CMU completes multiyear project to digitize Pittsburgh Jewish newspapers

CMU completes multiyear project to digitize Pittsburgh Jewish newspapers

Local Jewish newspapers have covered the Jewish community’s happenings for more than a century in Pittsburgh.  Held within the pages of these periodicals are the stories of families, businesses and generations of Jewish goodwill.

Now, the whole of Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspapers are available to the public for the first time ever.

Carnegie Mellon University Libraries completed the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, a digital archive documenting daily life in the Pittsburgh Jewish community from 1895 until the present.

The Jewish Criterion, the American Jewish Outlook, The Jewish Chronicle and the Y-JCC newsletter are all included in the archive.

“The Jewish newspapers in Pittsburgh cover not just local events but regional, national and international news over a long period of time,” said Martha Berg, archivist at Rodef Shalom Congregation, who consulted on the project.  “They really give a wonderful depiction over time of a community as it grew and changed and they’re very valuable to have.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project is the result of need, philanthropy and opportunity.  The Rauh Jewish Archives of the Heinz History Center, Rodef Shalom and The Jewish Chronicle housed collections of newspapers both in hard copy and on microfilm.  While the collection was largely complete, it was heavily used and deteriorating.

The Rauh continues to hold the bound copies of the Outlook, the Y-JCC (a series of newsletters published sequentially by the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association and the Jewish Community Center between 1926 and 1976) and the Chronicle. Rodef Shalom is the repository for the Criterion.

Berg and Anne Molloy, Rodef Shalom librarian, tried to index an early edition of the Criterion but found it to be a complex task.

“It was so difficult to do because there are ads, there are people, there are social events, there are organizations,” Berg said.  “We just realized it would be impossible to do.”

Molloy, who is also the executive director of the CMU Posner Fine Arts Foundation, proposed a collaboration to digitize historic Pittsburgh Jewish publications.  

The Posner Fine Arts Foundation had a state-of-the-art scanner that it used to document a special book collection.  Molloy’s connection with CMU and Rodef Shalom led to the undertaking of the next project and the digitizing of Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspapers.  

Gabrielle Michalek, head of archives and digital library initiatives for the CMU libraries, accepted the challenge to create a digital whole from the materials available to her.  Aside from problems of missing issues, generally poor condition of materials and working with microfilm, Michalek anticipated additional technical challenges for digitization derived from the format of newspapers.

The project took six years to complete, but Michalek found information that drew her interest in the old newspapers.

“You can actually watch the birth and growth and development of different Pittsburgh based businesses, such as the birth of Giant Eagle,” said Michalek.  “And you even can look at things like the ads and you can track things like the cost of materials or goods throughout time or you can use them to look at how fashion has evolved over time.”

University library databases are often used primarily by college students, professors and faculty. This collection, however, is utilized by genealogists, historians and people tracing their ancestry.  Because the collection is online, it can be accessible anywhere in the world.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t living in Pittsburgh anymore,” said Joel Roteman, executive editor of the Chronicle from 1983-2000.  “They’re living in other places and they can go back and trace through family history or anything they wanted to do.”

Although these newspapers took interest in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, their coverage did not ignore international affairs or people of prominence.  

Roteman, who said that he published more than 3,000 interviews during his time at the Chronicle, remembered seeing an article by Leo Tolstoy about Judaism when he looked in a Criterion or Outlook.

“Einstein was carefully covered throughout his life and his career in the Criterion,” Michalek said.  “Things like what was going on in Europe in the ’30s around the start of the Holocaust, that was starting to emerge in these publications and certainly while the Second World War was going on.”

While the archive might be a collection of Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspapers, Jews are not the only ones taking advantage of the newly available material.

“A scholar who was doing research around the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement found an article about a soldier in the Second World War who was Jewish, and he was arrested because he spoke up against what he perceived as mistreatment of the black soldiers that were serving alongside him,” Michalek said.  “He felt that they were not getting the same rights as white soldiers and he spoke up about it, and I believe he was arrested and court marshaled. So a scholar who was doing work around civil rights for African-Americans actually used this newspaper out of the Jewish community to document this story.”

(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at