When Google Books Just Isn't Enough

'Openness, transparency and accessibility, in the architecture and in the contents' - this is the basis of the plan for the new national library in Jerusalem, which was unveiled this week. A look at past - and future - incarnations

On March 5, 1950, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Finance Minister Eliezer Kaplan. "For the new fiscal year, I suggest adding to the budget IL 50,000 for photographing Hebrew manuscripts from all the generations that are scattered among libraries and museums around the world," he wrote. "The State of Israel must collect and assemble these forlorn spirits of Israel in the Diaspora.

"I do not see a possibility of obtaining and gathering the original documents in Israel, but sophisticated photographs created by innovative techniques are no less useful than the documents, and we must do this at once, without delay, with all energy," he added. "This, in my opinion, is an obligation that the State of Israel must honor."

Beit HaSfarim Midrash Abarabanel
The National Library of Israel

Last Sunday, 61 years after Ben-Gurion put his vision in writing, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem inaugurated its renewal plan. At the center of the plan, whose implementation is estimated to cost around NIS 1 billion, is a technological revolution that will make the library the country's main digital archive, where hundreds of thousands of scanned manuscripts will be stored. Many will be uploaded to the Internet and made available for free to the public. In addition, the library will move from the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University to new and sophisticated premises, not far away.

It is expected that 600,000 visitors will visit the library annually and that millions of surfers will enjoy the institution's new services via the Internet. If all goes well, the new library will open in 2016.

"I hope that in the future when the president of the United States visits Israel, he will devote an hour and a half to Yad Vashem - to see what was done to the Jewish people - and an hour and a half to the new national library - to see what the Jewish people has given the world," says David Blumberg, a former banker and chairman of the library's board of directors, who is spearheading the renewal project. The monument "Bibliothek," by Micha Ullman, consisting of empty bookshelves under Berlin's Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned many Jewish books in 1933, embodies the need for what he calls a "large and splendid" national library here in Israel.

"The present building, within the university, was designed in the 1950s. It is opaque and has no windows. It imprisons the wisdom within, captures it in an ivory tower and puts it at the disposal of just a few," explains Blumberg, adding that the new building, for which a design competition will soon be announced, will reflect "an opposite outlook - of openness, transparency and accessibility, both in the architecture and in the contents."

The government has allocated 14 dunams (3.5 acres ) in the government complex, near the Knesset and close to the city's boulevard of museums, The main financer of the project is the Yad Hanadiv foundation, which belongs to the Rothschild family. As part of the renewal, the library will become a public company, owned by the government, the Hebrew University and other institutions.

On Sunday President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lord Jacob Rothschild and other dignitaries signed a pledge expressing their identification with the renewal effort. "Since its earliest days the Jewish people made a covenant with its cultural treasures," it declares, adding: "[Israel] is the center of the Jewish people's treasures."

"The Jewish people did not have athletes, painters or sculptors," explains Blumberg, summing up the spirit of the document. "Jewish creativity throughout the generations has been conveyed by means of the written word."

The scheduled date of the dedication of the new premises, July 26, 2016, was not chosen at random. It is the same day, Tamuz 20 on the Hebrew calendar, that the Beit Hasfarim Midrash Abarbanel library opened in Jerusalem in 1892 - the seed from which the national library grew.

Zionist Jewish physician Yosef Hazanovitch, from Bialystok (now in Poland ), a book collector and bibliophile, initiated the establishment of Midrash Abarbanel. To that end, in 1890 he visited Jerusalem and met with heads of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine ) to discuss his idea. A year after it opened, he sent over a first shipment of books for the facility - 8,800 volumes in 34 crates. Thereafter he energetically raised money and support for his venture from important Jewish figures, and called upon writers and publishers to collect books and send them to the library. In his enthusiasm Hazanovitch even agreed to accept books from his patients instead of money, and sent them off to the Palestine.

In 1899 Hazanovitch set forth his vision in the newspaper Hatsfira: "In Jerusalem a large, splendid building will be built where all the fruit of the Jewish spirit will remain, and in it will be kept all the books in all languages that speak of the Jews and their scholarship ... To this building will flock our rabbis, our wise men, all the educated members of our people, and everyone who has a heart and understands our literature, and its spiritual yearning and aspiring for Torah and wisdom and knowledge ..."

