Libraries Strike Back With Radical Reform to Survive in Digital Era

A law expected to revolutionize Israel's library system, with radical changes that include canceling membership fees, comes into effect January 1.

The law, proposed by MK Michael Melchior (Labor) and approved by the Knesset last summer, will boost the libraries' budget over a five-year period from the current NIS 20 million to NIS 85 million in 2013.

Local authorities will match the allocation, bringing the libraries' overall budget to NIS 170 million a year.

The planned budget hike comes at a time when library membership is in constant decline: Only 16 percent of Israelis are currently members of one of Israel's 1,000 libraries - some of which have closed.

"When Israeli children receive low scores in international tests, we constantly look for an explanation at school," said Yoel Cohen, former head of Kfar Sava's library. "But one must also note that only 16 percent of Israelis have library membership cards, while in Finland the number is more than 60 percent."

In the digital era, libraries are increasingly considered a waste of space, manpower and money, as some expect computers to replace books. Despite this, more and more funds are being funneled toward libraries in Israel and abroad.

"Since the mid-1990s, there has been a surge in the number of libraries being built around the world and in Israel," said Doctor Snunit Shoham, chair of the Department of Information at Bar-Ilan University.

"Fantastic libraries have been built in Holon, Netanya, Ramle, Hadera, Meitar and others, and all this is happening during the Internet age, when book borrowing and reading have been decreasing."

While some say this contradiction stems from local authorities' love of flashy public buildings, others - such as Bar-Ilan University's Dr. Israela Yablonka - believe libraries have retained their popularity, though their function has changed. Instead of being solely a repository of books, libraries are changing into social gathering points.

Many librarians realize that if libraries are to survive, lending books must become only one of the services they provide. Now, with the Knesset's pledge of new funds, librarians plan to use the cash influx to renovate old buildings, replenish stocks with new books, set up more Internet access points and turn their establishments into community cultural centers.

Utopia realized

In Holon, this utopia already has become a reality. Its Mediatheque library offers a plethora of services, including book borrowing, theater and graphic design. With an annual budget of NIS 22 million, it has become the flagship of the plan to revamp the library system.

The institution is modeled on a French concept, said Mediatheque head librarian Toni Dory. "In France they don't call it a bibliotheque - a library - but rather a mediatheque, to express the variety it offers," he said.

"We approached the Hebrew Language Academy, but no existing word in Hebrew denoting such a place sounded catchy enough. We were left only with mediatheque, and I'm not sure I'm happy with it."

Built in 2004 over an area of 7,600 square meters, it has sections for children and adults and boasts more than 10,000 active members who borrow some 20,000 books every month.

The Mediatheque's most popular area is its play corner for young children, where they can listen to storytellers.

On Saturdays, the library is packed with people, Dory said. "It's become the 'it' place, a meeting point for different crowds, including people from different towns," she said. "I'm afraid we may have to restrict entrance to only city residents."

Elsewhere, other libraries also have undergone radical changes to draw back readers. In Netanya, the local library now offers thousands of books in Russian, in order to cater to the coastal city's large Russian-born population.

The initiative has received the support of the Culture Ministry.

This represents a huge departure from Israel's former policy of promoting only the Hebrew language.

"The Russian community is very important to libraries, because it reads more," Shoham said. "During Israel's early years, the state upheld a 'melting pot' policy - now it favors multiculturalism, which has seeped through to the libraries."

Holon's Mediatheque also has a large selection of books in Russian. Just across the hall from the Russian section is the children's department, where a conflict is taking place.

Against all odds, the librarians are placing old poetry classics by Leah Goldberg, Kadya Molodovsky and others on the shelves of recommended books. "Perhaps I am conservative, but I think a good old classic is as good today as it ever was," said librarian Omra Livneh.

Despite Livneh's enthusiasm, her beloved books remain on the shelves. She is irate over their lack of popularity.

"Parents ask me to recommend books with a message," she said. "They are less interested in literature, but more in 'problem-solvers' that will help their children overcome their fear of monsters or the death of a grandparent, or will prepare them for kindergarten. One mother asked for something that would help her child deal with her miscarriage. Librarians today need to be amateur psychologists or to provide books with minimal text and lots of pictures, but we are constantly pushing literature."

In a world where books are losing their popularity and people no longer know their way to the local library, Livneh and her colleagues believe complaining over what books are being read is an overindulgence - they're happy to see books being read at all.