After a quarter-century of gestation, the opening of the National Library of Israel campus in Jerusalem feels less like simply moving into a new building and more like welcoming a new member of the family into the world, at least for chairman Sallai Meridor.
“It took international committees, Israeli committees, a law in the Knesset, it was a birth,” said Meridor during a recent press tour of the new, NIS 860 million ($225 million) building that will open to the public toward the end of October. “You could even say that it took 131 years.”
Meridor was referring to the historical roots of Israel’s national library, which got its start during the First Zionist Congress in Europe in 1897. Envisioning a library for the dreamed-up Jewish State, early Zionists began sending books to Jerusalem.
“They knew the Jewish nation would make their way to the Jewish homeland and didn’t want to keep their books in Europe,” said Meridor.
Meridor, along with director general Oren Weinberg and rector Shai Nitzan, spoke about the new building as a home for both traditional books and digital texts, giving weight to the library’s history as an academic research institution with considerable collections.
“This will be the national story center and there’s stories behind the stories,” said Meridor.
He and others emphasized the public nature of the new library, open and available to everyone to visit the stacks, tour the extensive exhibitions or attend events in its multiple auditoriums. Entry is free, with a nominal fee for the visitor’s center and galleries.
While the former building, on the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus, was also open to the public, the new library is gearing up to be a major cultural institution, located on Jerusalem’s museum mile, kitty-corner from the Knesset and Israel Museum.
“It will hopefully be a wide bridge for many people, many different kinds of people,” said Meridor.
The grand campus is new, but many of the library’s collections and other gems will be familiar, after simply “moving house,” said Weinberg.
Nitzan said there was no way the library was giving up on its collections, among them treasures such as hundreds of pages of Isaac Newton’s writings, including his musings about when a Third Jewish Temple would be built.
Over the past months, millions of items have been moved from the former library building to the new one, including more than 4 million books, historical newspapers, photographs, personal collections and archives, thousands of antique maps, manuscripts, posters and other ephemera, records and tapes, as well as millions of digitized documents and music recordings.
It will all be stored in the 46,000-square-meter (495,000-square-foot) building, with 11 stories, five of which are belowground, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in dialogue with the local Israeli Mann Shinar architectural team, to make this national, cultural landmark look like a giant opened book.
Some 200,000 books are being shelved in the central, glass-fronted, round reading room, which seats 600 and serves as the heart of the building. Down below, a robotic system will shelve and access the books in storage.
“It’s not obvious to keep books on the shelves here, but we wanted to make sure they were still here,” said Weinberg, adding that there were chairs designed specifically for the reading rooms, where academics, researchers and others can spend countless hours, day after day.
Down below, there’s a plush, carpeted reading room, (yet designed to look like a classic European library), where visitors can peruse rare books.
Many of the library’s rarest works will be displayed in permanent exhibitions, offering a museum-like experience for visitors. Among the gems on display are a thousand-year-old Torah manuscript known as the Damascus Crown, an edition of the Mishnah with Maimonides’ own handwritten corrections, and an illustrated Passover Haggadah circa the 1270s, from Worms, Germany, discovered by the city archivist during Kristallnacht and hidden in a cathedral for the duration of the war.
The library is also looking to the future, with a digital display showcasing the works of great writers such as S.Y. Agnon, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua, and sibling professors Yeshayahu and Nechama Leibowitz. The gallery’s digitized shelves, which rotate at the press of a button, also include the first draft of Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold” and a manuscript of a story by Lea Goldberg.
The library’s main floor includes a 480-seat auditorium, an education center for school groups and families, a restaurant, a cafe and a bookstore. The open, airy spaces are designed with plenty of wood, glass and cushioned textile walls that will absorb sounds created by the noisier visitors to the library.
Outside, the already lushly planted gardens function as an public space, and at its center is a monumental stone sculpture by Micha Ullman based on ancient Kabbalistic text, with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet responding to the angles of the sun’s rays.
“This will be a meeting place for all kinds of people,” said Weinberg. “Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, everyone can meet here.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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