Several days after signing a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates’ National Archives, officials at the National Library of Israel touted the agreement as heralding a new age of “cultural, educational and academic exchange.”
The two bodies' directors, Dr. Abdulla M. Alraisi and Oren Weinberg, signed the document —which has been heralded by the NLI as “the most significant institutional agreement in the field of cultural heritage” between the countries since the signing of the Abraham Accords seven months ago— last Wednesday after three months of bilateral negotiations. It "commits the two organizations to work together in support of mutual and separate goals and for the benefit of the international cultural and documentary heritage sector.”
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What this means, the NLI said in a statement, is that the two sides will collaborate on a variety of topics, such as “digitization and digital sharing of holdings and research materials; professional knowledge sharing; cultural exchange such as conferences, workshops, trainings, study tours [and] exhibitions.”
Speaking with Haaretz on Wednesday, NLI director general Oren Weinberg said the while Israel initiated discussions regarding collaboration, the Emiratis “really wanted the discussion” and “both sides” were “very excited about the connection.”
While the agreement only lays out a mutual intent to cooperate, several ideas are currently being discussed and a followup meeting is planned immediately after Ramadan, said NLI head of collections Dr. Raquel Ukeles.
Ukeles told Haaretz that while the library has a rich Islamic collection which has been accessed by tens of thousands of scholars from across the region, most contacts are indirect and that the new agreements means that “for the first time we have a peer institution in the Arab world which is interested in active partnership.”
She said that while Israel has large collections of material in Arabic, including extensive oral history recordings, it often lacks the kinds of metadata needed to make sense of all of the information, an area in which the National Archives’ experts would come in especially handy.
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This is particularly true when it comes to the kind of metadata needed to enable “smart searches” of library holdings, she said, adding that “we’ve been looking for partners to do this work for a long time.”
On the other side, the Emiratis have expressed interest in gaining Israeli help in leveraging tools like artificial intelligence and neural networks to improve its archive’s indexing, Ukeles said.
“Imagine you have one million pages of archival material. You can use technology to read it, to turn it into searchable text. These are the building blocks [needed for] enabling all the 21st century research and learning and cultural exchange. It all sits on these building blocks.”
Aside from the more esoteric and technical side of the relationship, she stated that there have been multiple conversations about exhibitions and educational programs, although “these are projects that will take time to develop.”
But while it may be some time until the public sees concrete results, “it’s very exciting as a begining,” Ukeles said.