In 1925 the library merged with the facility at the Hebrew University and was administered by Prof. Schmuel Hugo Bergmann. After the Mount Scopus campus, where the university was located, was cut off in 1948, the library moved to West Jerusalem. In 1960 its current building at Givat Ram was dedicated. Since then the library has come into possession of a number of important collections, including thousands of rare books and manuscripts by important Jewish writers - among them Maimonides, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, S.Y. Agnon, Haim Gouri and Lea Goldberg.

Toward the end of the last century, there were difficulties surrounding the operation of the library - in part because of insufficient funding - as well as maintenance problems that endangered some of the collection. An international committee of leading librarians determined in 1998 that "the library has to be reborn." Thus, in recent years the renewal plan was conceived, after the government and Yad Hanadiv promised the necessary funds.

The new building will be dedicated about 100 years after Hazanovitch's death. Twenty years before he died, he wrote: "I doubt I will have the privilege of seeing with my own eyes the building to which I have dedicated my whole life, but it will suffice for me to know that after my death it will be ready. There the spirit of Israel during its bitter diaspora will be embodied, and every Hebrew person who wishes to know what the spirit of Israel in all its purity has done during 2,000 years will find what he seeks."

Next 100 years

According to the plan, the new premises will be large enough to house the library for the next 100 years. Its directors are now ironing out issues related to its role as a public institution, its location, the process of scanning its books and publishing them on the Internet, and so on.

"The experience of studying and reading will remain communal even in the digital age," predicts library director Oren Weinberg. "When I visit the reading rooms, even today, I see hundreds of researchers. Most of them are working on computers, but they sit here because of the shared experience of learning and research."

To this Blumberg adds: "Books, the written word, the experience of reading and human encounter - they have no substitute, even in the world of Google."

Indeed, the very existence of the digital revolution underlines the need for a large, central institution, according to the "vision statement" drafted by the library management: "Everyone needs help with looking for reliable and relevant sources, and with creative cross-referencing in databases and other digital resources in the endless ocean of existing materials."

Another problem being discussed by planners is the role of the institution as the library of the Jewish people, on the one hand, and, on the other, as one that also serves the rest of the public. Indeed, the library takes pride in holding one of the largest and most important collections of books about Islam in the world. Furthermore, by law, one copy of every work published in the country, whether in Hebrew or any other language, must be sent to the national library.

Weinberg: "We are acting on behalf of all sectors of Israeli society, and seek to preserve the collections of [all kinds of manuscripts about] the Arabs dwelling in the Land of Israel as well, and to encourage them to use the treasures here as a basis for research, education and culture."

"Creative contemporary Arab Israeli work is an integral part of Israel and must be given expression in our curating and cultural activities, and in accessibility [to the collection]," says Blumberg, adding that the library also aspires to reflect the aggregate of cultures that have been absorbed in Israel since its establishment, and asks questions such as: "What do we know today about Ethiopian culture? Russia culture? Moroccan culture? What have we done to preserve and disseminate them?"

Those involved in the renewal plan hope the new institution will be one of the foremost libraries in the world: "We will become a major player and will be able to put our hands on manuscripts, which in the recent past we could not even compete over," for monetary and other reasons, explains Blumberg.

In this context, he cites the legal battle currently being waged by the library to obtain possession of works by Franz Kafka and Max Brod that are now in private hands - a battle which has received substantial exposure in Haaretz.

Blumberg: "If that affair were to have broken several years from now, I have no doubt we would win the fight. The firepower we would be able to wield would be 10 times greater [than it is today] vis-a-vis the battery of lawyers involved in the affair."

The library is also hoping to get its hands on the Valmadonna collection: 13,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts dating from the beginning of the age of printing to the mid-19th century. The owner of the collection is a British diamond dealer who in recent years conducted negotiations for its sale, for several tens of millions of dollars. After talks with the Library of Congress in Washington ran aground, the collection is being put up for sale at Sotheby's auction house in New York.

Blumberg is convinced that the natural and only place for these works is the new national library, and has been attempting to raise funds abroad for their acquisition. "This is a war and struggle that will never end," he declares. "A war for cultural treasures and making them accessible to the public."