National Library of Israel launches ‘unprecedented’ effort to collect everything it can about Oct. 7 attacks

Head of collections says institution is working with groups and archives around the world to gather testimony, footage and documentation about the massacres and their aftermath, which will likely take years and cost millions

The National Library of Israel has launched a massive project, expected to take years and cost millions, to collect and catalog all materials connected to the Oct. 7 attacks and ongoing war that resulted from them. It has already gathered more than 200,000 videos, and are only just getting started.

“The library both by law and by mission is the repository of Israeli and Jewish collective memories,” Raquel Ukeles, the head of collections for the library, told eJewishPhilanthropy this week. “Our mission is to document, collect, preserve and make available — in the broadest way possible — Israeli culture and society, Jewish religion, traditions, history and society for our generation and for generations to come, so this work sits at our core mission.”

The scope of the collection project is vast, including almost anything you can think of: video footage, photos, audio recordings from the attacks; testimonies from survivors; news broadcasts; social media posts; sermons and divrei Torah; fundraising materials; information about volunteering efforts; letters written to Israeli soldiers; and much, much more.

“This is a massive, perhaps unprecedented, collection effort that we’re engaged in,” Ukeles said, estimating that the library will end up collecting “terabytes and terabytes” of data.

The National Library of Israel, which opened the doors of its new building last Sunday, has partnered with a number of organizations and other libraries both in Israel and around the world to collect this information.

“We see our role as leading a collaborative effort to — as broadly as possible — build a National Library archive of all the documents and all the materials related to October 7th, to the war and the ongoing struggles,” she said. “Our work is collaborative leadership. What does that mean? The responsibility and the mandate sits with us…but we recognize it doesn’t sit only with us and that there are many stakeholders here.”

In Israel, the library is working closely with Tel Aviv University, which Ukeles said was “the first one out the gate to start collection efforts,” and Hebrew University; the Israel Oral History Association; Association of Israeli Archivists; along with a group of oral history scholars who created the “Leadership Forum for War Documentation Initiatives”; a volunteer group of documentarians known as Edut (Testimony) 710, referring to the date of the attack as it is written in Israel, who have been recording testimonies from survivors and first responders; and several other smaller groups. 

Outside of Israel, the library is working with the Yeshiva University Museum, the Association of Jewish Libraries, the Berman Archive at Stanford University and the USC Shoah Foundation, which launched a testimony collection project last month. Ukeles said there were several other organizations that the library was in talks with but had not yet solidified formal partnerships.

Ukeles stressed the importance of collaboration in this collection project, both to prevent unnecessary anguish for survivors by having them share their ordeals multiple times with different organizations and to ensure that nothing gets missed or lost.

“Someone who works in Holocaust testimony told me that they did not succeed in doing this work, that egos and other reasons created silos, and that gets in the way of good research,” she said.

Having multiple libraries and archives involved also ensures that there are multiple copies of documents and testimonies, Ukeles said, citing the industry acronym LOCKSS, “lots of copies keep stuff safe.”

In addition to serving as a source for future research and study, the collection is also meant to serve as evidence in any trials related to the attacks and as a vehicle for survivors to give testimony, according to Sallai Meridor, chairman of the board of the library.

“I view this project as a threefold effort: it provides those survivors who wish to tell their story to have it remembered for eternity in the most respectful way; it will serve as an evidence resource for those wishing to seek some justice; and it will stand for generations, for young people who will wish to explore their heritage, and for future historians worldwide who will try to understand these events and their implications,” he said in a statement to eJP.

Ukeles said collection efforts began almost immediately as the organizations and individuals involved realized the enormity of the event and the importance of preserving what happened for the future.

The more than 200,000 videos that the library has already collected came from an initiative run by the Brothers and Sisters for Israel movement, which was overseen by Karine Nahon, an Israeli professor and media expert, whose team gathered the footage immediately after the attacks and used artificial intelligence tools to identify the last moments before people went missing in order to help families and investigators determine if someone was killed or taken hostage.

“They worked on that day and night for two weeks and then they realized that they don’t need this material anymore, but somebody needs to save this so they reached out to us and they transferred 200,000 videos,” Ukeles said.

The collection work has been a major focus for the library over the past month, with a core team of 10 people working on it, from the library’s collections, technical services and digital content creation departments.

“[After the attacks], we all dropped what we were doing. And for the first few weeks, this is basically the only thing that most of us have been doing. But we realized that that’s not sustainable,” Ukeles said.

The current head of the project is only working on it part time, but Ukeles said this will require a full-time coordinator for at least the next few years.

“We’re looking at a timeline of an initial phase of two years and probably a five-year project all together,” she said. “And we’re talking about a several-million-dollars project.”