Books and a cultural fabric

The future of the National Library began this week with the laying of a cornerstone.

ISRAEL’S FUTURE NATIONAL LIBRARY, designed by Basel architects Herzog and de Meuron, will include a central reading room under a luminous glass dome. (photo credit: HERZOG AND DE MEURON ARCHITECTS)
ISRAEL’S FUTURE NATIONAL LIBRARY, designed by Basel architects Herzog and de Meuron, will include a central reading room under a luminous glass dome.
The confluence of the words “national” and “library” is associated with a degree of gravitas and heavy responsibility.
After all, serving as the official repository for a nation’s written cultural treasures is quite a mission.
David Blumberg, the chairman of the board of the National Library of Israel, is certainly aware of the importance of the institution’s role, and was front and center at this week’s cornerstone laying ceremony which took place at the library’s future berth just down the road from the Knesset.
The grand event was also graced by a string of VIPs, including President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two of the library’s staunchest supporters, Lord Jacob Rothschild and David and Ruth Gottesman.
“The comprehensive process of renewal will enable us to position the National Library of Israel in its rightful place as part of Israel’s cultural fabric,” declared Blumberg.
“The National Library of Israel will be the most significant cultural institution in the Jewish world and the State of Israel.”
The new complex is due to open its gates in 2020, and will cost nigh on NIS 1 billion and, judging by the picture of the simulated finished product, which hangs proudly in Blumberg’s office at the library’s Givat Ram university campus building, it will be quite a sight to behold, and quite a facility to enjoy.
THE LIBRARY began life in Jerusalem in 1892 as a relatively modest affair. Over the years it accumulated both ancient and new works pertaining to Jewish intellectual heritage, as well as books published in various parts of the Jewish world. When the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was established in 1925, the library was officially named The Jewish National and University Library and the scope of the collections was greatly expanded.
Until 1948, it was located on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After the War of Independence, it moved home several times until settling at its current location on the Givat Ram campus, in November 1960.
The new venture has been bubbling for some time. When Blumberg came on board the library team – as an unpaid executive – after a glittering career in the world of finance, around 14 years ago, the project comprised a major part of his purview.
“The project has been in the offing for at least 15 years, in terms of the planning, design and defining stages, and devising the program for the national library,” he explained, before digging back into the institution’s history.
“You know you really have to go back a little further on this matter. For decades, the national library only existed in nominal terms,” he noted somewhat surprisingly.
“It was called the Jewish National and University Library but, in fact, it did not serve as a national library. It was really a university library, as the main research library of the university.”
It was, says Blumberg, very much a closed shop in the early years.
“The number of visitors to the library, in those days, who came from outside the campus was around 100 a year. In other words the library was not relevant at all. I’m talking about the ’70s, ’80s and, to an extent, the ’90s,” he explained, but today “the reading halls are full like they never were in the past.”
Blumberg wants the library, and particularly in its forthcoming guise, to be inviting to one and all.
“The big challenge is to know how to build a library for the 21st century, and even the 22nd century, based on a new approach which does not have a detrimental effect on the library’s role as a research library. The challenge we face is to make it a far better research library than ever existed in Israel, with greater treasures, and to make it a more versatile facility.”
Benefactor Lord Rothschild is also keen for the new library to open its doors to all and sundry, both in person and via the Internet.
“For 2,000 years the writings of the Jewish people were scattered across the world. Now these writings from the past as well as books yet to be written and digital materials, together with a wide range of collections, are to have a permanent home and one where it should be – in the heart of Jerusalem. We must be ready to serve the global virtual community, the Jewish community throughout the world, all those who make Israel their home, Jews but also Muslims, Christians, Druse, Baha’is and indeed groups and immigrants from many countries and cultures.”
DAVID GOTTESMAN, whose family foundation is a key partner in the new building complex, also sees the library as a beckoning beacon.
“As a dynamic center for intellectual and artistic collaboration and creativity, it is my hope that the National Library of Israel will play an essential role in promoting mutual understanding among all people – within Israel and around the world. It is a transformative project that will preserve the past while imagining the future.”
Blumberg is also delighted with the new location, close to the Knesset and also outside the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram university campus.
“The national library has to have its own independent presence,” he said, adding that are there are also practical advantages to having an off-campus berth.
“The high season of the National Library, for example, is the intermediate days of Passover and Succot, when a lot of visitors come from abroad. But then the campus is closed, so the library is not accessible. The library has to have its own presence, and should transmit a sense of wow!” Judging by the simulated pictures of the new facility, it is more than likely that first-time visitors to planned library will, indeed, have jaws dropping.
For now the on-campus building continues to cater for all comers. It houses one of the largest and widest ranging collections of Judaica in the world, the Israel Collection takes in all books, newspapers and periodicals printed in the country, and the Islam and Middle Eastern items are a boon for anyone interested in the field.
The library also hosts regular lectures and music shows for the general public, as well as exhibitions on all manner of topics. Unsurprisingly, with the plans for the new facility well under way, the new exhibition harks back to the current buildings earliest days with the Generation of Tashah (Generation of 1948) exhibition which opened on the second floor of the library last week.
The nostalgic show features a broad spectrum of items, a 1960 telephone directory, a program from Natan Alterman’s play Kinneret, Kinneret which was performed at the Cameri Theater 65 years ago, and a delightfully and definitively naively designed program for a 1961 exhibition to mark the jubilee of the Kibbutz Movement.