Biblio File: Unique monument for the “People of the Book”
Sep 28, 2023 | Amotz Asa-El
Israel’s stunning new national library
The Zionist movement was yet to be born when a Jewish scholar called on the Jewish people to establish a library in Jerusalem that would “loom as a beacon” and contain “all of our nation’s books” as well as “manuscripts from all corners of the earth,” thus collectively creating “a treasure for future generations.”
It was 1872 when a Hebrew periodical in Jerusalem published this call – initially leading to the establishment of a modest library of several thousand books. By 1895, with its collection exceeding 10,000 titles, this institution was calling itself “The General Library of the Children of Israel.”
Now home to some four million books, besides thousands of newspapers, and a very large number of periodicals, manuscripts, recordings, computerised files and personal archives, that modest library’s successor – the National Library of Israel – is set to move into a sumptuous new building. The new national library will almost certainly become an Israeli landmark, a symbol for the Jewish people and an international attraction.
In practically all its aspects – location, architecture, financing and function – the new library marks a radical departure from its past. At the same time, it will seek to defy the pessimists who question the future of all libraries in the digital age.
Tucked between the Israel Museum and the Knesset, the new building’s visibility marks a huge contrast with the previous building’s location – which was deep within the Hebrew University’s natural sciences campus at Givat Ram, invisible from any outer road.
The new building’s unique location, even before considering its extraordinary architecture, promises to make it one of Jerusalem’s most familiar landmarks – both because of its two esteemed neighbours, and because its façade will straddle a major light-rail line.
Architecturally, the building will be counted among Israel’s most monumental structures, alongside the Supreme Court building, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Tower of David Museum.
Coated by white limestone quarried in the Negev Desert, the building’s five underground storeys and six visible levels are topped with a sunken white roof that looks rather like a half-pipe at a skate park. At its centre, a vast, glass-coated elliptic-shaped opening funnels a pillar of sunlight into the structure, creating a virtual axis around which its whole interior revolves.
Upon entering the building’s spacious lobby, visitors’ eyes will be drawn upwards toward the pillar of sunlight, which is surrounded by five circular levels of book stacks and reading spaces designed to seat 600 readers.
Underground, a fleet of robots will be busily retrieving books and sending them upon request to readers upstairs, much the way Amazon manages the warehouses from which it ships online orders across the world.
In this functional regard, the library will be but a logical extension of what it was previously, a research centre and workspace designated for, and mostly used by, scholars, academics and students – as befits the home of the personal papers of towering intellectuals like physicist Albert Einstein, historian Gershom Sholem and novelists Franz Kafka and S.Y. Agnon.
However, the new library seeks to break out from its previous academic focus, a goal it makes plain even through its exterior.
Unlike virtually all other Israeli public buildings, the new library is surrounded by no walls or fences. It is instead encompassed by an elegant garden with pleasant sitting areas, while the façade overlooks a promenade abutting the glass walls that invitingly expose the building’s lobby and ground floor.
Though obviously well-secured through other means, the building’s landscaping is designed to invite the entire varied population of the outer world into the library, free of charge.
The effort to create an outgoing atmosphere is not just visual. Unlike the older library’s physical and mental distance from the wider public, the new library intends to be a popular cultural centre featuring major public events – including exhibitions, some of them permanent, as well as films, concerts, lectures, symposia and conferences.
A modern auditorium, which can be expanded into the building’s garden, has been built to accommodate such events. A visitors’ centre and a restaurant will also give the building the feel of a big museum.
In a sense, the library will become just that, displaying literary treasures it previously kept hidden away from public view – including the Aleppo Codex’s 1,100-year-old Torah scroll; some of 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ writings in his own handwriting; the first printed Talmud; the writings of theologian A.I. Kook; and the original, handwritten lines of Naomi Shemer’s fabled song “Jerusalem of Gold”.
Unlike Yad Vashem, which shows how the Jews were murdered, the new library will show what the Jews have created. Moreover, unlike the Israel Museum’s neighbouring Shrine of the Book, which displays ancient Jewish texts from the Land of Israel, the library will showcase the Jewish people’s vast and varied creations in myriad lands over 3,000 years.
As befits such an undertaking, the new library is, effectively, a joint venture between the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
The National Library started off as an enterprise of B’nai Brith, one of the first international Jewish organisations. However, after the Hebrew University’s establishment, it became part of its campus on Mount Scopus, a jewel in the crown of that university, occupying its main and most handsome building.
Following the 1948 War of Independence, the Mount Scopus campus became inaccessible, forcing the library to move to the western part of the city, where it was ultimately housed in a large, boxy and undistinguished building. Meanwhile, the Knesset passed a special law that obliged all publishers to deposit two copies of any book or periodical published in the Jewish state at the library.
Despite this prestigious role, the library gradually became a liability for the Hebrew University, creating deficits the university’s budget was not designed to cover. Eventually, the university and the Government decided to transform the National Library into an independent nonprofit and to reinvent it by moving it into a new building – in which the state will be the majority shareholder and the university will be one of several minority shareholders.
The Israeli taxpayer paid only 15% of the cost of the new library’s construction, which eventually cost a total of NIS 845 million (A$344 million). The rest of the funding came from the Rothschild Foundation, along with individual donors, including Australia’s Robert and Ruth Magid, who have funded a hall in the library to be named after the late Australian statesman Dr. H.V. Evatt. As Australia’s Minister of External Affairs, Evatt chaired the UN’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestine Question, and skilfully shepherded the 1947 partition plan through the UN. Then, as General Assembly President, he successfully pursued Israel’s 1949 admission to the UN.
The financial formula for the library’s construction thus follows the model for the Knesset campus and the Supreme Court, both also financed mostly by the Rothschild Foundation, thus becoming powerful symbols of the Jewish Diaspora’s active role in building the Jewish state.
Having said this, the new library will potentially carry universal meaning as well as Jewish symbolic import.
For example, the library holds one of the world’s largest and most precious collections of Islamic and other Middle Eastern manuscripts – including a Quran more than 1,000 years old, which will be part of the building’s permanent exhibits.
The library’s possession, in addition to the Einstein and Kafka papers, of Sir Isaac Newton’s non-scientific works, as well as the papers of internationally renowned writers like literary great Stephan Zweig and philosopher Martin Buber, will lend the National Library international relevance.
Yet the most emphatically universal message lies in the library’s statement about the status of the book in the current digital day and age.
The inauguration of the library at a time when bookstores worldwide are disappearing and major book publishers are struggling, raises the shadow of Lord Parkinson’s pointed remark in the 1950s that the British Colonial Office was expanding even as the empire was disappearing.
Time will tell whether this parallel is valid, but the men and women responsible for the National Library of Israel clearly disagree. Though it is engaging in a massive effort to digitise its texts, the library’s builders and executives believe it will swarm with scholars, students and visitors, and, in due course, will loom as proof that the book, arguably the lynchpin of the Jewish past, is also a key to the future. And not just of the Jewish people, but of the human race as a whole.