April 23, 2018

Peggy Ann Seiden and Helen C. Plotkin | Movers & Shakers 2003

Updating a Classic


We talk about the library being a laboratory for students in the social sciences and humanities, but Beit Midrash really brings them a new level of engagement with the books,” says Peggy Ann Seiden of Swarthmore College Library’s new Center for the Study of Classical Jewish Texts. Beit Midrash grew out of independent study between the center’s current director, Helen Plotkin, and religion professor Nathaniel Deutsch. “He has a very deep background in chevruta, the traditional method of study partners poring over a text together,” explains Plotkin. “What struck us as we engaged in this activity on the Swarthmore campus was the juxtaposition of this dialogical method and the standard approach, which is more like a judge evaluating a book from the outside.”

The progression from casual observation to functioning center was astoundingly fast by academic standards. In spring 2001, Plotkin and Deutsch started talking to others on campus about the “impossible joke” of a physical space devoted to this method. By the summer, Plotkin was buying books with money allocated to the project by Swarthmore’s President Al Bloom out of his discretionary fund. In the fall, Seiden took the project under the library’s wing, giving it “infrastructure, solidity, and a future,” in Plotkin’s words.

Seiden was attracted to the idea both for its application to Judaic studies and its wider implications. “We are often more comfortable with secular approaches when applied to non-Judeo-Christian religious writing,” she observes. “I liked learning about this process as a way of looking at these texts in a nondevotional way.” As experience with the program grows, she thinks the method might be applied to other areas, ranging from the Koran and Chinese texts to philosophical works. “Of course the classics are ideal for this sort of thing,” says Seiden. Plotkin, too, sees this as a paradigm “from which all text-based study can get value. Once it becomes modeled, articulated, and talked about, it can influence all kinds of study.”

Right now Beit Midrash resides in a room separate but just around the corner from the library. Depending on the progress of remodeling and expansion plans that the library is currently investigating, it could move into the library proper, where “it would be kind of going back to something we had before,” Seiden observes. “We traditionally had seminar rooms for the honors programs, which were based on mastering certain books that were housed in each room. I would love to have a group of study rooms again, where students could really put the idea of collaborative learning into practice.”

The center could also tie in with other plans underway. The libraries at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford already share a union catalog and make twice daily van runs to loan books. They have just received a grant to investigate “pushing the limits of collaboration,” says Seiden. “We will look at cutting back on duplicate core materials to expand the breadth and depth of the collections. Essentially, we would like to move from three undergraduate collections to a research library collection. In that model Beit Midrash could serve three colleges as the Jewish classical text center.”




Peggy Ann Seiden

Current Position: College Librarian, Swarthmore College, PA

Degrees: MLIS, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 1980

Helen C. Plotkin

Current Position: Director, Center for the Study of Classical Jewish Texts, Swarthmore College, PA

Degree: MA, Asian Languages and Literature, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1980