Israel’s National Library Turns the Page with an Eye on Community, Technology

Rendering by Herzog & de Meuron
Rendering by Herzog & de Meuron

By Judy Lash Balint

The recent groundbreaking ceremony for the new building of the National Library of Israel (NLI), a major event in the history of Jerusalem, was a deeply personal moment for many of the most prominent participants.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin presented the library with a handwritten book that had belonged to his father, which included poems and prose by 17th-century scholar Rabbi Israel Najara. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminisced about the amount of time spent by his father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, an eminent historian and editor of the “Encyclopedia Hebraica,” in the library’s reading room.

“My father belonged to a group of scholars for whom the National Library was home,” recalled the prime minister, who announced at the event that his family is donating the extensive archives of Benzion Netanyahu to the NLI.

For Sandy Gottesman, head of the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Fund as well as one of the major private donors to the library renewal project, the memories invoked were also of family members. In his remarks, he noted the efforts of his great great-grandfather, David Gottesman, who purchased land in Jerusalem in the 1860s, and his uncle, D. Samuel Gottesman, who funded the 1965 construction of the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The NLI, founded in 1892 – well before the establishment of the State of Israel – has been housed since 1960 in a building in the center of the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With little visibility to the general public and limited accessibility, the library has struggled to take its place as a central cultural focus for residents and visitors.

The collections of the NLI are a repository of the cultural history of the Jewish people and encompass 5 million books, among them many rare and ancient volumes, including the original writings of Maimonides, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. By law, as any Israeli author will tell you, two copies of every book published in Israel – in any language – must be deposited at the NLI.

In 2007, the National Library Law was passed by the Israeli Knesset, followed in 2008-10 by a Master Plan for Library Renewal designed to efficiently move the library into the 21st century, as well as to preserve and open access to the cultural and intellectual treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people that are safeguarded in its collections.

But the new building, to be located between the Israel Museum and the Knesset, is “to be much more than a library,” asserted NLI Director Oren Weinberg.

Rendering by Herzog & de Meuron
Rendering by Herzog & de Meuron

“It’s going to be a cultural institution,” Weinberg noted, explaining that the library will be open to the outside world in every sense of the word. “The cultural, educational, and research functions will all operate together in a harmonized way.”

Some of the book collections will be visible to the street, and the library’s outdoor space will include an amphitheater and prominent sculptures.

The new facility will span approximately 45,000 square meters (484,376 square feet), including six above-ground floors and four below-ground floors. The building is designed by the Herzog & de Meuron architects from Switzerland, together with an Israeli firm, Amir Mann – Ami Shinar Architects & Planners Ltd. Partners in the $200 million renewal project include the Israeli government, the Rothschild family under the auspices of the Yad Hanadiv foundation, and the David and Ruth Gottesman family of New York.

Weinberg said that “creating community” is one goal of the library, and with increasing numbers of people working online, the library hopes to be seen as an open and accessible place that is inviting to all sectors of the population.

“People will draw inspiration from what’s been collected here over 120 years,” he said. “We want those who come as visitors to become users.”

At the ceremony, David Blumberg, chairman of NLI’s board, said that world leaders visiting Israel always pay their respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial to understand what was done to the Jews in the 20th century. When the new building is completed, he said, “Those leaders will go to Yad Vashem, but they’ll also come to the library to see what the Jewish people have done for the world. The national library of Israel will be the most significant cultural institution in the Jewish world and the State of Israel.”

In his remarks, Lord Jacob Rothschild emphasized, “For 2,000 years, the writings of the Jewish people were scattered across the world. Now these writings from the past, books yet to be written, and digital materials – together with a wide range of collections – are to have a permanent home and one where it should be – in the heart of Jerusalem. We must be ready to serve the global virtual community, the Jewish community throughout the world, all those who make Israel their home, Jews but also Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bahai, as well as groups and immigrants from many countries and cultures.”

As guests left the groundbreaking ceremony, bulldozers could be seen ready to start on the four-year construction project that will fulfill the dream of Dr. Joseph Chazanowicz, who first envisioned an Israeli national library in the 1890s.

In 1899, he wrote, “In Jerusalem a great house shall be built, high and lofty, in which shall be treasured the fruits of the Jewish People’s endeavor from the moment it became a nation … and to this great house shall stream our masters, sages, and all the scholars of our nation, and everyone with a heart which understands our literature, and whose spirit years and strives for the Torah and for wisdom and to know of the history of our people and the lives of our ancestors.”