From Yafo to Tel Aviv: The Central Public Library Sha'ar Zion-Beit Ariela
Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa) is Cologne’s twin city in Israel, and the cities’ municipal libraries are also closely connected. Founded in Yafo in 1886, four years before its Cologne equivalent, the Sha’ar Zion-Beit Ariela Library ranks as the first modern Jewish library in Israel. Four years after the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909 it moved into the city, and since 1977 its (recently renovated) central building has stood at the heart of Tel Aviv’s cultural district.
From Yafo to Tel Aviv: The beginning
The first Jewish library in Israel's modern times was founded in the town of Yafo in 1886, at a time when the town had 15,000 inhabitants, only 2,500 of them Jewish. The “Ezrat Israel” (Assistance to Israel) society, which initiated its establishment, was an organization founded only a year earlier in order to develop the Jewish public institutions in Yafo. Situated in a private home, the library served the Jewish settlers from the new Zionist settlements around Yafo.
In its early years, the library operated on a very low budget. Financial help came in 1891 with its re-inauguration under the name “Sha’ar Zion” (The Gate of Zion).
The new Jewish settlement of Tel Aviv was founded a little north of Yafo in 1909, and the Jewish public institutions gradually moved from Yafo to the new city. The Sha'ar Zion library moved there in 1913. In 1922 it gained the status of a municipal library. Until 1936 the library continued to grow, but still without being able to meet the needs of the increasing population. It had to move three times to a new location.
In 1977 the Sha'ar Zion Library was finally housed in its new building on Shaul HaMelech Boulevard. The building was renamed Beit Ariela (Ariela's House) after Ariela Gitter, the late daughter of Benno Gitter, a businessman who had made a significant donation to the library's construction. The library is situated in the heart of the cultural district of Tel Aviv, which also houses the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Hakameri Theater, and New Israeli Opera. It is the largest public library in Israel.
The library's first location in Yavo; the library's second, third and fourth locations in Tel Aviv; library director Baruch Hoz and librarian Luba; the exterior of the Beit Ariela Library, 1979 (Photo: Ran Erda); benefactor Benno Gitter at the library's inauguration, 1977; reading room, 1970s.
An island for the visitors: The Library Building after renovation
The library was built in 1977 by the architects Moshe Lufenfeld and Giora Gemerman, influenced by the brutalist architecture style typical of the 1970s and by the neighboring Tel Aviv Museum. The building has recently (2014 through September 2020) undergone overall external and internal renovation under the supervision of Mayslits Kassif Roytman Architects.
By realigning walls, the architects have opened the building’s external and internal spaces to reflect changes in the purpose and image of a modern library: from a quiet shrine dedicated entirely to books, learning and research and secluded as far as possible from the hustle of the big city, to an open space inviting visitors and readers to escape into an island of peace and tranquility with many options for gaining knowledge or participating in cultural activities. Today’s library is a focal point of cultural and communal meeting, equipped with cutting edge social and technological media.
A major feature of the new Beit Ariela as Tel Aviv’s main community center is the “Urban Salon” (Living Room) – a spacious informal hall for cultural activities, free of charge for the public.
The children's library (photo: Meir Shapira); the main lending hall, the lending lobby, and view of the library from Shaul Hamelekh Boulevard (3 photos: Amnon Horesh).
A place for diverse urban communities
The design of the different spaces and halls was carefully planned to create a home for seekers of knowledge and a comfortable meeting place for diverse urban communities that will establish the library as a vibrant cultural anchor.
The external concrete and marble walls facing Shaul Hamelekh Boulevard, and the internal concrete walls separating the main lobby from what is now the Urban Salon, were replaced with glass walls to create an unbroken flow from outside, as well as within, the building. On the second floor, the east concrete walls were replaced with glass, creating a sense of public space that connects visitors on the upper level with those in the lobby. Barrier-free access is now provided to all library facilities.
Collection and Departments
Beit Ariela Library holdings include:
approx. 400,000 books in Hebrew and in other languages, mainly English, Russian and French
among them is a poetry collection in Hebrew of about 7,500 books
Rare Books Collection on subjects such as the history of the land of Israel, diaspora communities and Passover Hagadas
180 magazines and periodicals in Hebrew and English
main daily newspapers published in Israel (including bound past volumes)
audiobooks on CDs and children's DVDs for lending
box games collection
collection of puzzles
a wealth of databases, among them 17 allowing remote access
the first E-book lending service in the country.
The library consists of a reading hall, a lending department, a children's library and several special departments and halls:
The Design and Visual Information Library – including a visual collection (photos, pictures, postcards, reproductions, caricatures, leaflets, brochures, catalogs) on different subjects.
The Dance Archive of Israel and Library – the central library in Israel for dance history and the main dance archive documenting Israeli and Jewish dance practices and performances of all styles.
The Yehuda Gabai Theater Archive – a large collection of archival materials on the history of Israeli and Hebrew theater.
The Comics Collection
The Urban Salon
2 workshop rooms
9 group study rooms for 2-6 people
In addition, the building houses a Law Library and the Hebrew Writers Archive "Gnazim" (Repository).
Today the libraries network comprises 20 branches of various sizes around the city, as well as a Central Music Library, in addition to the main library.
Beit Ariela Cultural Center offers a variety of cultural activities including: lecture series on literature, the fine arts, Judaism, cinema, and dance, as well as several interdisciplinary study groups; writing workshops for adults, children and youth; storytelling activities for preschoolers and more. The workshops and lectures are given by the best authors, artists, scholars and journalists in Israel. The center also produces original theater, musical performances and interdisciplinary artistic events.
The library on the beach – unique services and projects
Beach and Street Libraries – During the summer months the Libraries Department maintains four unmanned libraries located on beaches and five more that are located on boulevards or parks.
“The Library” Entrepreneurship Space – located within one of the library branches at Migdal Shalom, this serves as a co-working space for teams dedicated to developing Internet startups and technology companies.
LGBT collection at the Migdal Shalom Library.
A Room of Your Own – Two studios serve as in-residence working spaces for two authors at a time, each using the space for half a year (located at the Migdal Shalom Library).
We Read. We Loved. – Tel-Aviv – Yafo's inhabitants chose the past year's best Israeli prose work.
And much more.
Dr. Anat Granit-Hacohen, Director of Publicity and Marketing, Tel Aviv Libraries
Title image: Maimonides Library, Photo: Amnon Horesh
All images © Sha'ar Zion-Beit Ariela Library