Uri Kolodney is the Hebrew, Jewish and Israel Studies Liaison Librarian as well as liaison for Film and Video at the UT Libraries. He recently took time to talk about his love of books and traveling abroad in search of rare volumes in a brief interview.
When did you start at the Libraries, and what made you decide to become a librarian?
Uri Kolodney: I started working on my Masters in Information Science (MSIS) at the Information School in Fall 2002, and got a job at the Libraries a couple of months later on December 2002. Worked as a GRA until my graduation, and started a full time position on September 2004.
I always loved books and reading and was a pretty nerdy child with thick horn-rimmed glasses and all. When I was 14 I even cataloged my own book collection at home (LOL). When I grew up I worked as a book restorer and paper conservator and also owned a book restoration business. Did that for around 15 years, and then decided to move to the States and get a librarian degree. So basically I worked with books all my life….
Do you keep up with your preservation skills? Also, I assume you have a pretty large personal library. What’s your favorite personal volume?
UK: I still keep my preservation ‘tool box’ with all kinds of scalpels, scissors, and knives, but I didn’t use it since I closed my business in Tel Aviv.
Favorite volume – tough question… I’d probably say the Hebrew translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey… and also The magic of walking (English) – a great book from 1967 about my favorite outdoor activity.
Can you characterize your current job responsibilities?
UK: I am currently wearing two hats at the library – I manage the Hebrew/Jewish/Israel studies collection, and I also manage the library’s budget (across all subjects) for film & video. For each of these main areas, I am responsible for research support, scholarly communication, digital scholarship, collection development, engagement, and outreach.
Tell me a bit about your collections strategy for your subject areas. How do you decide what to buy, and how do you acquire it?
UK: The decision in what areas to collect has to do with the actual scope of the current collection, current research on campus, and the bibliographer who was/is curating the collection. When UTL started collecting Jewish and Hebrew resources almost 100 years ago, naturally the first items acquired were rabbinic literature, Kabbalah, Jewish history, philosophy, and law. By now we hold almost every seminal text in these subjects. During the years, different librarians collected in various subjects according to their own professional and personal connections, as well as their own interest. Those before me concentrated on Jewish items in Hebrew and Yiddish published mainly in the US, South America, and South Africa, with less attention to modern Israeli resources. Faculty and student requests are a great selection tool, as they reflect the current intellectual interest on campus. This intellectual ‘activity’ should be reflected in the collection. Communicating with ‘my’ faculty members, I know what are their research topics, so I’d select items that would fit their preferences. Sometimes, collection decisions have to do with cooperative initiatives among colleagues and universities across the US. For example, when it comes to Israeli cinema, my peers know that I am ‘taking care of it,’ so they would not duplicate efforts. On the other hand, I know that Ohio State and Arizona State collect extensively in other areas (literature/poetry and fanzines respectively), so I would be much more selective when it comes to those subjects.
For the mainstream Hebrew/Jewish/Israeli collection I rely on vendors’ catalogs, and once every few months I’d sit down and select relevant titles. I also select items ‘on the fly,’ or when the opportunity arises – either through correspondence with vendors, special offers, unique item that come up in an auction, etc. By now vendors I work with in Israel already know what I’m looking for and would let me know if anything that falls under my criteria comes their way. Consuming all sorts of media content in Hebrew (newspapers/blogs/social media), sometimes I would learn about a new ‘cool’ publication which would be a good candidate for the collection. Jewish resources in English are obviously purchased locally, and are much easier to get. Acquisition trips are another way to enrich the collection with unique items that cannot be purchased remotely online. Networking with vendors and collectors in the ‘field’ allows me to put my hand on rare items which I could not get any other way. These items are what makes our collection so special, as in many cases we are the only holders of these items.
Currently the prioritized subject areas I collect are Israeli cinema and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that means everything which is and about these topics, either in Hebrew or English. Rarely I’d collect in other languages as well. Other topics of importance are Jewish and Israeli literature.
As for film & video, I solely rely on faculty and student requests, as our priorities in this area lie with teaching and curriculum needs on campus. Sometimes I would cooperate with subject liaisons and we would share expenses according to our funding policy. All of these purchases are done online, communicating with distributors, production companies, and individual directors/producers.
How do Libraries collections in your subject areas complement other notable special collections on campus, say for instance the Gottesman Collection or Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Ransom Center, or the Texas Jewish Collections at the Briscoe? Do the presence of those local collections impact your own area collections practices?
