Israeli Libraries and Librarianship: A Review of Recent Literature
This paper reviews the library situation in Israel, and summarizes 18 writings on Israeli libraries published between 1978 and 1995. Among the concerns expressed by authors are the lack of a clear national role for the Jewish National Library; the slowness of libraries to adopt MARC standards; a weak national policy (permissive rather than mandatory) on local public libraries; slow development of school libraries; and, the limited professional education of most librarians. A satisfying aspect of the situation is the continuing rise in literacy and in public library registration.
The following is a discussion of the current issues facing Israeli libraries presented within a historical context. Specific consideration is given to the National Library, as well as academic, public, and school libraries. This essay is based primarily on a review of the recent (1986–1995) English language literature.
Israel: General Information
Israel, 7,992 square miles, approximately the size of New Jersey, is a pluralistic country. Its population of 5,142,834 has come from more than 100 nations and speaks more than 80 different languages. The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. Ninety percent of the population live in urban areas. Approximately 82 percent are Jewish. About 76 percent of Israel’s non–Jewish population are Muslim Arabs. Other groups are mainly Christian Arabs or Druze. A few are members of the Baha’i and other religious communities (Hoffman–Pfeffer 1987, World Almanac 1996, and Europa World Yearbook 1995; size and population do not include occupied territory). Approximately 4,600 book titles, including textbooks, reprints, and translations, and 900 newspapers and periodicals, are published annually (Statistical Abstract of Israel 1995; book data are for 1992, periodical data for 1990).
Jewish National Library
The concept and organizational structure of the Jewish National Library was a major influence in the development of modern libraries in Israel (Schidorsky 1995). The idea of a national library was first proposed in Jerusalem in 1872, 76 years before statehood. From its beginnings, the library was conceived as a collection open to the public (Sever 1981). In his 1989 essay, Dov Schidorsky parallels the development of a national library with the growth of a national consciousness. He describes the philosophical foundations of the Jewish National Library that finally emerged out of the small public library, Midrash Abarbanel, founded in Jerusalem in 1892. In 1925, the National Library was incorporated into the newly established Hebrew University and given its present title, the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL). Since that time, it has served multiple functions: collecting all material relating to Jewish subjects or written in Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Judeo–Arabic, and Ladino; serving as the Israeli central library collecting titles about Israel and the Middle East; and acting as the depository, by law, for every Israeli title. Additionally, it supports the studies of Hebrew University and is open to every Israeli as a public library for lending and research. Its holdings of more than 3,000,000 volumes include one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. It also contains one of the largest and most well–organized collections of Arabic and Islamic materials in the Middle East (Sever 1993).
Elhanan Adler (1989) expresses concern that the JNUL has emphasized its Jewish–national role over its Israeli–national one. For example, its KiryatSefer, the national bibliography of Israeli imprints, is subdivided more specifically within the Judaica section than within the State of Israel section. Furthermore, because the JNUL is an administrative unit of the University, its main concern has been to serve the needs of the local academic community. Although the library receives some government financial support, there is no governmental organization to “state its policy or define its national function” (Lazinger 1991, 276). Adler writes that ideally the roles should be separated. However, due to budget constraints, this is unlikely.
All eight universities in Israel are public. The collections as a whole include 9,300,000 volumes, 3,000,000 belonging to the JNUL. Seven universities maintain full library services. Open University has a small collection of its own, but relies primarily upon the collections of the other libraries (Sever 1993). The universities are the major information centers of the country, serving public library roles as well as national ones in the areas of scientific and industrial research. Adler (1989) writes that because the academic libraries also serve large segments of the general population, public library development may have been adversely affected.
Susan Lazinger (1991) provides an in–depth description of ALEPH, the cooperative online system of Israel’s universities. The catalog is designed to handle multi–alphabet data, and accepts Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Cyrillic character sets, with Greek in the final stages of preparation. Adler (1989) writes that cooperation among Israeli academic libraries has not always gone smoothly, and it is no minor achievement that they are all using the same software system to maintain their catalogs.
