People of the book?

'The Post' spends the afternoon in Tel Aviv's historic Sha'ar Zion public library.

library 88 248 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
library 88 248
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Many newspapers around the English-speaking world have some kind of children's page, usually appearing on Sunday. On each of these kids' pages, there is often a little corner section, called something like "Fun Facts." Here, one can discover that Panama hats are made mostly in Ecuador - not Panama; that Budapest is actually the union of two cities, Buda and Pest; and that Kansas City is actually two adjacent, independent cities with the same name - one in Kansas and the other in Missouri. To these arcane bits of information can be added the fact that Tel Aviv's public library was in existence more than 20 years before the city of Tel Aviv itself. The Sha'ar Zion Library is almost as old as modern Zionism, dating back to just five years after the start of the First Aliya. Established in a private home in Jaffa in 1886, the library operated there until 1910, when it was moved to Tel Aviv - one year after the city was founded on the sand dunes. After serving its initial function of providing useful, practical information for agricultural pioneers, followed by a stint as a national repository of Jewish heritage and intellectual writings, Sha'ar Zion became Tel Aviv's official municipal library in 1922. In 1977 it was moved to its present home in Beit Ariella, right next door to the Tel Aviv Art Museum on Sderot Shaul Hamelech. Driven by fond memories of public libraries elsewhere in the world, Metro recently visited Beit Ariella, and explored Sha'ar Zion with Avigdor Levin, director of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's Culture and Art Department - which includes the library division - and Nurit Libman, director of the library division. Now more than 33 years at the library - "Since I was about 10 years old," she says, laughing - Libman is responsible for nearly one million books and other special collections both at Beit Ariella and at 21 branch libraries throughout Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Today, she graciously serves as Metro's tour guide. Libman's voice resonates with a sense of pride evident among virtually all of the institution's staff as she says, "This is really a very special library. We have several unique and wonderful collections that other libraries don't have." The first of these that we visit is the Graphotek, a collection of more than 4,000 lithographs - not reproductions, but actual signed lithographs - of prominent Israeli artists that anyone can borrow for a year to decorate a drab office or add a touch of class to a dining alcove or living room. As we continue toward the Picture Collection, Libman explains, "We live today in two worlds, the printed word that we cannot give up, and the electronic world, which is becoming more and more important. So we're doing a lot of digitization of our collections. In the Theater Archive, in our other archives, the material is being digitized for viewing on computers. This has become a very important part of the librarian's job here." We arrive at the Picture Collection, where librarian Tzipi Sover presides over a vast collection of photographs, paintings, drawings, caricatures and cartoons categorized according to subject - something like a local version of the Bettmann Archives in the US. "You can find here almost every subject there is," says Sover proudly. It's like an encyclopedia of pictures of everything." An old Time Magazine cover photo of David Ben-Gurion almost seems to nod bemused agreement. The collection was recently enriched by the gift of a voluminous collection of books of caricatures by donor Friedl Stern. "These are very important books," Sover says, as we continue through Bet Ariella's 10,000 dunams of shelves, collections, reading rooms and offices. The Library of Dance proves to be an unexpected universe. Aside from over 5,000 books and a wide array of international dance periodicals, there is an extensive collection of video cassettes and DVDs of modern and classical ballet, jazz, musicals, dance lessons and other programs that anyone can sit and watch without charge. Equally impressive is the adjacent Dance Archives, where we whimsically decide to "test" the collection and ask to see something about folk dance traditions in the Philippines. Without a second's delay, librarian and archivist Victoria Khodorkovsky cranks open a collection stack and immediately produces a large, lavishly illustrated book on Philippine dance along with an armful of information about dance groups and recent performances. Khodorkovsky, a student of the history of dance, gamely says there are a lot more files on Philippine dance where those came from, but we are already heading for the new Theater Library and Archive, which preserves everything from posters to playbills, scripts to original design drawings of costumes, along with over 5,000 books and other memorabilia. Libman remarks that much of this library's collection, including some 3,000 posters and more than 6,000 drawings, are currently being digitized. We move on, making brief stops at the Periodicals Department - the library's immense newspaper and magazine morgue; the small but tranquil Music Library and Listening Room; and the Ahad Ha-Am Library, with its impressive inner room containing the great philosopher's study and personal library. We bypass the Children's Lending Library, the Young Adults' Reading Room and the Law Library, and eventually find ourselves - tired and breathless - in the Maimonides Library. Gazing at the serene reading room and shelves laden with over 80,000 religious texts and books on Jewish theology and Judaica, one would scarcely believe that the Maimonides Library has recently been at the eye of a storm of priceless book theft and international intrigue. However, a 1998 inventory revealed that an invaluable manuscript, over 200 years old, was missing from the library. The Worship of the Levites, a 1793 treatise on Jewish law written in Berlin by Rabbi Israel Judah Reisz, had been stolen by culprits who remain unidentified to this day. The manuscript surfaced