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The National Library of Israel. Credit: Sharon Altshul.
The National Library of Israel. Credit: Sharon Altshul.
featureJewish & Israeli Culture

Long-awaited National Library of Israel opening to public

The library's official opening, featuring dignitaries and donors, is planned for Oct. 17, 2023.

After years of meticulous planning and construction, the much-anticipated National Library of Israel is finally set to open its doors. The transformation of a triangular plot of land in Jerusalem, situated between the Knesset and the Israel Museum, into this remarkable institution has been a long journey.

To make space for the new National Library of Israel (NLI), large trees were carefully uprooted and transported on flatbed trucks to a new home at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

 The monumental construction process involved excavating down an impressive five stories below ground level before colossal cranes rose to erect the six remaining stories above ground. Passersby could marvel at the skillful artisans as they meticulously cut Jerusalem stone into intricate patterns and shapes, a testament to the craftsmanship that went into this architectural marvel. Even during the challenges posed by COVID-related closures, the construction of the NLI building pressed on. It was captivating to observe the development of its multiple roof layers over the years.

The National Library has a rich history that spans well over a century. Its origins can be traced back to Joseph Chazanovitz (1844–1919), who first conceived the idea of amassing works from all languages and literatures authored by Jewish writers. His collection in 1892 laid the foundation for the B’nai Brith Library, which ultimately led to the establishment of a National Library, a decision made at the 1905 World Zionist Congress.  

In 1920, plans were drawn up for the Hebrew University and the B’nai Brith collection to be the basis for a university library. The David Wolfson Library at Hebrew University Mount Scopus was inaugurated in 1930. However, in 1948, access to the Mount Scopus campus was denied, resulting in the relocation of most of the library’s vast collection, comprising a million items, to various locations and storerooms in Jerusalem. Since 1960, the National Library has found its home on the Hebrew University Campus in Givat Ram.

The library was officially recognized as an independent entity in 2007 following the passage of the National Library Law creating the National Library of the State of Israel.

In 2014, the momentous project was unveiled with the announced construction of the new NLI building, representing an investment of 860 million shekels ($225 million). The cornerstone ceremony, a historic event, took place on April 5, 2016. Distinguished dignitaries present included Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as politicians and Christian religious leaders. Prominent figures from the Rothschild and Gottesman families, alongside other generous donors and select library employees, were also in attendance.

The new edifice is full of light, shape and texture, encompassing a generous 46,000-square-meter (495,000-square-foot) space. Its design, reminiscent of an open book, is a creation of the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Originally slated for completion in 2021, this architectural masterpiece aims to make available knowledge and culture, inviting all to explore its treasures as it opens its doors to the public.

“Throughout the decades, one thing has been clear: This is a dynamic institution intended not simply to house books but to have them used by people. Our users are central to our purpose and we are gratified to present them with a space that will both allow them to read and research in comfort, and will conserve and preserve the material they need for centuries to come,” Oren Weinberg, CEO of the National Library of Israel, told JNS.  

The NLI offers two entrances, one opposite the Knesset, featuring a seating area and lecture space off the main lobby. All signage is provided in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Valuable materials in these languages and others have been carefully cataloged and stored for safekeeping. A recent acquisition in March was the  Space Diary of Jewish NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman.

Inside the library, visitors will discover three reading rooms, one of which can accommodate up to 600 researchers. The collections encompass more than just books and journals; music and more are included in the wealth of knowledge it houses.

The NLI theater, with a seating capacity of 480, will have a blackout curtain, though it may not be suitable for all performances. Additionally, a Steinway piano is set to be donated, enhancing the cultural experiences on offer within the library’s walls.

The heart of the NLI is its vast collection, featuring millions of books, collections and photographs, which have been transferred from the Givat Ram Campus to the new NLI site. From an ancient Codex, a thousand-year-old Torah manuscript known as the Damascus Crown, to millions of digitized items, with cutting-edge interactive technology designed to engage visitors of all ages and interests, all will be easy to access.

The library’s facilities are designed to host school groups and families, with a restaurant, a cafe and a bookstore complementing the open stacks of books on various levels. Textiles adorning the walls have been chosen to absorb sound, creating a conducive environment for reading and research. The library’s open spaces have been thoughtfully designed with ample glass to allow the entry of natural light, while a skylight in the roof illuminates a small landscaped area near the theater.

Outside the library, the grounds have been carefully landscaped and feature a sculpture by Micha Ullman. The stone pieces have been strategically placed so that the sun casts the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in their shadows. Importantly, the NLI grounds are not enclosed by fences; they are open to welcome everyone, fostering a sense of accessibility and community.

The ceremonial official NLI opening, featuring dignitaries and donors, is planned for Oct. 17, 2023. However, one major donor, David Gottesman, who played a significant role in making this dream a reality, passed away last year on September 28, 2022, at the age of 96.

“You could even say that it took 131 years” to complete the project, NLI chairman Sallai Meridor told journalists on a preview tour. A street party is scheduled for the public in late October or the beginning of November, offering an opportunity for all to explore the wonders within the library’s walls. As emphasized during the tour, the National Library of Israel is not just for books; it is for people.

Entry is free, with a nominal fee for the visitor’s center and galleries. “This is more than just a building. It is the physical expression of the Library’s mission to house and share its contents and collections with the public,” stated Naomi Schacter, the library’s director of international relations.

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