Marilyn Graubart (1995) explores Israeli academic library orientation programs. These programs are generally considered essential for both international and Israeli–born students. The universities have a high percentage of international students, including many foreign students and recent immigrants, primarily from the Soviet Union, and also from Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. These students generally have limited Hebrew language skills. The Israeli–born students who come from the country’s smaller, less sophisticated public and high school libraries also need bibliographic instruction because they have had little or no experience using automated systems or large collections. Graubart notes the emphasis on OPAC instruction, the provision of library guides in several languages, and the availability of multilingual librarians. Although not all of the universities have formal programs, the librarians on each campus provide ongoing informal individual instruction.
“Development of modern public libraries in Israel began somewhat late. However since the Middle Ages there were religious libraries in nearly every synagogue in the European and Palestinian Jewish communities” (Shoham 1986, 284). These collections were public property and everyone in the community could use them. For a detailed account of the emergence of Jewish public libraries in 19th–century Palestine, and a discussion of the divergent philosophies influencing their development, see Dov Schidorsky (1982). In the sequel to this essay, Schidorsky (1995) chronicles the development of library service during the British Mandate (1919–1948). He writes that there was not one Jewish community without a public library, though many did not survive. These libraries were mainly based on donations from abroad and from some of the wealthier immigrants, as the British Mandate government did not facilitate the political or financial development of Jewish cultural activities (Sever 1981, 212).
In his essays, Dov Schidorsky (1982, 1989, 1995) discusses the influence that conflicting Orthodox and secular philosophies have played in the development of Israeli public libraries. Although the origins of the public libraries may have been religious, Israeli 20th–century public libraries have a strong secular orientation. A critical role in public library development was played by the Histadrut Labor Federation, founded in 1920. The Federation created and maintained workers’ libraries by establishing reading rooms and a central mobile library service. These libraries developed in response to the urgent needs of the pioneering agricultural settlers and the workers in the towns and cities. The collections included materials to promote Hebrew language instruction, foster professional and general education, and encourage reading. In the early history of the state, the most complete library service was available in the Kibbutzim, the collective farms established since the 1880s by Eastern European immigrants who brought their extensive libraries with them (Shoham 1986). However, until recently, these collections generally lacked professional organization and services (Hoffman–Pfeffer 1987).
Libraries grew in the 1960s, a time of mass immigration of North African and Asian Jews. Governmental and autonomous agencies were created during this time, encouraging reading to promote social integration. Based on the Danish model, the Center for Public Libraries, described in detail by Goell (1978), was established in 1965 to provide organizational tools such as centralized acquisitions and cataloging (Hebrew and recently some Arabic). Unfortunately, services seemed to decline in the 1990s (Sever 1993).
The government issues royalties to Israeli authors according to the number of times their books are loaned by public libraries. In 1990, payments were made to 46 Arab–language authors and 315 Hebrew (Israel Government Yearbook, 1990).
Israel’s Library Law, entitling but not obliging each community to establish a public library, was enacted in 1975. Priority was given to creating libraries in the new development towns settled by immigrants. Shmuel Sever and Yosef Branse (1991), analyzing library usage from the 1960s, note that these libraries continue to have success in serving local residents, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants from Asia and North Africa.
The pattern of creating libraries to support the weaker socioeconomic areas meant that the older cities and rural settlements were the last to benefit. Sara Hershkovitz, et al. (1991) describes this situation with particular reference to the Tel–Aviv area, noting that although the government is now trying close the gap, neighborhoods whose population includes a high potential of library users continue to lack library services.
More than two–thirds of the libraries are located in rural settlements, including the kibbutzim, and account for 46 percent of the total number of volumes (Sever and Branse 1991). Even though the country is small, the rural areas are isolated because travelling distances are long. Hoffman–Pfeffer (1987) describes the effect of a rural cooperative library system in meeting library needs and suggests that it be considered a model for providing library services to the Israeli rural community.
