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  • Stefan Litt

The greatest book collection of the Jewish people

The National Library of Israel (Hasifria haleumit shel Yisrael) is Israel’s most comprehensive public library and, what is more, with current holdings of more than four million media items, it is the largest library of the Jewish people worldwide. Nevertheless, its beginnings, some 130 years ago, were modest.

The first Jewish public library in Jerusalem, Bet Midrash Abarbanel, was established in 1892 on the initiative of the B‘nai-B‘rith Lodge there. The name of the institution was chosen explicitly to recall Spanish Jewry, which had ceased to exist in 1492, exactly 400 years before. Until the end of the 19th century, the library and its holdings remained quite small. It attained a new dimension through the private donation of 20,000 volumes by the Białystok physician Joseph Chazanowicz (1844–1919). In memory of this early gift the library for some years bore the additional name Ginsei Joseph (Joseph’s archives).


Ora ve-simha le-yehudim (Amsterdam, Proops 1768). Printed on satin, with ex libris stamps of Ginsei Joseph and Dr. Joseph Chazanowicz (Photo: © NLI)

Public library – national library – university library

Between 1902 and 1913 the library was repeatedly discussed at Zionist congresses, with the intention of placing it formally under the aegis of the World Zionist Organisation as a national institution of the Jewish community in Palestine. Despite earlier attempts, this step was only taken in 1919, and the library was soon afterward renamed as the “Jewish National Library” (Bet Hasfarim Le’umi). The idea had already been mooted at the 7th Zionist Congress in 1905 to integrate it in due course into the projected Hebrew University. In 1920 the philosopher Hugo Bergmann (1883–1975) from Prague was appointed chief librarian, a position he held for 15 years. Under his leadership the library developed with extraordinary rapidity, both in its holdings and spatially. When the Hebrew University opened its doors to students in 1925, the library’s name was again changed: to “Jewish National and University Library” (Bet Hasfarim Le'umi ve-Ha'universitai).

German-speaking chief librarians

Bergmann was the first of a number of library directors of German cultural background who largely determined the institutional atmosphere of the library for the next five decades, giving it a European slant that can still be felt today. His successor, Gotthold Weil (1882–1960), an orientalist, had been head of the oriental department of the Prussian State Library in Berlin until 1933, and from 1931–1934 a professor in Frankfurt. He led the Jerusalem National Library from 1935 through 1946, when he was followed by the literary scholar Curt Wormann (1900–1991), who had headed a public library in Berlin before taking on posts at Tel Aviv Public Library (1937) and finally at the National Library (1948–1968).

In 1930 the library moved into a new building on Mount Scopus, donated by David Wolffsohn, emphasizing its institutional connection with the Hebrew University. However, this striking building was only in use for 18 years. It had to close during the War of Independence in 1948, when the entire university campus became an Israeli exclave in Jordanian territory, which made it very difficult to access.

Until 1960, the continuously growing library collections were scattered across various locations in West Jerusalem. With the opening of its new building on the alternative campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram, the National Library finally found a suitable habitat, where it remained for more than six decades. However, when the humanities and social sciences returned to Mount Scopus, the library lost an important user group from these disciplines, who now had to travel from one campus to another in order to consult its holdings.


National Library building on Mount Scopus, c. 1935 (unknown photographer, © NLI)

2022: The National Library’s new home next to the Knesset and Israel Museum

In 2007, on the basis of the recommendations of an international commission of experts, followed by years of legal debate and enactment, the library was finally separated from the Hebrew University and newly established as the National Library of Israel (NLI). In 2011 it achieved full institutional autonomy. A collections policy was established for the first time in writing, and the holdings, which by now had grown to more than four million items, were divided into four major groups: Judaism, Israel, Islam and the Middle East, and general humanities.

The library’s mandate, clearly defined in law, comprises two main tasks: 1. To be the central public library of the State of Israel and all its inhabitants, holding obligatory copies of everything published in Israel; 2. to serve as the leading (and largest) library of the Jewish people worldwide. It continues to function as the central research library of the Hebrew University. Half its annual budget is supplied by the State of Israel, a quarter comes from the Hebrew University, and the remaining quarter must be earned by the library itself. The NLI currently employs 350 people.

As well as almost two million books, the National Library has numerous special collections:

  • more than 17,000 Jewish manuscripts

  • more than 2000 Islamic manuscripts

  • c. 1000 Christian manuscripts

  • c. 350 incunabula

  • more than 1200 literary and estates, both made inter vivos and bequeathed – including those of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, Max Brod and Franz Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Else Lasker-Schüler, Hannah Szenes (Senesh), A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman – as well as thousands of individual autographs

  • c. 250 estates of musicians plus tens of thousands of music recordings

  • the theological writings of Isaac Newton

  • c. 10,000 historical maps.


From the collections of National Library of Israel (© NLI)

Many of these special collections are private gifts, without which the library would lack considerably in breadth and diversity. Of special note are the donations by the orientalist and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877–1951), as well as by Eran Laor (1900–1990), Sidney Edelstein (1912–1994), and Harry Friedenwald (1864–1950), all of which have added new facets to the library’s overall profile.

As well as the ongoing acquisition of writings and publications from the four areas noted above – including two copies of all publications originating in Israel – the National Library is working (so far as copyright issues allow) to provide digital access to its collections and other holdings. Particular attention is being paid in this respect to manuscripts, archives, ephemera, and photographs.


The new building of the National Library of Israel (© NLI)

Ever since it attained institutional autonomy, the NLI has been planning a new building and, for the first time since 1930, this will not be within a university framework. In order to provide the National Library with a setting appropriate to its needs and functions, a new state-of-the-art building by De Meuron and Herzog of Basel is due to open to the public next to the Knesset and Israel Museum in summer 2022. This will, for the first time, provide extensive exhibition spaces, an auditorium, and an area specifically dedicated to the library’s numerous educational programs.

Dr. Stefan Litt is Curator for general humanities and archivist.

Title image: © NLI, Photo: Hanan Cohen

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