Jewish Public Library Archives
Montreal of 1914 was a booming city. Its large manufacturing sector made it a destination of choice for a growing number of Eastern European immigrants whose arrival increased the city’s Jewish population to almost 40,000. Making their home along the Main (Boulevard St. Laurent) they brought with them different languages, political ideologies, and religious practices. Recognizing the need for their own social institutions, they established a public library to cherish the Yiddish language and culture that lay at the heart of this community. From its beginnings and into the 21st century, the Yidishe-folks-biblyotek, or Jewish Public Library (JPL) has continued to offer a familiar space that nourishes the intellectual, creative, and spiritual needs of the community.
The JPL opened its doors on May 1st, 1914 in a modest cold-water flat at 669 rue St. Urbain with a small collection of 500 books. From the beginning the Library was more than mere shelves and texts. It quickly became the meeting place for literary and cultural exchange, maintaining a link to the still flourishing Jewish communities of Eastern Europe while promoting the community’s growth in its new Quebec home. With the creation of the Yidishe folks universitet (YIFO) or the People’s University, the Library also became a centre for continuing education.
The Library developed out of the reading rooms of several community organizations including the Poale Zion, Baron de Hirsch Institute, and various synagogues. Yehuda Kaufman and Reuben Brainin, two well-known leaders in the community, led the charge to bring together these organizations into one public Library. These two men were joined by a legion of volunteers and groups devoted to the idea of a space for community members to better themselves through literature and learning. The cooperation of these groups, despite differences in language, politics, and religious beliefs, ensured the success of a library that was for the people and by the people.
The construction of the Library’s own building in 1952 on the corner of Mont-Royal and avenue de l’Esplanade, placed it squarely in the heart of the community. The new Library was within metres of the Young Men’s -Young Women’s Hebrew Association, Fletcher’s Field (Parc Jeanne Mance), the Hebrew Old People’s and Sheltering Home, as well as synagogues and other communal organizations. The role of the Library as a cultural centre was reflected in the inclusion of an auditorium, gallery and meeting spaces, a music room, and an art room. By mid-century, the community began to move from the Main to the western suburbs of the city. Following its members, the Library sold its building in 1966 eventually moved to its current location on chemin de la Côte Ste-Catherine.
Over its hundred year history, the JPL continued to respond to the needs of immigrant groups through its collections, programmes, and services. In the 1960s the JPL welcomed thousands of Jewish immigrants from North Africa with services in French. Later, waves of immigrants from Russia, France, Israel, Ethiopia, and South America were equally welcomed into the JPL.
Since 1914, the Archives’ mandate has been to collect, preserve, and make available original documents, photographs and recordings that tell the social, economic, and cultural stories of Montreal’s Jewish community.
The work of the Jewish Public Library Archives is generously supported by the Alex Dworkin Foundation for Jewish Archives, the Peter and Ellen Jacobs Virtual Archives Fund of the Jewish Public Library, the Rosalind & Morris Goodman Family Fund, the Azrieli Foundation, and the Sonia & David Oberman Archives Internship Fund.
The Archives is a dynamic collecting body. Donating personal and corporate records to the Archives ensures their preservation and access to researchers and future generations.
Local institutions and organizations, as well as families and individuals can donate records. They accept:
- Family papers (correspondence, journals or diaries, vital records, biographical and genealogical information)
- Photographs and already digitized audiovisual material
- Business, organizational, or institutional records (minutes, by-laws, etc.)
- Posters, playbills, programmes, and ephemera from the community
The Jewish Public Library (JPL) remains unique among Montreal’s - and the world’s - Jewish institutions. A full service lending and research library containing North America’s largest circulating Judaica collection, we are an internationally-recognized resource while also meeting the informational, educational and recreational needs of Jewish Montrealers of all ages and backgrounds.
Our Main Library holds over 150,000 items in our five official languages; our 30,000-item Children’s Library also offers many activities for children up to 14 years of age; and our Archives help preserve and honour Canada’s Jewish history for generations to come. We are also a key provider of adult cultural and educational programming for our community.
The Archives are open for a limited number of research appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are two appointments per day. Morning appointments run from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm. Afternoon appointments run from 1:30 – 4:00 pm. Please consult our website to make an appointment.
Please note that due to space restrictions, appointments must be scheduled ahead of time for physical visits.
The Jewish Public Library Archive is pleased to offer reference and research services to the public, whether in-person, by e-mail, or telephone.
For those unable to visit the Archives, send your research questions by email or regular mail. Archives staff can provide 30 minutes of research, primarily to advise on relevant records held by the Archives. Additional time will be charged hourly at a predetermined rate, according to our service fees.
If you would like research assistance beyond what the Archives is able to provide, we recommend hiring a professional researcher. The Archives can occasionally assist in locating a researcher, however the Archives is not able to answer questions about researcher availabilities, services, or charges.
If you are interested in obtaining copies of records, the Archives can provide a limited number of copies for a set service fee.
Details about services and fees are available here.
JPL website, last consulted 23/06/2022, updated with archive staff on 17 November 2022.