Ohio's attorney general seeks to block seminary college from selling its rare books

Ohio's attorney general asked a judge on Tuesday to bar an international institution of Jewish higher education from selling its rare book collection.

Dave Yost sought the temporary restraining order against Hebrew Union College in a filing made in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. A hearing on the request was scheduled for July 12.

The school was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the American Jewish Reform movement, and is the nation’s oldest Jewish seminary. It has campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem.

If granted, the order sought by Yost would block the school from selling items that are part of a rare book and ancient manuscripts collection housed at its Klau Library on the Cincinnati campus. It holds thousands of items, including Biblical codices, illuminated manuscripts, communal records, legal documents, scientific tracts and printed books and pamphlets from before 1500.

Hebrew Union has struggled financially in recent years as it adjusts for declining enrollment and has cut and phased out some programs. The possibility of a sale involving the library’s collection emerged earlier this year when school officials said they had brought in an independent consultant to evaluate the collection and determine its value.

Patricia Keim, the school’s assistant vice president of marketing and communications, said in a statement that the school is committed to ensuring that the library maintains its “critical role in research, scholarship, and the Reform Movement,” but also noted the financial challenges it faces.

“While we have no current plans to sell any part of our collection, it would be irresponsible to foreclose such actions should they be deemed necessary to preserve and maintain the collection and access to it,” Keim said. “In any case, any such decision would be carefully reviewed and require approval by the Board of Governors.”

In his filing, Yost argued that selling books and other items could be a breach of the school’s fiduciary duties to the library’s public beneficiaries. For example, he said using the proceeds from any sales to reduce college debt could constitute an illegal use of assets donated expressly to fund the collection.

“The texts were entrusted to the library with the understanding that they would be preserved and maintained for use by scholars and researchers worldwide,” Yost said in a statement, noting that access to the works could be lost or limited if they are sold.

“The academic community relies on access to these texts — an integral part of the library’s public service and educational roles,” Yost said.