Lansky was a 23-year-old graduate student in 1980 when he took a leave of absence from McGill University and issued a public appeal for unwanted and discarded Yiddish books. At the time, scholars estimated there were 70,000 Yiddish books still extant and recoverable. Since then, the Book Center has gone on to recover a million volumes, with hundreds of additional books continuing to arrive each week. Lansky recounts the origins of the Center in his memoir Outwitting History.
In 1997, the National Yiddish Book Center opened a permanent headquarters and Visitors Center adjacent to the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, containing exhibits on the history of Yiddish literature and culture, an English-language bookstore, a theater, Yiddish Writers Garden, and open stacks of Yiddish books.
The Book Center offers year-round public programs, including its Paper Bridge Summer Arts Festival, film and music series, concerts, and performances.
The Book Center’s duplicate holdings have been used to strengthen Yiddish collections at more than 450 libraries, including Harvard, Yale, Library of Congress, the British Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and others.
In 1998, with a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Center launched the Its Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library has digitized many works in collection. Through this program, 10,000 titles were digitized, catalogued, and made available as Print on demand reprints for purchase at $48 a book. The digitization project also led to The Steiner Yizkor Book Collection, containing nearly 700 digitized memorial books about East European communities destroyed by the Holocaust, compiled and written by survivors and previously available only in very limited used editions.
The Center offers a summer internship program for college students. Eighteen students are selected for a seven-week program during which they study the Yiddish language and the Jewish culture and history of Central and Eastern Europe and America. Students also pursue an independent research or translation project, and work with the Yiddish Book Center's collection of Yiddish literature.
In 2001, Ruthe B. Cowl (1912-2008) of Laredo, Texas, donated $1 million to create the Jack and Ruthe B. Cowl Center, which promoted "Yiddish literary, artistic, musical, and historical knowledge and accomplishment" at the Amherst headquarters.Early in 2007, Cowl donated another $750,000 to create the Cowl Jewish Leadership Program for promising college students.
The Center also publishes Pakn Treger, an English-language magazine. Pakn Treger began as a newsletter, "Book Peddler," but it published work by serious journalists, including film critic Kenneth Turan. In 1995, journalist Jeff Sharlet assumed the editorship and transformed the "Book Peddler" into a serious journal of Jewish culture, Pakn Treger, Yiddish for a book peddler. Contributors included J. Hoberman, Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Francine Prose, Ben Katchor, Allegra Goodman, and others. In 1998, Sharlet left and was replaced by editor Nancy Sherman. Since then Pakn Treger publishes less frequently and has returned closer to its previous role as an organizational newsletter.
Ten years after the opening of the Center's headquarters, Lansky announced plans to build a new building, a 21,000-square foot expansion at an estimated cost of $6 million, urgently appealing to the membership that "we have just six weeks to raise $6 million!
The manner in which the Center raises and spends its funds has also been the target of criticism. According to the organization's IRS Form 990 Lansky's 2006 salary was reported as more than $180,000 and that the salaries paid to the organization's top three employees accounted for more than 15% of the Center's expenses. These figures, together with the fact that one-third of the organization's expenses are spent on promotion and fund-raising, are part of the reason that Charity Navigator rated the efficiency of the National Yiddish Book Center as "poor".