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Tel Aviv’s Neglected Library

Israel’s main library remains underfunded and short on staff, even as neighboring cultural institutions thrive

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Shaar Zion Public Library Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy of the author)

The main hall of Shaar Zion Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv’s main public library, has only one computer for searching the catalog. The help desk is often unstaffed. Books are sloppily strewn in precarious stacks atop other books. Six stone-age copy machines in the basement accept exact change only, and the library’s two auditoriums are old-fashioned and dilapidated. On Tuesdays, the library closes its lending services so that overworked staff can reshelve books.

Housed since 1977 in a boxy gray building spanning 10,000 square meters, the library holds nearly half a million books, photographs, archive videos, newspaper clippings, and audio music files catering to old and young residents who use it for research and leisure. It is located on prime Tel Aviv real estate, in the same plaza as the recently revamped Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Tel Aviv opera house, and the renovated Cameri Theater, all bastions of Israel’s performing arts, partly funded by the municipality. Unlike its neighbors, which have been awarded fresh modern makeovers in recent years, the library is currently not slated for any renovation. It maintains its 1970s Brutalist architectural design of concrete slabs and a paucity of windows, which may protect books from direct Mediterranean sunlight but does nothing to elevate the culture contained within.

Anyone taking stock of Tel Aviv’s chief public cultural institutions will notice that the central library is conspicuously neglected. For example, renewal of the National Theatre’s Habima headquarters cost NIS 105 million, or about $26 million, with the municipality contributing more than $14 million. The Tel Aviv Museum has an annual budget of nearly $10 million, compared with Beit Ariela’s annual budget of less than $3.5 million. The Knesset’s 2008 National Library Law made free library services a requirement throughout Israel, which may have only added to this fiscal burden. As an establishment that does not collect fees from the public, Beit Ariela cannot compete with its neighboring cultural institutions.

The library’s director, Miriam Posner, told me that her meager budget simply cannot cover all the library’s needs, and as a result she faces an acute shortage of manpower. With easy access to Internet, fewer people visit libraries, and as a result less money has been invested in the institution. Still, 20,000 people pass through the building every month, taking advantage not only of library services for its 8,500 members, but also benefiting from the large variety of cultural events, including lectures, plays, writings workshops, and, for example, a series of meetings where authors and artists offer new readings of the Bible.

Posner would like to see the entire building undergo a facelift, however there is currently no budget for it and thus no prospect. In the coming years, only minor changes are planned, for example refurbishing the youth section, which Posner says is the most popular wing in the library. But it will be nothing near as thorough as, for example, the work done on its neighbor, the Cameri Theater, which reopened its doors in 2002 after the completion of a 5-year, $27 million project jointly funded by the theater, the municipality, and the state lottery. According to Posner, her biggest concern right now is the future of the library staff, since she says fewer Israelis are choosing library sciences as a career. Currently, over 50 percent of Beit Ariela’s staff are Russian-speaking Israelis over the age of 40.

The library started out in 1886 as a modest collection of books in the Jaffa home of Jerusalem-born Zionist pioneer and writer Elazar Rokach. (Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, by comparison, was established in 1892.) Its original name was “Beit Eqed Sfarim,” which literally means “The Binding House of Books”; it was a lending institution. In 1891, the collection was renamed “Shaar Zion” (Zion Gate), when more members joined and made it a goal to turn the library into a central Zionist institution, providing cultural and educational services to the increasing numbers of Jews immigrating to Palestine. By 1922, after the city’s founding, it became officially recognized as a public library.

Posner noted that most members hail from the posh northern Tel Aviv neighborhood Ramat Aviv, where carrying a library card can be a social marker. She has taken steps to help less-fortunate residents in the city by supporting the informal makeshift library set up in Levinsky Park in 2009, which serves the migrant-worker and refugee community of south Tel Aviv.

Like many libraries, the Tel Aviv central branch must also grapple with questions about its changing role in society. Posner says that whereas in the ’70s, the emphasis was on what the library could deliver to its residents, today it is about what can be done with the locale. “The focus has shifted from the collections to the users, from research and lending to a community center, or what we call an ‘urban living room,’ ” she said. Her vision is for the library to become a meeting hub for the community. “The idea is to invest enough in redesigning both the outside and inside—adding more windows, a café, and revamping the auditoriums that will allow it to become a prominent cultural location and tourist attraction, like its adjacent landmarks.”

Some of the unique collections the library has to offer include a fairly exhaustive archive of newspaper clippings dating back to May 1933 and a rare collection of material from the Enlightenment, such as volume one of Ha’Measef, the first Hebrew periodical ever published (from 1784), as well as the first Hebrew translation of Moses Mendelssohn’s Phaidon, published in Berlin in 1787. However, the staff has not had time to catalog or digitize the material, so it remains inaccessible to the public.

Posner says the library has initiated a long-term plan that outlines a concept for a comprehensive renovation—so that one day, if and when private and public funders step up, they will have a vision for a new library. She has no idea, however, when that will be.

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Come on, funders, this is a disgrace! Fix it!

Where would donations be sent? My mother worked there for over 20 years, and founded the picture collection there (which is now digitized, I hope).

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Tel Aviv’s Neglected Library

Israel’s main library remains underfunded and short on staff, even as neighboring cultural institutions thrive

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