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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 077-174(WS)E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group: Library History in association with the Association of Jewish Libraries, Judaica Librarians Group, and Hebraica Libraries Group: Workshop - Session 1
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 174
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

The importance of leaflets as an historical source and the difficulties in cataloguing them

Meira Harroch
The Conversion Project, The Jewish National and University Library Jerusalem, Israel


The treasures found in the Judaica leaflets were mainly discovered only recently. These ephemera describe various spheres of Jewish life: History, religion, culture, folklore, economy. The leaflets were published in various languages and several Jewish dialects: Hebrew, Jewish Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish and so on. Their poor physical shape and their major function - for the time or even day they were distributed, are problematic for the cataloguer: a leaflet often lacks a title, place and date of publication are missing, as well as the author's name. But these exactly are the challenges in dealing with this kind of material, for the librarian as well as for the researcher, who can discover in them data which they cannot find in a comprehensive book.


What exactly is a leaflet (or a Broadside, or Flugschrift in German(1), or Feuille volante in French(2))?

Leaflets are printed material consisting of only a few leaves or, more frequently, one leaf only. They are written in a popular, simple language and deal with topics, which concern everyday life, with issues that are the focus of a current public argument or which attract significant attention and demand public expression. They are ephemeral because their content was meant for current issues and most of them, being transient, were thrown away after being read.

Leaflets penetrate every corner of Jewish life: History, religion, culture, folklore, commerce. But let us start with the use of leaflets in general. According to the Reallexikon der deutscher Literatur Geschichte, leaflets are an important source for historians, especially for those who research the 16th and the 17th centuries. During that time they fulfilled the role of journals and newspapers and were a crucial tool in the religious wars, for instance.

Leaflets continued to play a role even during the 18th and 19th centuries in public disputes, for they could be printed quickly and distributed within a short time.

They were often written in a satirical or even ironic style by authors who concealed their true identity behind a pseudonym or initials. Because of the polemic character of the issues their authors preferred to remain unknown. Frequently the leaflets were written as a literary piece with a veiled political content.

The Jews adopted this means of communication but only a small part of it was devoted to literary pieces. Schirmann(2) mentions only short poems for weddings, other family celebrations and memorial tributes. Steinschneider, in his list of Rangstreit Literatur(3) mentions the "pictures of the moment" poems in no. 136 of the list.

They were often written in haste in order to spread an order of the government or of the Jewish leadership as rapidly as possible, and therefore even spelling mistakes can be traced in some.

The main problem with this kind of material is that it was not preserved(2),(3). Only in the 19th century did a few catalogues mention such pamphlets, which were collected by a few people who lived in Italy(3). It was meant for its time, the publishers were not concerned with its historical significance, and many of the leaflets, after being read and discussed, were thrown away. Only quite recently did libraries begin to give them attention they deserve, to acquire what remains of the ephemera and to develop their leaflets collection. Among those is the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, which owns approximately 3500 leaves. Other collections of Judaica leaflets are in the Rabbinical Seminary in New York and in the Hungarian academy in Budapest(2).

The importance of leaflets for the researcher of Jewish history lies in the fact that they reveal apparently insignificant, uncommon aspects of the past and expose marginal phenomena which are not mentioned in comprehensive works.

This unique way of communication can be found all over the Jewish Diaspora, in Europe as well as in North Africa.

In every country only some of the leaflets have been recovered and most are in a poor physical condition, because they were not treated as books. A great effort is needed in order to restore them properly.

The leaflets were meant for a varied public, which included people of different levels of culture. Therefore they were often written in the local dialect - Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic.

These historical facts serve as the background in understanding the many difficulties and problems concerning the cataloguing of this kind of ephemeral material.

  1. The leaflets generally do not have any title and the document starts with expressions or words like: Dear brothers, Dear holy congregation, Announcement etc. Words like those, serving as a title, oblige the librarian use other means to inform the reader of the leaflets' content. He can write a brief comment, which describes the main issue dealt with in the document. He can write a citation taken of the text in this note, or he can write a subtitle, using again the text itself. Any way he chooses, compels him to read the whole document in order to point out its main theme. If the language in which the document is written is unknown to the librarian, he has to consult with those who understand the special language as Ladino or Judeo Arabic, for example.

  2. The date and/or place of publication are often missing in those leaves. Being concerned with the present, the publisher often refrains from mentioning these data, which was self evident to the reader at that time. The librarian has to decide where and when it was published. He can get assistance from the content of the document or from its external form: Its language and dialect, the form of the print, the name of the publisher or printer, if they are mentioned, the signatories, the seal, the frame, the adornment and illustrations in and around the text. If, by chance, the author is mentioned the librarian can trace the imprint according to the place and time in which the writer lived and created. Dealing with prayers in honour of an emperor, the imprint can be traced according to the period and place of the emperor's activity. In an amulet against an epidemic illness, the librarian can find assistance in the details known about the epidemic: when did it took place and in which countries.

  3. The author is usually unknown, but sometimes his name is hidden in between the lines or in the first letters of each line. Sometimes the leaf is written like a riddle and we can trace the writer by solving the riddle.

  4. These documents are often in a poor physical condition and the upper or lower part of the page is missing. This deformation creates a problem for the librarian in tracing essential data - the intended public, the imprint, the writer. Great parts of the text are missing and this makes the understanding of the content extremely difficult. The librarian has to use common sense and imagination in order to write a proper note which describes what, supposedly, was written in the document.

The uniqueness of this material compels the librarian to use his knowledge and that of subject specialists, who are ready to cooperate with him. He has to consult many reference books and rely on his own common sense. He must be able to compare documents in order to reveal crucial data essential to create a proper catalogue entry.

I hope that I have succeeded in showing you a glimpse of the rich, fascinating world of leaflets and have aroused your curiosity and your wish to go on and research this field of Library science and its treasures.



The numbers in brackets refer to the bibliographic item.



  1. Merker, Paul and Stammler, Wolfgang (eds.): Reallexikon der Deutschen Literaturgeschichte. Bd. 1,III. Berlin, 1925/1926. pp. 360-364.

  2. Schirmann, Haim:

    In: Scritti in memoria di Umberto Nahon, saggi sull' Ebraismo Italiano / a cura di Roberto Bonfil [et al.]. Gerusalemme, 1978. p. 210-211.

  3. Steinschneider, Moritz: Rangstreit-Literatur : ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Literatur und Kulturgeschichte. In: Sitzungsberichte der Kais. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien. Philosophisch-historische Klasse ; Bd. 155, 4. Abhandlung. pp. 79-80.


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