Shmuel Sever and Yosef Branse (1991) examine Israeli reading habits and library use since the 1960s, and the influence of changes such as the rise of educational literacy and public library registration within the last generation. They give statistics for the Jewish and Arab populations. While reading continues to be an important activity for Israelis, its central role might be endangered by the growing popularity of television and video. Adult readers don’t make as much use of public libraries as would be expected. This may be partially due to the fact that a significant portion of the general population uses the university libraries (Sever 1993). The public libraries are predominantly collections of reading material for the general public, and do not have enough resources such as electronic information sources and video entertainment materials. Unfortunately, this situation is difficult to remedy because library development in the 1990s has declined due to lack of funding.
Irene Sever (1995) explores the role of the library in promoting reading among Ethiopian Jewish immigrant children coming from a primarily oral tradition. She advocates an active library role in helping the new immigrants acquire literacy skills, building on the oral tradition to facilitate acculturation. In the small, open–shelved libraries that have been established in Ethiopian Israeli housing settlements, librarians spend a large percentage of time reading aloud to the children and also teach mothers to enjoy reading with their families. Sever emphasizes the importance of teaching information–retrieval skills. She strongly recommends that the library preserve the rich Ethiopian culture — e.g., collecting and recording stories and songs — in order to provide all Israelis with accurate information about the traditions of a unique people.
An abstract by Ghaleb Abul–Haj (1990) in Yad La–Kore, a journal issued by the Center for Public Libraries, describes the role of the library in the Arab sector during the political uprising in East Jerusalem. The East Jerusalem Public Library, serving all of the Arab readers in East Jerusalem, was playing a triple role as public, school, and college library. This necessitated increasing the budget to enhance the collection and hire additional staff, which enabled the opening of the branch libraries to allow all concerned to use the materials.
Moshe Yitzhaki (1991) provides a historical overview and a statistical analysis of the school libraries in the Jewish and Arab sectors. Educational sectors are separate for Arab and Druze students; this situation is expressly requested by representatives of these communities in order to preserve their language and culture (Sever 1985). Since the early 1970s, the provision of libraries has been mandatory for each newly constructed school. The Ministry of Education set standards for professional qualifications for school librarians in the late 1980s. In the Jewish sector during the 1980s, most elementary and high schools provided library service, but the librarians lacked training. In the Arab sector, a larger proportion, about one in five schools, had no service. However, the proportional use by Arab students greatly increased between 1969 and 1982. In school libraries, teaching of library skills was generally insufficient. Shmuel Sever (1993) describes the collections as poor, and notes that there is competition with public libraries for funding. Yitzhaki describes the few experimental cooperative arrangements between school and public libraries, and expresses the hope that these will be financially beneficial.
Public and School Libraries: Recent Observations
Sever (1995) is concerned with the conditions presently facing Israeli public and school libraries, and offers recommendations to resolve some of these problems. He notes the continuing decline in budgetary allotment since the late 1970s. Additional money was allotted in 1992 and in 1993 for special projects such as automation, development of libraries in the Arab sector, and acquisition of books in Russian. In 1994, an overall increase was granted; however, there has been “no quantum leap forward.” Most public libraries continue to have adequate collections and untrained staff. Due to budget constraints, many of ibraries demand service fees, particularly in areas where the population can afford payments. Reading for pleasure has continued to decrease, and the percentage of library users has continued to decline. Public libraries do not have access to newer technologies such as computers and videos. The libraries of the non–Jewish population often have small collections, lack professional staff, and are in very poor physical condition. Many non–Jewish settlements have no library services at all. Sever offers several recommendations, including altering the provisions of the Library Law to make its enforcement mandatory, changing the administrative structure in order to foster cooperation between school and public libraries. He recommends that Israeli libraries increase cooperative efforts so that the large libraries can share their skills and materials with the public and school libraries. This will enable all Israelis to have access to the university resources in their areas, or within the country as a whole.
Sever (1995) expresses several themes noted throughout this essay, such as the need for library cooperation and funding, and the potential ability of the government to administratively and financially support public and school libraries in order to meet the needs of all segments of the population. The vision of the library as a public institution, central to the life of the country, has been explored by several authors, and has roots going back to the nineteenth century. It is hoped that this vision of a strong and truly public library system will be realized within a climate of peace in the next century.
