The National Library of Israel

Ken Stein, November 9, 2021

The first version of the National Library of Israel was the Midrash Abarbanel founded in 1892 in Jerusalem, five years before the First Zionist Congress met; its location evolved to Mount Scopus in Jerusalem during the British Mandate and then after the 1948 war, the library’s books were moved to the Rehavia section of Jerusalem, and then in 1960 to Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. As a visiting graduate student from The University of Michigan in the summer of 1971, I walked into the mediocrely lit yet vast reading room of the Library.

After requesting Hebrew and Arabic newspapers from the 1930s, which were presented in large volumes of perhaps 1 meter by 1.5 meters in size, I camped under the small lights on a long reading table. Books lined the walls.  With multiple floors, a trusty if not tasty cafeteria, the library was massive with row upon row of the old-fashion and seemingly unending long drawers of card-catalogues. Well known professors and reading room regulars were camped in the same seats day in and day out. Many older users had multiple sets of reading glasses as everyone poured over manuscripts and scholarly works.  With my trusty Alcalay and Wehr Hebrew and Arabic dictionaries, by contrast, I merely read editorials and news articles about the economics and politics unfolding in British Mandatory Palestine. My findings there reinforced information gleaned from other archives in Jerusalem where the social history of the Arab-British-Zionist triangle became my dissertation’s focus, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939

In 2022, the new National Library of Israel is scheduled to open in Jerusalem. With much of its material presently on-line, digitized, and accessible,  its holdings contain the historical, cultural and intellectual history of the Jewish people worldwide, the State of Israel, the Land of Israel and the region throughout the ages. A rich tapestry of manuscripts, books, maps, and ephemera await devoted archival spelunkers, researchers, educators, and anyone merely interested in learning about the Jewish past and Zionist presence.  Of unique interest, among many is the The Daily Song and large music collection. It is all worth perusing.