It is a singular honor to stand here this evening before so many colleagues I admire and whose groundbreaking work laid the foundation for our work at the Jewish Women's Archive. Most serve or have served on JWA's academic council--and they have been shaping and supporting JWA since its earliest days.
The AJHS, too, was an important stimulus to the founding of JWA, and it has, over the years, supported and partnered with JWA as it has worked to fill out the documentary record.
The Jewish Women's Archive grew out of the recognition that neither the historical record preserved in American Jewish archives nor that preserved in its women's archives accurately or adequately represented the complexity of Jewish women's lives and experiences over the three centuries in which they have been making history in the United States. By the time of JWA's founding in the final months of 1995, several critical decisions had been made:
(1) At least for the time being, its geographical scope would be limited to the United States and Canada,
(2) The focus of its collecting activities would be the 20th century, and
(3) It would be a "people's archive," documenting Jewish women from all walks of life and reaching out to the general public as well as to scholars.
The most critical decision, however, was yet to be made. Initially, we imagined the Jewish Women's Archive as a more specialized version of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. That is, we saw it as a repository of records documenting Jewish women's lives in North America. But before long, we were discussing the different circumstances in which the JWA was being created, most significant among them:
(1) The decentralized nature of contemporary society and its records,
(2) The multiple worlds inhabited by contemporary Jewish women, and
(3) Emerging new technologies and their impact on how people were and, more importantly, would be, accessing information in the future.
Challenged to rethink how we might assemble such an archive, as well as how we could most successfully achieve adequate documentation of Jewish women's lives and experiences, we began to fashion an entirely new kind of archive. The idea of a "virtual archive" was first proposed by Helen W. Samuels, a recognized leader in the archival field and, at the time, the head of special collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of JWA's newly formed academic advisory council. Samuel's proposal--to decouple the plan for an archive from a plan for a building or a physical repository--was partially motivated by financial considerations. Such considerations included the extensive resources needed not only to build and maintain buildings, but also to assemble, process and grant access to collections. But the central appeal of Samuels' vision for a virtual (or digital) archive, was the plan to marshal new technologies to address...