The last word

Jerusalemites are bemoaning the loss of the British Council Library, which is closing its doors at the end of January.

After some 50 years as a bastion of British culture in Jerusalem, the British Council will be closing its library in the Malha Science Park as of January 31. The closure comes as part of a wider reorganization of British Council services both in Israel and worldwide, and in light of declining library membership. The British Council will continue to manage its cultural and educational programs in the city from a still-to-be-announced office in Jerusalem. "Demand for our library service has been low in recent years," explains the director of the British Council in Israel, Jim Buttery. "What's more, our global strategy of reaching more people will be better met by redirecting our resources to large-scale projects and high profile events. By doing this we can connect more young Israelis with learning opportunities and creative ideas from the UK. While our library has provided a valuable service in the past, we have seen how society in Israel is changing and how people are now accessing literature, film and music in different ways, using new technologies and other suppliers. As a consequence, we believe that the need for a dedicated English language library provided by the British Council is no longer a priority." Closing the library will save the British Council in Israel approximately NIS 800,000 a year. The council, which has an annual expenditure here of more than NIS 8 million annually, says this saving will be reinvested in other programs in the country. The shutdown comes only two and a half years after the British Council moved into the Malha premises from its previous long-time home in Baka. The council invested a considerable amount of money and thought into designing a contemporary space for its library and offices. The gala inauguration of the Malha facility on May 31, 2004, was attended by the then chair of the British Council, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and the British ambassador to Israel at the time, Simon McDonald, and the intention seemed to be for a long-term commitment. The British Council is a non-political organization that serves as the UK's international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Headquartered in the UK, it is funded by the British government, mainly through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The council operates in more than 110 countries around the world. It has been working in Israel for some 50 years and currently has three offices: in Tel Aviv (Ramat Gan), west Jerusalem and Nazareth. The British Council also maintains offices in east Jerusalem which, along with currently closed offices in Gaza and Ramallah, are administered and budgeted separately. The Jerusalem office and library was originally housed in the Terra Sancta building. It then moved to Rehov Ethiopia in the heart of downtown, and at the end of 1994 to Baka, before relocating to Malha a decade later. This is not the first time that the British Council tried to close the library. In February 1996, a controversy erupted when the council announced it would be closing its west Jerusalem office "owing to very serious financial cuts imposed on us from London." A public outcry, which reached the floor of the British Parliament, reversed the decision. But this time, the decision is final. In 1996, the library had a membership of nearly 1,500. Today, membership stands at 690, of whom only 380 are active regular borrowers. The British Council is making plans to donate the library's collection of books, videos, music CDs and DVDs to a local institution in the city that is open to the general public, says Scott Talmon, communication and marketing officer of the British Council in Israel, and it hopes to finalize this in the coming weeks. In the meantime, library members can continue to borrow books until December 31 and will be refunded for any time remaining on their current memberships. The end of the British Council library leaves the library at the American Center as the last outpost of English-language cultural outreach. Ralph Amelan of the American Center's information resource center assured In Jerusalem that the center plans to keep its library, which has 3,000 registered members, 6,000 books and more than 500 videos and DVDs, open. It will not, however, be the recipient of the British Council collection. "Our focus is on US society and culture," says cultural affairs specialist Felicity Aziz. But for long-time British Council library members the news of the closure has been a blow. "I am deeply upset," says British ex-patriot Lola Cohen, who with her husband was instrumental in the fight against the 1996 threatened closure. "The library was a lifeline for us. Losing it is almost like bereavement, but nothing can be done. My biggest regret is that there will be no new superb BBC dramas to borrow." Lola's husband Norman feels the move ignores British expatriates living in the city. "We have given a lifetime of service to the UK and now we are being cut off from our cultural roots," he states. "Is this the way the British government repays us?" "The council says it is closing the library because there was not enough demand," notes Yehudit Collins, also a British ex-pat and a library member for some 15 years. "But the council created the circumstances for this decline. The move to Malha made it inconvenient for many members to get to the library, and the selection of books was wound down. Library hours were changed. In order to appeal to a younger crowd, the library started stocking DVDs and videos that I, for one, consider to be in very bad taste. There was a general dumbing-down of the collection [and] this lost a lot of people. It was too bad, because the library once was a little bit of England in Jerusalem." Collins is also upset by the way the closing was announced. "It appeared in the press before the members received notice," she claims. "I feel a whiff of politics in all this but it is difficult to prove. Is the Foreign Office taking British culture out of west Jerusalem?" Michelle Mazel has been a library user since making aliya from France in the mid-1960s. "I accompanied the library as it moved from home to home. After 40 years, it will be very sad to see it close. My thoughts go out to the library staff, who now will find themselves out of jobs. They were always pleasant, smiling and willing to help. I met some really nice people at the British Council library. I will miss it," she says.