Adler 1989 — Adler, Elhanan. “Judaica Librarianship: the View from Israel.” Judaica Librarianship 4 (1989): 133–137.
Europa World Yearbook, 1995. London: Europa, 1994.
Ghaleb 1990 — Ghaleb, Abul–Haj. “Library Services and Political Uprising in Eastern Jerusalem.” Yad La–Kore 25–1 (Oct. 1990): 42–43. Abstract in LISA, #1738,1991.
Goell 1978 — Goell, Yohai. “The Center for Public Libraries in Israel.” Jewish Book Annual 36 (1978): 67–78.
Graubart 1995 — Graubart, Marilyn. “Orientation Sessions in Israeli Academic Libraries.” Research Strategies 13–3 (1995): 165–175.
Hershkovitz 1991 — Hershkovitz, Sara, Dalya Metzer, and Snunith Shoham. “Development of Spatial Structure of Libraries: the Case of Tel Aviv.” Libri 41 (1991): 121–131.
Hoffman–Pfeffer 1987 — Hoffman–Pfeffer, Carol. “The Emergence of a Multitype Library System as a Result of Needs in Rural Israel: a Case Study 1975–1985.” Libri 37 (1987): 38–51.
Israel Government Yearbook, 1990. English version. Jerusalem: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1990.
Lazinger 1991 — Lazinger, Susan S. “ALEPH: Israel’s Research Library Network; Background, Evolution, and Implications for Networking in a Small Country.” Information Technology and Libraries 10 (1991): 275–291.
Schidorsky 1982 — Schidorsky, Dov. “The Emergence of Jewish Public Libraries in Nineteenth–Century Palestine.” Libri 32 (1982): 1–40.
Schidorsky 1989 — Schidorsky, Dov. “Jewish Nationalism and the Concept of a Jewish National Library.” Library Archives and Information Studies, 45–74. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.
Schidorsky 1995 — Schidorsky, Dov. “Modernization and Continuity in Library Development in Palestine Under the British Mandate, 1920–1948.” Libri 45: (1995) 19–30.
Sever, 1.1994 — Sever, Irene. “Promoting Reading Among Immigrants from an Oral Culture: Ethiopian Jews in Israel.” Third World Libraries 5–1 (1994): 17–23, and at http://www.worlib.org/vol05no1/sever_v05n1.shtml.
Sever, S. 1981 — Sever, Shmuel. “Library Education in Israel.” Journal of Education for Librarianship 21–3 (1981): 208–234.
Sever, S. 1985 — Sever, Shmuel. “The Melting Pot of Library Traditions: the Case of Israel.” Journal of Library History, Philosophy & Comparative Librarianship 20 (1985): 253–266.
Sever, S. 1993 — Sever, Shmuel. “Israel.” World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services. Third ed., 385–400. Chicago: American Library Association, 1993.
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Sever and Branse 1991 — Sever, Shmuel and Yosef Branse. “Social Aspects of Reading and Library Use in Israel—a Second Look.” Library Quarterly 61 (1991): 389–413.
Shoham 1986 — Shoham, Snunith. “The Public Library in a Changeable Society: Analysis of the Israeli Public Libraries.” Libri 36 (1986): 282–298.
Yitzhaki 1991 — Yitzhaki, Moshe. “Israel.” In School Libraries: International Developments, ed. Jean E. Lowrie and Mieko Nagakura. Second ed., 195–216. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
About the Author
Susan Korn is Technical Services Librarian at Truman College, Chicago. She has an M.L.S. from the University of Michigan, and an M.Ed, in Rehabilitation Counseling from Boston University. She was formerly a cataloger at DePaul University, Chicago. Her professional interests include cataloging and authority control.
© 1996 Susan Korn.
Korn, Susan, “Israeli Libraries and Librarianship: A Review of Recent Literature,” Third World Libraries, Volume 6, Number 2 (Spring 1996).
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