Accessibility is the word in National Library’s new home, due in 2020
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Accessibility is the word in National Library’s new home, due in 2020

Plans are unveiled for a larger, more inviting and user-friendly space next to the Knesset in Jerusalem

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The three-story reading room planned for the new National Library of Israel, with a massive skylight in the roof (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)
The three-story reading room planned for the new National Library of Israel, with a massive skylight in the roof (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)

It’s next to impossible to find parking at The National Library of Israel. Located inside the gated Givat Ram campus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, it’s one of a collection of seventies-style, boxy structures, with a small, adjacent lot that can’t possibly accommodate all its visitors.

Parking, however, as well as a host of other details, will change in 2020 when the National Library moves to its new home across from the Knesset and Israel Museum.

Designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the new, six-story, 45,000-square-meter structure — which will include 400 underground parking spaces — will be an inviting, low-slung structure with a three-level reading room and a full-sized auditorium that opens to an outer garden and a separate children’s space. Oversized windows will face the public passing by on Ruppin Boulevard.

“The building is a tool,” explained Oren Weinberg, director of the library. “It offers added value in our renewal process.”

The sloping roof and graceful lines of the National Library of Israel's new, $200 million home (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)
The sloping roof and graceful lines of the National Library of Israel’s new, $200 million home (Courtesy The National Library of Israel)

The new, sustainable-constructed building and renewal process will cost an estimated $200 million, given by several private donors, including the Rothschild Foundation and The Gottesman Fund, said Weinberg.

It’s not just about having a new structure, explained both Weinberg and Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections at the library. The goal of building a more modern building is to create a space that will be more inviting to the general public, letting people in to see the treasures that the National Library has to offer.

“A national library isn’t just about collecting and preserving; it’s about going outside, being proactive to show people what we have in here,” said Stollman.

With more than five million books, as well as the world’s largest collections of Hebraica and Judaica, the library is dedicated to four different collections of items: Judaica, Israel, Islam and humanities.

Its collection was started in 1892 as the first public library in Palestine, located on Bnei Brith Street in downtown Jerusalem. Yet it was only in 2007 that the library — which later moved to Ethiopia Street, then Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus (with a temporary relocation to Rehavia during the 1948 war) and then settling in Givat Ram — was officially recognized as the National Library of the State of Israel with the passage of the National Library Law.

A carefully preserved, 11th century Old Testament, part of the Library's collection (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A carefully preserved, 11th century Old Testament, part of the Library’s collection (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The formalization of the National Library offered the opportunity to make plans, said Stollman. The library’s mission is to hold copies of all materials published in Israel, in any language, as well as anything published about Israel, the Land of Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people and any material published in Hebrew or in any languages spoken in the Jewish Diaspora.

“We don’t just keep books, we document the Jewish people and nation,” he said.

The library also launched a website in 2011, granting public access to books, periodicals, maps, photos and music from its collections.

The intricately inscribed pages of a ninth century Koran, part of the Library's collection (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The intricately inscribed pages of a ninth century Koran, part of the Library’s collection (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s complicated to adapt the library’s collections to the demands of the modern age, said Stollman. Archiving has to capture what’s going on in every age, a difficult task when a Facebook page, PDF file or email correspondence may not exist months or years after it was crafted.

There are benefits to technology as well, noted Weinberg, noting that musicians can come and use the library’s sound archive, while valuable manuscripts have now been scanned and are available online.

In recent years, the library also began inviting the public in more regularly, working with schools, organizing cultural events and making sure the public knows about the library.

“What we’re doing is experimenting with culture and education so we’ll know what to do in the new building,” said Stollman. “It’s been much more successful than anyone dreamed.”

He described the new structure as a “hybrid library,” a place that would benefit a much wider swath of society.

“It’s overt in its modesty,” added Weinberg.

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