a year later, offered for between $16,000 to $18,000 at an auction at Sotheby's in New York. Unsold, it was later purchased by a dealer in Judaica, who in turn sold it to the German National Library in Berlin. When the Berlin library, unaware they had purchased stolen goods, announced their new acquisition, Nurit Libman and her staff at the Tel Aviv library became determined to get it back. A series of long, painstaking negotiations finally paid off. "Around three weeks ago, the book landed right back here," says Avigdor Levin with a distinct note of satisfaction. "But I want to commend the Berlin library for displaying a lot of good will in returning the manuscript and letting it reside in its real home." We wend our way through the cavernous Central Reading Room - containing some 5,000 reference books, encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases - and end our tour in the very heart of Beit Ariella, the Adult Lending Library. While the rest of Sha'ar Zion, its collections and services are open to all Israel - or "everyone and his cousin," in the words of Avigdor Levin, the right to borrow books from this section, free of charge, is restricted to residents of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Glancing around the reading room and gazing at the circulation desk - both looking very much like reading rooms and circulation desks 50, 75 or even 100 years ago, we wonder how much longer these things will be with us, and whether they remain relevant even today. Levin replies, "The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality appropriates five percent of its running budget to culture and the arts. This is a phenomenal figure. A huge, huge figure. Also, the library department is the biggest department of the Culture and Arts Division, and is subsidized at the rate of NIS 13 million, a fine figure, which shows the importance we attribute to libraries here in Tel Aviv." Levin's tone becomes more emphatic as he declares, "We believe that everything starts from the first book a small child is handed or read from. This is a concept we carry over in our belief that building libraries is the right thing to do, the right way to spend money." At the same time, however, conventional wisdom states that people do not read as much now as in the past, and that they are not as literate. "That's true," Libman quickly agrees. Levin deliberates a brief moment and says, "That is true, qualitatively speaking. Quantitatively speaking, however, there are now other media that address curiosity and the need for knowledge, like the Internet and other electronic media. Also, existing fields of knowledge have expanded, and new ones have been added. There is more to know, and more media to supply more knowledge. If you expand your idea of what is 'literacy,' you see that you're now getting much more information about more things. Because of that, I think that literacy is expanding, not diminishing." Can one argue, then, that perusing an Internet Web site belonging to Maccabi Haifa is at the same level of mental activity as reading a novel by S.Y. Agnon? Levin answers, "I think that if you read Maccabi Haifa's Web site, you might learn information about soccer you didn't know before. And from that, you get into sports. And you find something about the first Olympics in Greece. And then maybe about the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. Then you find more about the Germans at that time, and so on and so forth. And then, without moving from your chair in front of your computer, you've set in motion a learning process that, along with the traditional function of the library, creates a synergy greater than the sum of its parts. I'm convinced of this." While claiming that adult readers remain intent borrowers of what we traditionally call "good" books, librarian Edna Freidenberg is concerned about today's children and youth. "It's a tragedy. They're not reading the classics, or any of the books that we know engender the development of the imagination. What are they depending on? "They're depending on low-rated books that are popular, that they buy or get from friends, and they're depending on the Internet. It's what the whole world is going through. It's becoming an Internet world. It's scary. I have soldiers WHO come and ask for their first fiction book." Both Levin and Libman acknowledge the competing pull of electronic media. Levin admits: "You can see and experience the full spectrum of performing arts, for example, without leaving your apartment. You no longer have to go to the cinema, you don't have go to the theater." What, then, is the future of places like Beit Ariella? Levin says, "A place like this provides the seedbed from which other things grow. Here you get the inspiration, the respect for literature, for culture. Here, by holding a book, you see that there is no replacement - with all due respect to the Internet - for the immediate, uninterrupted touch of information. There is no replacement for the sensation, the overall feeling, the quiet you get here and can't get at home in front of your computer. Also, here you are offered a range of programs, meetings with authors, lectures and discussions, and cultural activities. These are some of the things that places like this provide." Levin, Libman and their staff are not only adamant about the library's continuing relevance today, but are also convinced of the library's ability to change in order to keep pace with future needs. Levin declares, "I believe that something like the Encyclopedia Britannica may not be in as much demand as it was before. But a discussion about a historical event, combined with a theological opinion, combined with a literary piece, backed up by music and maybe a piece of performing art could give you a way of learning unlike anything that has occurred before. That is why we say that this library is not only books. It's much, much more. It's combined with the other media. And the other media are going to be hosted here, with all due respect to them and with all of the services involved with them." Judging by the pride and commitment of its extraordinarily dedicated staff, Tel Aviv's historic municipal library is likely to be with us, ever evolving, for many years to come.