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Contact: Gwen Glazer
Phone:  (607) 254-8390
E-mail:  gglazer@cornell.edu

Yiddish Goes Digital (with a Little Help from Its Friends)
Crowdsourcing Project Will Create Transatlantic Labor History Archive

ITHACA, N.Y. (Nov. 27, 2012) – Do you know Yiddish?

An innovative new project is seeking Yiddish-speakers to help create an archive of journals and newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ladies Garment Workers JournalTwo archival repositories — the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University in the United States and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom — are jointly digitizing more than 1,500 pages from journals and newspapers originally written for working-class Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

They are relying on individuals’ help to translate the publications, which include The Polish “Yidel” and “Hashulamith” newspapers and “The Ladies’ Garment Worker,” journal of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and cover the period 1910-1918. As the project continues, more items in Yiddish relating to labor and particularly the garment industry, will be added continually as pages are transcribed. 

Participants in the project simply register, select a journal and type translations into a text box. Perfect translations are not required; an overall sense of the documents and the content is more important.

Much of Yiddish archival material is currently unavailable to researchers simply because it only exists in Yiddish, and people who know the language are becoming increasingly rare. A recent census study showed that its knowledge and use declined by half between 1980 and 2007. Yiddish speakers in the U.S. now number less than 160,000, with even fewer in the UK. 

“The drastic decline in the use of the Yiddish language, as well as the continual decrease in the percentage of speakers, reveals an urgent need to get the material translated,” said Kathryn Dowgiewicz, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union project archivist at the Kheel Center. “Crowdsourcing in libraries and archives has recently become popular, because it not only increases awareness and access, but also creates new communities of users who are actively involved, invested and excited in the projects.”

After pages are digitized and translated, they are available — free and completely searchable — on the project’s wiki. Recently translated passages show up right next to their scanned pages.

 Polish Yidel“These Yiddish translations will support the research of historians and other scholars as they seek to enrich their understandings of how workers organized themselves at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Kheel Center Director Cheryl Beredo. “Questions of how to effectively organize across differences — whether language, nationality or culture — continue to be timely, and we hope these new resources will assist scholars in finding their answers.”

The Kheel Center, which is part of Cornell’s Catherwood Library, is committed to the preservation of original source materials relevant to the history of American labor unions, management theory as it applies to labor and industrial relations, and the history of employees at the workplace. 

Across the Atlantic, the Modern Records Centre serves as one of the UK’s major repositories, collecting social, political and economic history with a special concentration on labor and the national history of industrial relations and politics. 

This cooperative crowdsourcing project will attempt to unite both archives and create one of the first digital transatlantic modern labor history resources, which archivists hope will lead to further projects in the future.

To learn more
To participate and start translating, check out the project guide.

Find more online about the Kheel Center, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick, Cornell’s ILR School and Cornell University Library.