Booking a new home

The people of the book’s National Library launched a $200 million renewal program with hopes that more Israelis will visit after it moves to swanky premises next to the Knesset.

National Library 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
National Library 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
As the People of the Book one might have thought that our National Library would be on most people’s regular literary and/or cultural agenda or, at least, have pride of place in their heart. The truth is, however, that the number of people who visit the venerated repository on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University is not exactly of stratospheric proportions.
In fact, many Israelis don’t even know where the library is located. According to the library’s director, Oren Weinberg, all that should change within the next few years after it moves to expansive, swanky premises next to the Knesset.
The director calls the project a “renewal” program.
“The idea behind the project is to make the library and its contents more accessible to the wider public,” says Weinberg, who took up his post last year. He and the institution he heads clearly mean business, with the makeover and relocation plans being unveiled this week at a glittering ceremony attended by an impressive roll call of luminaries from the political, philanthropic and cultural arenas, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Lord Jacob Rothschild.
The latter and his family’s Yad Hanadiv Foundation are putting up $100 million for the $200m. project, with the government covering around 16 percent of the balance.
The ceremony was preceded by a somewhat more intimate event at which Peres and a roster of VIPs signed the National Library Convention, which spells out the library’s intent, including making it more compatible with the world and technology of the 21st century, and offering far more accommodating reading, research and entertainment facilities.
“We are talking about a process of turning a mainly research-oriented institution, which used to be part of the Hebrew University, into a cultural and educational center of the State of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole,” explains Weinberg, adding that the library’s contents range from priceless historic artifacts to the mundane. “This place houses the largest treasures of the Jewish people and of Israeli society.
Every book, newspaper, CD, photograph, map and items of temporary relevance, like posters and leaflets, are stored here.”
The documents and information in the library are categorized into four core areas: Israel, Judaism, Islam and the Middle East, and general material such as data which can help provide a historical context for information that pertains to the other three areas.
A recent press tour provided a glimpse of some of the rarified gems of Judaica and Hebraica lovingly preserved and stored at the library. Viewing a weighty 13th-century tome handwritten by Maimonides, complete with diagrams and periodically entered corrections by the author, was a moving experience. We were also privy to a brief look at a Damascus Keter Bible, also from the 13th century, which spent several centuries ensconced in the Syrian capital before being smuggled into Israel in the 1990s, and a printed edition of writings by Maimonides from the 15th century which, we were told by Judaica collection curator Dr. Aviad Stollman, is one of the first five Hebrew books to be printed.
There are also plenty of exciting more contemporary literary jewels, such as the original manuscript of Leah Goldberg’s 1943 children’s book My Friends from Rehov Arnon, written in pencil and also full of crossings out and corrections. (Young adults and children may find the pre-Tippex, word processor and PC editing format puzzling and intriguing.) Another noteworthy occupant of the archives is a tatty exercise book containing some of Franz Kafka’s attempts at learning Hebrew.
Meanwhile the music section contains such priceless treasures as all of Moshe Wilensky’s arrangements of “Kalaniot,” written for diva Shoshana Damari.
Apparently Wilensky had to keep adjusting the arrangement of the song as Damari’s vocal range deepened with advancing years. Naturally, there is no shortage of full blown classical music scores there, too, such as works by 20thcentury composer Paul Ben-Haim.
THE NATIONAL LIBRARY started life in 1892, as the Bnai Brith Library and was the first public library to serve the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine. The institution’s first home was on Rehov Bnai Brith located between Mea She’arim and the Russian Compound.
Ten years later the Midrash Abarbanel, as it was then known, moved to Rehov Ethiopia and in 1925 it became a university institution when it relocated to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. With more than a million books and a severe shortage of storage space, the library moved to its current Givat Ram campus home in 1960.
The National Library Law, passed in 2007, paved the way for it to become an independent institution and it now operates as community interest company jointly owned by the government (50%), the Hebrew University (25%) and several other organizations.
David Bloomberg, the library’s board chairman, says that things have changed for the better in recent times.
“We started the whole process of moving the library 13 years ago. The library was not in a good state at the time. In fact, you could say the place was dead.”
Bloomberg attributes part of the malaise to the design of the building.
“Look at this place. It has no windows. It is inward looking, when it should be reaching out to a wide cross-section of the public. We have to attract new sections of the public and not hole up in an ivory tower.”
While the plans for the new library have yet to take on tangible form – the competition for the architect will take place this summer – Weinberg says he can guarantee a far more user friendly and greener facility. “The new building will be environmentally friendly, and we will be able to host far more visitors who come to read and research, and also to attend cultural and entertainment events. We often have to turn people away from concerts and workshops we hold here.”
This happened as recently as three weeks ago, when there was a large turnout for a workshop on correspondence between Hans Fallada, the renowned 20th-century German author of international best-seller Alone in Berlin, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and Jewish Austrian writer Carl Ehrenstein between 1934 and 1938. The 53 letters were unearthed by chance at the library, and were entrusted to it several years ago.
WHILE THE library houses a wide range of rare documents, the aim is not always about getting hold of the original. For instance, it is believed that there are around 90,000 Hebrew manuscripts around the world, of which the library has 10,000 originals, and copies of 70,000 more.
