Most public institutions invest a lot of energy in keeping the public out.
Yes within strict limits you can go to watch court cases in action. Yes, you can go to the visitors’ gallery in the Knesset – the place that in the British House of Commons is revealingly called the “Strangers’ Gallery.” At government offices you can go up to the security barrier, but not one step further without permission. By contrast, the National Library of Israel welcomes you in.
You can’t see inside the new national library building yet. I was treated to a preview. The NLI will be opening soon, first with an official opening to selected guests including Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild philanthropic fund. It makes sense to start with heartfelt thanks to them and to the other major donors who put together 85% of the $220 million building fund. After it throws its doors open to the general public I predict that the NLI will become the place where many of us will choose to spend quite a number of hours, maybe even several days every week. This could turn out to be your favourite café in Jerusalem.
Why will you be coming here? Partly because it is so beautiful, both inside and out. Positioned just across from the Knesset and the Israel Museum, the NLI is surrounded by lush greenery, exceptionally mature and established for a brand new building. That is because the gardens were laid in time for a more ambitious proposed opening date that came and went last year.
Secondly, it is a welcoming and fascinating place, full of life and light. In keeping with its policy of inclusion and accessibility the NLI is not surrounded by fences. Instead there are benches for you to sit on. The people who nurtured this project and built this palace of learning want you to come and visit, and to bring your friends and children – hence the restaurant, the visitors’ centre, gardens, comfy chairs, café, and gift shop.
The role of a national library is to collect and preserve intellectual and cultural treasures and to make them accessible to the people. Some national libraries are not so strong on the third element of the mission, namely access. Indeed, many of them until very recently were unashamedly elitist and exclusive institutions. When I was an academic I used to spend many hours working in London’s British Library, but back in those days the BL used to turn away everyone but the most serious scholars working on research projects. “No amateurs, no dilettantes, no time-wasters thank you,” was the implied message. If you were a mere undergraduate applying for a BL reader’s pass you would be told – somewhat snootily – that your school or local library would probably be more suitable for your needs.
The robots at the new National Library of Israel will retrieve the book you requested from this massive low-oxygen archive
Posted by Daniel Eilon on Tuesday, September 26, 2023
By contrast, Israel’s national library has always been democratic and inclusive. The old building on the Hebrew University campus was the daily haunt of generations of students in spite of the limitations, the heat, the cramped conditions, and the inevitable inefficiencies and delays in getting hold of the books from the archive. Now with its expansive space and new resources in the extraordinary new building the NLI plans programs of events and exhibitions aimed at attracting even schoolchildren, let alone spurning undergrads.
Sceptics may say “Really? What’s a library? Just books, shelves and desks.” Not this one. It has lecture halls, seminar rooms, exhibition spaces, and an outreach program designed to foster intellectual exchange and exploration. This library takes very seriously its mission to preserve the collective memory of the State of Israel and the Jewish people all round the world, with the aim of enriching the present and empowering the future. All libraries facilitate the research conducted by individual academics. This library will also enable collective collaboration and cultural events for everybody.
From my pictures you can see the scale and elegance of some of the reading rooms and galleries, the glorious play of light streaming in from above, the views outwards onto the greenery and the government campus, and the stylish sinuous staircases.
Some have questioned the expense invested in so splendid and large a building, suggesting that it is anachronistic in an age when so much research is conducted online, hinting darkly at the “edifice complex” of donors who like to see their names embossed on brick and stone. This critique does not give credit to the massive time and effort the NLI has invested in digitization of its resources, and the open-handed generosity with which the electronic files have been made available online without charge to everyone everywhere. To access these resources you do not need to enter the building, you can even be living and working in a nation that does not recognise “the Zionist entity.” Hundreds of thousands of historic documents and publications are already available online and many more will be in due course, allowing researchers, students, and the curious to explore Israel’s rich history and culture from anywhere in the world. This is integral to the library’s policy of making knowledge freely accessible to all.
The NLI is not just filled with textbooks – it has a far broader remit. There is, for example, a massive collection of 90 years of Israeli ephemera – publications originally intended for short term use only: posters, publicity and advertising flyers, bookmarks, notices and other printed material not produced for posterity. These are so easily lost, but without them historians cannot build an unfiltered and unmediated understanding of a period’s culture and everyday life. The NLI’s collection includes over five million books but also artefacts, photos, artworks, sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, literature, maps, music, science texts, and manuscripts, including Newton’s – frankly meshugge – prophetic, apocalyptic and alchemical speculations. All human life is here.
The building, designed by the renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, integrates classic Jerusalem stone with glass and steel on the outside and curving wooden desks and shelving on the inside. The project blends tradition and modernity, archiving the nation’s rich cultural heritage and embodying its commitment to embracing the future. The building’s innovative design incorporates eco-friendly features, including energy-efficient lighting, heating and humidity control systems to safeguard the invaluable manuscripts and rare books as well as rainwater harvesting to irrigate its gardens. The six floors above ground are visually impressive; the five below the surface include a massive low-oxygen storage area (to preserve the treasures and reduce the risk of fire) where high-tech robots retrieve books and artefacts from the stacks to deliver to readers within minutes.
My impression was of an architectural marvel of exceptional ambition and refinement. When it fills with readers, writers, historians, journalists, students and school kids, it will pulse with intellectual life. Anticipating its future popularity, the reading area has been built to accommodate 600. The big question is whether the café is large enough. Because that is where I shall be, and probably you too, and so many thousands – as well as future generations – of the Israeli public for whom this amazing new building has been created.