UK: While the Briscoe mainly holds personal archival collections of notable individuals, the UTL collection would hold the actual published works by those individuals, or works they have owned. For example, the Briscoe holds the Henry Cohen papers. Cohen (1863-1952) was a prominent Rabbi in Galveston between 1888 and 1949. But his personal library was donated to UT Libraries in 1948; it included over 5000 volumes related to rabbinical literature, Jewish history, as well as general sociology, psychology, and literature. Upon receipt, the Hebrew portion of the collection was named “The Henry and Mollie Cohen collection of Hebraica and Judaica.” During the years, when collections were moved around and re-arranged, this collection was included in the general PCL collection.
Another example is the HRC South African Judaica collection. While this collection mainly holds books, the PCL collection of South African Jewry complements it with many rare and unique holdings of South African Jewish periodicals. My predecessor in this position, Nathan Snyder (1944-2009), had personal and professional connection in South Africa and managed to build a unique collection of South African Jewish periodicals.
In my collection efforts I am trying not to duplicate holdings which already exist at the Briscoe or the HRC, as my goal is to strengthen our current collection with items not yet available on campus. Yet, since HRC and Briscoe holdings do not usually circulate, in some instances one could find a circulating copy of a specific title at PCL. From time to time, if I come across an item which would complement existing subject areas at PCL, I would definitely consider it for purchasing, even if it would not fall under current collection priorities.
Tell me a bit about your acquisitions trips. How do you decide when and where to go, and how have you established or built relationships with vendors overseas?
UK: Since the distinct language I collect is Hebrew, the only geographical area appropriate for international travel is Israel. Materials in other languages that have to do with Jewish, Hebrew, and Israel Studies could be purchased remotely either in the US or Europe. Depends on budget, I would usually go once a year during summer, usually around June. This is the time when the Israeli “Book week” is taking place around the country, and it is a good opportunity to come across alternative/non-mainstream items with reduced pricing. Sometimes I would plan my trip around specific conferences or film festival, in order to take advantage of opportunities to meet vendors and colleagues. Book fairs or film festivals present one-time opportunities, with limited edition publications which could not be purchased once the event is over. For example, in July 2016 I attended a reception at the Jerusalem Film Festival and managed to put my hand on a limited edition of the first issue of a new Israeli cinema periodical. It was never sold in the marketplace, and ceased publication in 2017, after its second issue was published. UT Library holds both issues and is the only institution outside of Israel to do so.
When I go on an acquisition trip, I would usually take one week to visit the big cities (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa), and by now I know to which stores or markets to go to and where I could find what I am looking for. The second week I would travel to more remote or less-known locations, such as special book stores in kibbutzim, or institutions and organizations which are in the ‘periphery’ of the country. Planning the trip, I would schedule with individual collectors or vendors who live and work away from the main cities, and these are usually the locations where I would find the most valuable ‘treasures.’
Another aspect of an acquisition trip is the invaluable networking with colleagues and vendors. During the years I managed to establish professional relationships with both mainstream, well-established vendors, as well as individual collectors, book shops’ owners, and auction houses. Since the marketplace is pretty small, it’s easy to make contact and get introduced. The personal face-to-face encounters are always the best way to get to those unique items I am looking for. Sometimes I would make the contact via email while planning my trip, and then would meet ‘in the field.’ Then, while visiting and meeting face-to-face, more contacts are ‘revealed’ and since I’m already there, I could go and pay a visit to newly introduced vendors. For example, just last month, during a private vacation in Tel Aviv, I accidently realized via social media that a well-known local collector is selling his collection. While paying him a visit two days later, I got introduced to other vendors and collectors; when I came back to Austin, this encounter already proved to be useful, as I have purchased additional materials from those new acquaintances.
I’m sure over the last 15 years, you’ve seen the Libraries undergo a lot of changes. What hopes do you have for the future, and what parts of the library tradition do you expect to (or want to see) hang around?
UK: Indeed, I’ve seen many changes during my time here, in services and spaces we offer, as well as in budgetary and curatorial priorities. Understandably, changes and shifts are part of life; also those in the workplace and the profession itself are unavoidable, and in most cases, highly appreciated by patrons. My hope is that the Libraries would continue to put patrons at the top of its priority list. Our patrons, students and faculty alike, are those who create and advance research, and we need to make sure we accommodate their needs, in any level and any field.
I like it that patrons see the Libraries as a hub on campus, and I like it that they see us as experts they could approach for help. I wish it would continue this way!