While the National Library of Israel will soon have a new home, it has a rich history of serving as the national library of the state of Israel, the national library of the Jewish people, and a central research library of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A recent article in Tablet offers a brief history of how this important institution has reinvented itself to stay relevant – and simply open – for the people of Israel.
Established in Jerusalem in 1892 – five years before the First Zionist Congress first convened to call out for the erection of a Jewish homeland in Palestine – the Library merged with the university in 1925, under Bergman’s [Israeli philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman] capable leadership. After the State of Israel was born, the Library benefited from the bibliophile passions of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Founding Father. In 1950, Ben-Gurion wrote to his finance minister and instructed him to generously fund a project to photograph historical Hebrew manuscripts, the state of Israel being, he wrote, “the heir to the Hebrew nation in all of its generations and diasporas.” The Library acquired this collection in the mid-1960s, and continued to grow it. Today, it has more than 120,000 rare early manuscripts from more than 1,000 collections around the world.
This mammoth trove attracted scholars – the Academy Award-nominated Israeli film Footnote, shot on location at the Library, portrays their Talmudic pursuits – but few others bothered showing up. This became particularly true in 1981, when the university decided to move all of its humanities departments to its other campus on Mount Scopus, disconnecting the Library from its natural constituency. Realizing that an institution visited by so few could hardly survive, let alone thrive, the Library convened a committee of international experts in 1996, whose members included the Chief Librarian of the Library of Congress and the Librarian of the Oxford Bodleian Libraries. “In effect,” wrote the experts when they submitted their report two years later, “the Library must be reborn. Only then will it achieve its place as a matrix of creative, cultural, and scholarly activity proper to the People of the Book.”
A master plan was soon hatched, focusing on two main features: digitize as much of the collection as possible, and make the Library attractive to the public at large. With the sort of enthusiasm that only people who decided to dedicate their lives to the preservation of books can muster, the Library’s team set up to meet these goals, exceeding in both cases: The efforts to digitize the collection delivered such treats as JPress, a searchable archive of historical Jewish newspapers; and in 2015, more than 150,000 people visited the Library, attracted by a robust public programming and frequent exhibitions of its greatest treasures. As it collects Hebrew music as well as publications, for example, the Library is running an extremely popular series moderated by the country’s most celebrated popular music critic, Yoav Kutner, and focusing on icons in Israeli rock.