Summer is peak season for public libraries. Back in the day, I whiled away many of my school vacation hours in a little storefront library conveniently located around the corner from our Brooklyn home. What better trellis for unstructured days to climb than the gentle order of a library collection?

I’ve tried to recreate that kind of enriching summer library experience for my children, in their hometown of Jerusalem  — but with little success. When the kids were small, there was no public library within walking distance of our home, and our trips to the nearest facility were infrequent and harried. Now there’s a branch near us, but the collection is so sparse, and the space so uninviting, that we aren’t tempted to use it.

What does it mean when the capital city of the People of the Book has a public library system that is primitive by Western standards?

Jerusalem is actually home to two tech- and money-intensive library ventures of global importance. One of these is Ex Libris, a provider of highly successful automated systems to academic and research libraries the world over. The other is the National Library of Israel, an institution that has spearheaded the digitization of Jewish cultural treasures and will soon be moving from its longtime home on the Hebrew University campus to a new starchitect-designed building in the city’s “museum district” — transforming it into a major tourist attraction.

These world-class library products and frameworks are, by their nature, oriented toward privileged and non-local publics. As admirable and valuable as they are, they don’t meet Jerusalemites where they live. They aren’t community hubs, promoters of literacy and civic competence, or equalizers for the disadvantaged. They don’t serve local residents who can’t afford to buy everything (or anything) they want from Amazon, the Book Depository, or Israel’s bookstore duopoly.

Does Jerusalem deserve better? I think it does. I’m going to summarize below the deficiencies of the city’s public library system, and explain why Jerusalem is actually well-positioned to dramatically upgrade its public library services  — if only there were a catalyst to bring it all together.

Jerusalem public library fails

  1. Entire neighborhoods not served. A petition was recently launched by residents of a Jerusalem neighborhood with no municipal library branch whose population – mainly young families – is now approaching 30,000. The bookmobile that comes around three times a week is a sad joke. Library buildings take money and time – but a city that wants to provide its children with library services will find a way to do so right now, even in the absence of a permanent structure. It will install a “caravan,” take over a school bomb shelter or spare community-center room, or rent a storefront (like the one that served my Brooklyn neighborhood back in the early 1970s). There are many possibilities, and no real excuses.
  2. Poorly-located libraries. I wrote here about the problematic location of Beit Ha’Am, Jerusalem’s sadly rundown main public library branch. Beyond that, some of the neighborhood branches, such as those of Gilo and Ramot, are stuck in the middle of nowhere from an urban-walkability perspective. That is, they are far from neighborhood shopping centers. They aren’t on anyone’s way to anything else, and create no synergy with local commerce — all-important considerations when deciding where to put a public library branch. Jane Jacobs wrote about this over half a century ago in her classic essay Downtown Is for People, noting that “[…] planners could learn a lesson from the New York Public Library; it chooses locations as any good merchant would” —  based on foot traffic.
  3. Inappropriate facilities. A number of branch libraries are located in community centers or schools. As noted in Item 1 above, this can be suitable as a stopgap measure, but not as the permanent solution it seems to have become in some cases. It’s not clear why, for instance, the heavily-used Baka branch occupies two rooms of a community center rather than a building of its own, a situation that limits its ability to grow its collection or provide services other than bare-bones book circulation.
  4. Lack of non-book collections. Libraries have always adopted new technologies and media. American public libraries have a long tradition of lending out audiovisual and other materials. In Jerusalem, by contrast, only one neighborhood branch advertises any sort of non-book collection.
  5. Story hours for a fee: Please.
  6. August closings. Those branches that are located in community centers close for two weeks in August when the community center staff go on vacation. Yes, public library closings during peak season, when most day camps and preschool frameworks have ended.
  7. Technological and administrative backwardness. These are major and interrelated deficits, reflected in a total lack of systems integration. We say of Jerusalem, “ir she’chubra la yachdav — “built as a city that is joined together” — but to judge from its public library system, you’d think there were 26 different Jerusalems, none of which had anything to do with any of the others. From the user’s point of view, all library systems and services are completely decentralized. (It’s worth noting that this is by no means true of the public library systems of other Israeli cities.)
    • You can’t do a general online search of all of the municipal library holdings simultaneously (so as to determine which branch, if any, holds the book you want); you have to search each individual branch library’s catalog separately.
    • There is no interlibrary loan — not within the public library system, and certainly not outside it.
    • You have to take out a separate library card (conditional on leaving a deposit check) at every branch you want to patronize — no general card good for all branches.
    • You can’t return a book borrowed from one branch anywhere but to the same branch.
    • Even the bookmobile that serves branchless neighborhoods is a system unto itself, not integrated with the brick-and-mortar library system.
    • Particularly galling is the failure to provide library users with any meaningful online resources (other than the individual branch catalogs) that they can access from home or elsewhere simply by entering their library card number or password. No databases, no e-journals or magazines, no digitized archives. The sole, severely-rationed offering in this sphere allows users to access individual Hebrew-language e-books from a commercial service, via codes imprinted on physical “coupons” that have to be requested in person from the librarian. You are issued these coupons — one per e-book — at the library circulation desk, and are bidden to physically return them to the library — essentially negating the value of an online resource.
  8. Non-professional staff. Israel has a two-tiered librarian qualification system: the Masters degree required for work in university/college libraries, and the non-academic certificate that allows one to work in non-academic libraries. The distinction, unknown in the US, shows. No professional cadre of librarians would, for instance, tolerate the system disunity and lack of online/shared resources described in Item 7 above.

