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Shiny new home for the past: Beck Archives at DU


Attention all historians, archivists, genealogists, scholars, writers and those who are simply fascinated with that which has gone before: The past is secure.

And much more fun and comfortable to delve into than it used to be.

The Beck Archives of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society — for decades the main repository of the textual and material legacy of intermountain Jewry — has a new, state-of-the-art, aesthetic and spacious home, in the heart of the University of Denver.

After decades in various campus locations (some of which were rather obscure and might have been aptly compared to catacombs) the Beck Archives — formally the Ira M. and Peryl Hayutin Beck Archives — now occupies a prominent location on the sunny ground floor of DU’s Special Collections and Archives, a central component of the university’s newly renovated Anderson Academic Commons.

The Commons is located in the structure that used to be known as the Penrose Library, DU’s main library. Other than the exterior, however, virtually nothing of the old library now exists.

The interior was entirely gutted in an extensive renovation project, which, according to Andrea Howland of DU University Libraries, cost some $30 million, nearly half of which was raised in a sustained fundraising campaign in which RMJHS played a role.

The reborn Commons, formally dedicated last April, houses not only Special Collections and Archives but University Libraries (the university’s main library location) and features such 21st century amenities as group study areas, a coffee shop and cafe, digital media center, a “deep quiet” study area and a host of spaces that can be used for classes, speakers and meetings.

Dr. Jeanne Abrams, director of RMJHS and the Beck Archives under the umbrella of the Center for Judaic Studies at DU, says the new Commons bears very little resemblance to the traditional gloomy and dusty collegiate library.

Not only a place for books and other research materials, it is a collection of “social sites” that attract students, often keeping them there all day as they pursue their studies in comfort and convenience.

It is, says Abrams, who has overseen the archives in their various homes since joining DU in 1982, the perfect home for the archives.

“That’s why we’re having our annual meeting here,” she says of the RMJHS-Beck Archives gathering and dessert reception taking place this Sunday, Nov. 24.

“We want to showcase this marvelous location. Even those of us who worked here for many years wouldn’t recognize it. It is beautiful.”

Although DU has always been a steadfast supporter of the RMJHS and incorporated the Beck Archives into Penrose Library in 1997, the fact that the archives now have such a central and spacious location in the new Commons amounts to a clear imprimatur of the university’s approval of its work.

“We’re a fully integrated part of the university,” a beaming Abrams says. “I think they’re very proud of us.”

With lots of flowing open space and plentiful natural light, the new archival home is an attractive and welcoming environment.

“You don’t feel like you’re in a basement anymore,” Abrams says. “They put windows all over.”

The public face of the Beck Archives is a research space, the Ida and Max Fogel Family Reading Room, where students or researchers can access and study materials.

Adjacent is the Schayer Seminar Room for meetings and discussions.

Fronted by a series of windows, the reading room also presents a means for many of the archive’s most interesting materials — and those of other archives incorporated into Special Collections — to be publicly displayed on a rotating basis.

As Abrams guides a recent tour of the space, the windows are filled with both documentary and three dimensional objects from the Beck Archives — photographs, precious ritual objects, a beautiful samovar, a stained glass window with a Star of David motif, even a Victorian dress that once belonged to a Denver Jewish woman.

“We’ve got probably the most magnificent collection of materials within Special Collections,” Abrams says. “We have a lot of textiles and three dimensional objects.”

Adding to the visual impact, the surrounding study area is decorated with rotating display panels which, in anticipation of this weekend’s annual meeting, are currently illustrative of Rocky Mountain Jewish history.

Some of the panels emphasize the philanthropic contributions of regional Jewry, as well as their early beginnings as retailers.

“Jews were really considered the mercantile elite in many Western cities,” Abrams says, noting that for the most part, Jews were welcomed by pioneer Westerners, who evinced very little anti-Semitism in the early days.

Jewish contributions to pioneer politics is another theme. “Most people don’t know that there was a Jewish mayor in virtually every Colorado city in the 19th century,” Abrams points out.

