How Did Israel’s National Library Give Away a First-edition Darwin?

National Library of Israel board of directors appoints committee to determine how permanent collection books were distributed to the general public in book giveaway.

The board of directors of the National Library of Israel is appointing a committee to determine how books that were supposed to remain in the institution's permanent collection were distributed to the general public in last month's giveaway.

Among the dozens of items that mistakenly made their way into private hands were a Bulgarian translation of Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye the Milkman" and a German-language first edition of Charles Darwin's "The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals."

Books - Tomer Appelbaum - 21072011
Tomer Appelbaum

In June, the library - located on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem - held a giveaway in which 30,000 superfluous books were offered for free to members of the public. These volumes represented a fraction of the more than 650,000 books languishing in storerooms for years without ever having been cataloged. The intention was to purge excess copies of books in the library's collections, as well as books lying outside the institution's core areas: Judaism, Islam and Israel studies.

A scholar in the humanities - one of the hundreds of people who attended the giveaway - scooped up dozens of books in the library's core areas, about half of which were not in the National Library or any other library in Israel. They included the Bulgarian "Tevye," published in 1949 by the Bulgarian Communist Party; a book on World War II and the Holocaust in Estonia; and a science book by Dr. Otto Warburg, a former president of the World Zionist Organization, signed by Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

In some cases, the National Library has just one copy of books taken by the academic - who asked that his name not be published - a violation of the institution's policy of keeping three copies of volumes in its core areas. The Darwin book, published in 1872, is not in the National Library's core areas, but it does have significant intellectual and monetary value.

In a letter of complaint to the management of the library, the researcher noted that many of the books bore a stamp from The Centre for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry, which was transfered to the National Library from the Sprinzak Building on the same campus. Other books were identified as belonging to important individuals or institutions "that donated these materials to the National Library of Israel out of the hope that they would be preserved for future generations of researchers, intellectuals and students, and not in order to be removed from public care in such a random, irresponsible manner," he wrote.

This letter and others, also from academics, spurred the decision to establish a committee charged with examining the chain of events that led to the mistake. CEO Oren Weinberg said the committee will also examine library policy.

A group of academics, frequent patrons and library employees that is highly critical of the giveaway says the error reflects the difficult situation of the National Library, which is facing a comprehensive reform set to include the construction of a new building in the capital's government compound.

Members of the group fear that in its current form the changes will hurt its stature as a leading research library and turn it into a kind of community center focusing on holding musical performances rather than its purpose as an academic institution.

"A lack of resources over many years led to the accumulation of 650,000 books that nobody ever touched and that are stored in substandard condition," Weinberg said in response. "Tens of thousands of these are irrelevant to the library. We chose not to discard or sell these, but to give them to the public. During this process, two or three complaints were received about books that should not have been removed. As a result, we set up a team to evaluate the policy and the process. Where is there another organization that receives a letter of complaint and appoints a review team?

Weinberg added that the issue must be "kept in proportion": "So far, we have received a list of 40 books out of the 30,000 that were given out," he said.