Unveiling the new National Library of Israel's building

About a month after the postponement of the official opening date, most of the people who used to spend hours in the old building are going to National Library of Israel in its new building

 The National Library of Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The National Library of Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

According to Jewish tradition, three factors are involved in the birth of a new life: God, the mother, and the father. When it comes to an institution, a trinity is also required to enable the birth of something new and exciting. In the case of the establishment of a new home for the National Library of the State of Israel (NLI), a home for the cultural treasures of the Jewish people from the distant past to the present day, the three factors are the State of Israel, which donated the land; the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Family; and the Rothschild Foundation (Yad Hanadiv) that supplied the funds.

The inauguration of the impressive structure was planned for the beginning of October, a time that turned out to be one of the most difficult and painful in the history of the State of Israel, so all the ceremonies planned were canceled. 

For several days, the feeling was that everything had been canceled and that after moving from the library’s former premises, things would remain closed and frozen for a long time. But the need for the library to carry on as a house of books and a source for researchers and students eventually made itself felt. 

Now, about a month after the postponement of the official opening date, most of the people who used to spend hours in the old building are going to the library in its new building, and prospects are looking up for a return to business as usual within a few weeks.

In solidarity with the victims of October and their relatives, and in support of the abductees and their families, it was decided to host an exhibition in the central gallery, which can be viewed from almost anywhere in the building.

 THE NEW National Library of Israel building. (credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu)
THE NEW National Library of Israel building. (credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu)

Every Hostage Has a Story features rows of chairs totaling the number of abductees, each with a picture of one of them and next to it, a book. The aim was to put together a book for each person, based on information provided by their families or gleaned from media sources, in an attempt to give some kind of presence despite their absence. 

Without a doubt, the photo of baby Kfir Bibas, nine months old when he was taken captive, next to the iconic Israeli children’s book Where Is Pluto? by Leah Goldberg, is an image that moves one to tears.

“We are waiting for them all to be returned safely so that they may sit, read, and write the story of their lives,” explained Dorit Ganir, the staff member who directed the project.

What's new about the National Library of Israel?

THE NEW National Library of Israel campus, designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, with Israeli firm Mann-Shinar as executive architects, is situated across from the Knesset building and adjacent to the Israel Museum. Spread over 46,000 sq. m., the 11-story structure offers the public a 600-person-capacity main reading hall, with surrounding landscaped gardens, plazas, and outdoor spaces featuring an amphitheater. Construction costs amounted to NIS 845 million, with 85% of the total covered by donors.

The building has several public areas, which include the exhibition spaces, visitors’ center, and educational area. A central atrium is covered by a glass roof, with windows on the lower floors; the below-ground rotunda gallery includes a large window overlooking the main automated stacks whose state-of-the-art robotic retrieval system will be an attraction of its own. 

The library is equipped with solar panels, low energy/low maintenance lighting, and Israel’s first below-ground rockstore, a mechanism for storing thermal energy that significantly lowers the energy required to cool the building, reduces its overall carbon footprint, and will provide up to 20% in annual operational savings over regular cooling methods.

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, NLI serves as the major institution of national memory for the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. Its collection includes handwritten works by Maimonides and Sir Isaac Newton, Islamic manuscripts dating back to the 9th century, and the personal archives of leading cultural and intellectual figures such as  Gershon Sholem, Martin Buber, Natan Sharansky, and Naomi Shemer. The NLI also holds the world’s largest collections of textual Judaica, Jewish and Israeli music, and maps of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, as well as world-class collections of manuscripts, ancient maps, rare books, photographs, and communal and personal archival material. 

A RANGE of innovative educational, cultural, and digital initiatives will reflect NLI’s central values of democratizing knowledge and making its collections and resources accessible to as broad and diverse an audience as possible. Several artworks by Israeli and international artists are on display in and around the new building, including works by Marc Chagall, Edmund de Waal, Michal Rovner, Sigalit Landau, Yechiel Shemi, and Gali Cnaani.

In recent months, as the building neared completion, millions of items were moved from the former library building inside the campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram to the new one. It included over four million books; historical newspapers; photographs; some 1,500 personal collections and archives; thousands of antique maps; tens of thousands of manuscripts; posters; records; and tapes; as well as millions of digitized documents, music recordings, and many more treasures. 

Among the unique items on display to the public are the Keter Damesek (Damascus Crown), a rare 1,000-year-old Torah volume, one of 12 “Crowns” preserved at the library; a manuscript containing commentaries on the Mishnah by Maimonides – with handwritten corrections by the Rambam himself; and a first edition of the Babylonian Talmud. 

Other special items are the Rothschild Haggadah and an almost 1,000-year-old Koran, besides writings by Jewish and Israeli writers and thinkers, such as S.Y. Agnon; Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz; Prof. Nechama Leibovitz; Leah Goldberg; Uri Zvi Greenberg; David Grossman; A.B. Yehoshua; Eli Amir; Jacqueline Kahanov; and poet Rachel.

There are also manuscripts by Rav Kook, the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Elyashar, and Rabbi Alkalai. 

The permanent exhibition will display items commemorating moments from our history, such as the first draft of “Jerusalem of Gold” by Naomi Shemer; the note found on poet and fighter Hannah Senesh on the day of her execution by a Nazi firing squad; a letter sent, as a young man, by Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon to Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz and the response; and the suicide note of writer Stefan Zweig.

Upon its final completion, the library will also contain a large education center for school groups and families; a restaurant, a café, and a bookshop offering books and NLI-brand gifts. 

In front of the building stands a stone sculpture titled Letters of Light by Israel Prize laureate Micha Ullman, based on the ancient Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzira (“Book of Creation”). The sculpture centers around the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are hewn in stone, with light and shade responding to the ever-changing angle of the sun’s rays. The above-ground circle of 18 letters rests above a central underground chamber which dialogues with another Ullman installation in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, The Empty Library, an underground memorial where the Nazi book burnings commenced in 1933. 

As for the old building, library staff and volunteers from the Lapidot School are preparing it for its new incarnation on the school’s campus. 

In the meantime, the old building serves as a free educational center for hundreds of displaced children from the northern town of Shlomi who were forced to evacuate their homes. The school operates from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for those in grades 7-12. The temporary school will be operational through December and host some 250 students. Library staff and volunteers have prepared 12 classrooms spread throughout the building, as well as offices and designated spaces for educational staff, administration staff, and the children. 

The school has been named Kedem in memory of Tamar Kedem Siman-Tov, her husband Yonatan, and their children Arbel, Shahar, and Omer, who were murdered in Nir Oz on October 7. Tamar’s sister Maya works at the National Library of Israel. ❖

Take a tour of the building: in Hebrew, daily; in English, Wed. at noon. To book a visit: nli.org.il/en/visit/tours/weekly-tour