Another bonus planned for those who attend the upcoming RMJHS annual meeting will be a number of large scale photographic panels depicting aspects of intermountain Jewish history.

Co-owned by RMJHS and the American Jewish Historical Society, the panels were originally funded by a grant from the Rose Community Foundation in 2009, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Denver Jewish community, which coincides with the anniversary of the city itself.

In addition to such museum quality objects, the archives specialize in an ever-growing body of historical material, most — but not all — of which is located onsite.

“There is also offsite storage,” Abrams says. “We don’t have room for everything. It’s called the Hampden Center and it’s not a warehouse but a really nice repository.”

When researchers at the campus facility need an item that isn’t located onsite, the staff endeavors to retrieve it from the storage facility within hours.

“I just called a book in at seven and it’s already in,” Abrams says well before noon. “They go back and forth, ferrying all day.

“Onsite we generally keep the materials that are the most utilized but everything is on an archival database system so if somebody asks for something we can find it right away.”

Among the sources of data most commonly requested are the patient records of what was called National Jewish Hospital (now, National Jewish Health) and the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society, most of which now repose within the archives.

Last summer, Abrams says, additional records from National Jewish’s early years — long in the hands of a private individual — were added to the collection.

A new body of material — the historical records of Temple Emanuel — were acquired by the archives last year, after years of negotiation.

This material, dating back to 1874, includes membership and incorporation records, scrapbooks, minutes from meetings and cemetery records.

“Just since we acquired them last summer,” Abrams says, “we’ve had many people coming in with inquiries.”

Most of these precious historical materials are stored in an area that is off limits to the general public, the heart of the archives itself.

There one finds an extensive phalanx of “movable compact shelving” to maximize storage capacity. Along the shelves, marked neatly for easy retrieval, are thousands of items, from documents to such actual objects as clothing and family heirlooms, all kept in acid free preservation boxes and folders in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

Although the care with which the archives preserves its physical holdings attests to the importance placed upon original materials, Abrams says that much of the documentary material is in the process of being digitized.

At the moment, B’nai B’rith records dating back to 1872 are undergoing a gradual digitization process.

Although digitization is a slow and labor intensive process, she feels it’s crucial for many of these synagogue, organizational and hospital records and photographs to be copied in a form that is compatible with modern information retrieval systems.

Digitization itself is an ever-evolving field.

The Beck Archives’ collection of films, including many private family films, has already gone from celluloid reels to videos to DVDs, says Abrams, who acknowledges that the rapid rate of technological progress will very likely require ever newer media formats.

Since it was founded by Rabbi Stanley Wagner in 1976, the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society has steadily grown in visibility and stature, not only in the scholarly world but in terms of its acceptance by the Jewish community whose history it aspires to preserve.

Abrams, who has led its efforts for most of that time, says one of her most important contributions has been earning the community’s trust as a repository of its history.

“Most people know that this is the address to go to in terms of Colorado and Rocky Mountain Jewish history. We have continued to acquire many valuable collections.

“More and more people are realizing that they can’t really be good stewards of the historical records and that we are the place that is qualified to process the records, manage the records and make them open to the public.”

The same goes for the physical objects that tell the often emotional and dramatic stories that constitute Colorado Jewish history.

“About six months ago, someone came in with their grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks that they brought with them from Russia in about 1905,” Abrams. “That, and the clothes on their backs, were the only things they had with them.

“This person had no children and they wanted it to be part of the historical memory. Those are wonderful pieces and I think that we have a wider recognition and that more and more people will come to us.”

The fact that the archives now have an attractive, accessible and permanent home in the Anderson Academic Commons gives Abrams a sense of fulfillment in the society’s and archives’ mission.

In many ways, she says, it vindicates the hard work and dedication of people like the late Belle Marcus, Dr. John Livingston and Rabbi Wagner, who provided the crucial early impetus to the effort to preserve regional Jewish history.

“It’s wonderful to have been so involved with this for over 30 years,” Abrams says. “We’re a key player, we’re recognized as the repository for the history of the community, but it needs to be sustained into the future.

“The idea is to preserve the past for the future.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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