elkins Park, Duarte, 20, said she found her grandparents’ engagement announcement in the paper; in another issue, she found a story about the opening of a new bagel shop she remembers telling her parents about.

She wants to be part of preserving the pages for the next generation.

“The Jewish Exponent is the pillar of our community, of our people,” she said.

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