Keeping paper relevant

The National Library is home to tomes of priceless manuscripts, the exhibition of which shows that the lure of emotion and texture win out over technology every time.

Dr. Aviad Stollman holds one of the National Library’s irreplaceable and ancient manuscripts. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Dr. Aviad Stollman holds one of the National Library’s irreplaceable and ancient manuscripts.
I lean over the table, caressing the codex hesitantly, reverently, hardly able to believe what I am holding. Before me on the table in the glass-walled, climate- controlled room is an original copy of the Introduction to the Mishna by Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi and physician, one of the towering figures of Jewish medieval philosophy. A rationalist who attempted to harmonize the views of philosophy and science with those of rabbinic Judaism, he still exerts great sway over Jews around the world to this day.
Doing my best to keep my hands from shaking, I tentatively run a gloved finger along the edge of one folio page, realizing with growing elation that here is an original copy of a work that thousands, including myself, still study in yeshivot and batei midrash around the world.
“If the library was on fire,” Dr. Aviad Stollman, the head of collections at the National Library tells me quietly, “I’d run with this book.”
Putting the Maimonides manuscript away, Stollman continues to exhibit samples from the library’s collection, including a copy of Hatikva in the hand of the Zionist anthem’s author Naphtali Herz Imber, written while he was dying in a New York hospital at the turn of the 20th century, and a 1482 Haggada from Spain that may very well be the first printed edition of that text in the world.
What all of these volumes have in common, Stollman says, is that they highlight the continuing relevance of the library in the 21st century. While the National Library is on its way to becoming a “hybrid library,” digitizing books and looking to strike a balance between bites, and paper, ancient manuscripts and printed material still exert a strong call, inspiring as e-books and computer terminals cannot.
“There are libraries today with no books in them,” Stollman remarks, but as a center of scholarship and a repository for collective Jewish history, the National Library will always maintain a collection of physical books.
“There are scholars who practically live in the library,” he continues, stating that aside from those who need physical access to manuscripts for research purposes, the physical proximity of scholars to their peers engendered by a library setting is something that cannot be replicated by sitting in front of a Web browser at home, perusing a collection remotely.
Everyone, from secular to religious, is affected by viewing the original works of Maimonides and similar historic Jewish works, Stollman contends.
While digitization efforts are in full swing, however, Stollman and his colleagues at the National Library say that they also want to step up their exhibitions of significant manuscripts and books. Such works, he contends, inspire visitors in a manner that merely viewing scans on a screen cannot achieve.
It is this connection between Jewish history and the Jews of today that such a collection can facilitate, and it is the reason, he argues, that such a library, even in an age of e-books and websites, is still a national necessity.
The library’s invitation to The Jerusalem Post to view these works comes preparatory to its upcoming Global Forum later this month, at which 70 leaders and thinkers will meet in Jerusalem for two days to, in the words of a library spokesman, “talk about how the contents of the library that are relevant to what is happening today.”
The library hopes to become “a vibrant and influential intellectual center, playing a pivotal role in the cultural, spiritual and social life in Israel and the Jewish world as a whole,” according to a release sent announcing the forum.
The Jewish people do not generally go in for grandiose monuments or world-changing works of art. We are a “people of texts,” and the impact of showcasing these texts has had on both Jews and the world at large is a significant part of the library’s mission as a national institution, Stollman concludes, putting the last of the manuscripts away.
As Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem and I walk out of the library, thrilled at having been able to hold a work of the great Moses Maimonides, I know that Stollman is right.