“We are not necessarily interested in the manuscripts per se; it is a matter of getting the information to the library, and making it as available as possible to the public,” Weinberg explains, adding that it is also not a matter of no expense spared to obtain original documents.
“Our policy is not to buy items for the library. We prefer to have someone buy the documents and donate them to us.”
Last month the library was the happy recipient of a historically valuable record, which documents all the financial transactions that took place in the Jewish community in Frankfurt between 1720 and 1740. “Other Jewish communities in Germany certainly kept such communal ledgers,” says Weinberg,” but this is a fascinating find, with lots of notes in German and Hebrew, that offers a unique glimpse of everyday financial goings in the Jewish community at that time.”
Naturally, valuable originals will not be made available to every Tom, Dick and Itzik, but the library is increasingly making copies, and copies of copies, accessible to people who make actual and virtual visits to Givat Ram. “We are in the middle of digitizing over 100,000 books,” says Weinberg. “People will be able to read summaries of the books and see images of them on the Internet, and some books will have their entire content put on the Web. We are also digitizing over 30,000 hours of recorded music.”
Bloomberg says the latter is of particular importance. “The Jewish people may not have produced too many worldclass athletes, but we have given the world many great musicians.”
The library currently houses, in various formats, Jewish music from the 19th century to the present.
Two copies of every CD released by an Israeli artist, regardless of the genre, are deposited at the library.
Newspapers are also considered important sources of information to be preserved, and two copies of almost every newspaper published here are stashed away in the appropriate section.
Many of the newspapers can already be viewed on the Internet and work is proceeding at a feverish pace to increase the stock.
“Currently we have around 400,000 newspaper pages already scanned and we are aiming to reach one million pages by 2013 and two million pages by 2016,” says Weinberg. “We are also working on digitizing manuscripts and a large number of books.”
THE THINKING behind the design of the library’s prospective home is very much dictated by the facility’s requirements and what it will contain. “A master plan was devised which determined the essence of the new building. That is a very different approach compared with what normally happens in this country, whereby buildings are constructed and only then do they get around to thinking about what to do with it. Our master plan took a year and a half to put together, and it takes in every single aspect of the new library premises,” says Weinberg.
At the end of the day the project concerns a quintessentially cultural institution.
Both Bloomberg and Weinberg liberally season their observations with references to the spiritual side of the renewal program.
“We want the new library building to be an inspiring place and to be compatible with the spirit of the times,” says Weinberg.
“Yes, lots of people will avail themselves of online access to the library’s contents, but we very much want people from all walks of life to come to the building and use the facilities in person.
“I believe there is no substitute for faceto- face exchanges of ideas. There is a dynamism to, say, actually meeting fellow researchers that you can’t achieve via email or the Internet. I want the community ambiance that exists in the library today to be maintained and expanded in the new building.”
Weinberg is looking for a significant incremental leap in public usage, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. “We are talking about around 500,000 actual visits a year, and about 10 million hits a year on the website.”
Considering the current number of active patrons that is quite a target.
“Today, we only have a few hundred researchers who frequent the library. The library is full, but the facilities here are very limited. We will offer a wide range of programs and events, like seminars and cultural evenings, and the exhibition areas will be much larger. We want the public to make intelligent and effective use of our services.”
One sector which, Weinberg says, makes good use of the library’s facilities is the music community. “We have a very large collection of different kinds of music here, including ethnographic music and recordings made in the field which have great documentary value. We get a lot of musicians coming here to listen to the recordings.”
The library, it seems, also plays a proactive role. “We initiate recordings here, of cantorial music, Ethiopian music, Beduin music, Circassian music, in fact anything that is relevant to the enormous social range we have in Israel.”
There are more than 250 individual music archives, and in excess of 600 other archives of documents and artifacts entrusted to the library by individuals and relatives of important Jewish and other Israeli figures in all sorts of fields. These include, for example, items relating to the life of Nobel Prize-winning writer S.Y.
Agnon, Austrian Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber and 74-year-old writer A.B. Yehoshua. The library also stores hundreds of thousands of photographs, mostly from Israel and pre-state Palestine, and is working with the University of Pennsylvania and Yad Ben-Zvi on constructing a joint website which will contain all the photographs.
“It is not just a matter of preserving disappearing worlds,” Weinberg says. “We are also interested in preserving contemporary information. We invest a lot of work in documenting all sorts of websites which appear and then vanish, and that includes important blogs. We are not talking about recording them every single day. We won’t, for instance, keep daily copies of the Ynet site, but we will store important entries.”
The library makes all these facilities available to the public free of charge, within the limitations of relevant copyright and other laws. “Our policy is, whenever possible, to provide full accessibility to everyone, for no cost,” Weinberg declares.
While the National Library has known its fair share of ups and downs over the last 119 years, the country’s leaders have generally appreciated its inestimable value to Israel and world Jewry. David Ben-Gurion certainly placed the institution front and center, as evidenced by a letter the then prime minister wrote to finance minister Eliezer Kaplan in March 1950, in which he proposes allocating a budget of 50,000 lirot for the purpose of photographing Hebrew manuscripts in various libraries and museums around the world.
In the letter Ben-Gurion noted presciently that “the work will not be completed in one year and will necessitate a sizable financial outlay in the coming years.”
More than six decades on Ben-Gurion, one presumes, would have been impressed with what the National Library has achieved to date and with the plans for the institution’s planned $200 million home.