Self-deprecating librarians often rush to assure others that what they do isn’t rocket science. Indeed, it isn’t rocket science — but it ain’t chopped liver, either.

Jerusalem’s public library personnel are a downtrodden group. Lacking academic credentials, they are paid insulting salaries, and — because the branches have morning hours only once a week — are limited to half-time positions based on undesirable late afternoon-evening shifts. They are in no position to make waves. Overall, they lack the professional training, confidence or clout that might enable them to identify desirable service/system upgrades, advocate for those upgrades, or seek funding (public or private) for the upgrades.

Rays of hope: tech, hipsters, and libraries

Jerusalem has a burgeoning tech/startup sector which, by media accounts, is now giving Tel Aviv a run for its money. The city has been working hard to keep recent higher-ed graduates in town, rather than losing them to Gush Dan, the former default option. Networking venues and coworking spaces for “start-upistim” have been springing up — epitomized by the project currently underway to turn the old Mashbir department store building into a WeWork facility.

While all this tech-ecosystem activity has been going on, other developments oriented toward tourism have been making Jerusalem look and feel like the kind of place that would also attract what Richard Florida, the celebrated economic/urban theorist, calls the “creative class.” Art and music festivals are proliferating, the city’s downtown is revitalizing, the Machane Yehuda open-air market has filled up with pubs and high-end eateries to the point of complaints about over-gentrification.

What does all this high-tech hipsterism have to do with Jerusalem’s public libraries? Potentially, a lot.

Libraries were the original “sharing economy,” and Western public libraries have been intensifying this role in recent years. They have gone beyond lending books, audiovisuals and other information-related items to becoming full-fledged “libraries of things” where people can borrow everything from sewing machines to bird-watching kits. Some are supplementing their traditional operations with makerspaces and fab labs — venues where people can “experiment with all kinds of new technologies and tools to create and invent.”

Building on their longtime role as community hubs, libraries are also forging ties with the startup world — “supporting the workforce by providing coworking spaces, internet access, business incubators, and networking opportunities.” This is not just a North American/European phenomenon: Israel has an outstanding example of a library coworking space in Tel Aviv.

Could Jerusalem’s embattled public libraries retool for activities other than book storage? I believe that a combination of municipal funding, philanthropy and private investment could leverage these underutilized assets and make them partners in the city’s economic development process. New library branches could obviously be planned from the outset with coworking/makerspace possibilities in mind; but some of the more spacious older branches have potential here as well. Libraries currently located in inaccessible or inappropriate spaces could be recreated as multipurpose knowledge centers/community hubs in the framework of projects to redevelop neglected neighborhood shopping centers.

Reimagining Jerusalem’s public library system could be a win-win proposition. Entrepreneurs could have an array of attractive, friendly, and affordable places all around the city in which to work and network, while Jerusalem’s public libraries could finally join the 21st century — technologically, administratively, and professionally.