Almost 120 years after the Abarbanel Midrash, the forerunner of Israel’s National Library, was founded, the country’s largest library is embarking on a dramatic renewal project that will include a new building and a vast digitization project to make thousands of the library’s manuscripts and books available online.

The $200 million project, funded by the Rothschild fund Yad Hanadiv, was launched at a ceremony at the National Library on Sunday evening attended by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson, and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer.

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The new building, which will be located across from the Israel Museum and next to the Knesset, should be finished by 2016.

The first step of the digitization project will make 15,000 books available online, which should take 30,000 hours of scanning using state-of-the-art digital technology. Until the renewal project, the library had used a grant from the Dorot Foundation to digitize a total 1,100 out-of-print books and manuscripts.

The National Library, now located on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, has approximately 5 million books and 9 million maps, manuscripts, photos, music recordings, and other documents.

The material includes books handwritten by Maimonides, posters, old phone books, important photographs, as well as Jewish literature from all corners of the globe in a variety of languages. It also holds one of the richest collections of classical Arab literature, including rare illustrated manuscripts.

About 200,000 visitors come to the library each year to use the collection, and 300,000 use the digital catalogue.

The library hopes that with the digitization of the most important manuscripts, an estimated 10 million people in Israel and around the world will use the National Library’s digital depository for research, and 600,000 will flock to the new building.

“Direct contact with the treasures of the past leaves a deep impression on every one of us,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the ceremony.

“We are guarding here the magnificent treasures from the birth of our nation and of all of humanity.”

He added that expanding the accessibility of the library’s materials through new technology would not only allow the country to protect its traditions but to also share them with the world at large.

Lord Jacob Rothschild, chairman of Yad Hanadiv, pointed out that his family had helped build other important buildings in the area, including the Supreme Court and the Knesset building itself.

“These were essentials needed by the people of Israel,” he said on Sunday night, adding that a National Library is another essential for a nation that often refers to itself as “people of the book.”

“Like many things in the new Zionist state, the original library had modest beginnings but had a soaring vision,” he said.

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