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Have Library Card, Will Travel

April 5, 2012 By:
Deborah Rubin Fields, Jewish Exponent Feature
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The National Library of Israel Building in Campus Givat-Ram of Hebrew University

Despite the rave reviews some people give to GPS machines, I find they fall short of the mark.

Yes, a GPS (usually, but not always) gets you to a requested location, but it does so without affording any opportunity to appreciate what you will see along the way or what you will find when you arrive.

What's missing from a GPS is the basic beauty of maps.

Indeed, for hundreds of years, maps have provided people with the information a GPS fails to give. In contrast to the GPS, ancient maps reflect the attitudes and beliefs about places.

For this reason, examples of illustrated topography have become collectors' items. Hence the importance of the National Library of Israel's ability to -- virtually -- share its ancient maps of Israel.

Today's technology enables you, from the comfort and privacy of your personal computer, to examine the National Library's collection by both time period and geography. For example, you can look at Christian van Adrichem's brightly colored 1590 map of Jerusalem or make a 300-year leap forward to Ivan Dmitrievich Sytin's 1894 map of Jerusalem.

What's more, this is just one facet of the National Library's imposing English and Hebrew website (http://web.nli.org.il/ sites/NLI/English/Pages/default.aspx).

But first, a few words need to be said about the history of this amazing institution, which is located in Jerusalem, on Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus.

Ironically, for an ancient people like the Jewish people, the idea of establishing a national library is a modern idea. Throughout history, private individuals and institutions have owned vast, private book collections.

But the notion of a library serving Jerusalem's public only reached fruition with the 1892 opening of the Midrash Abarbanel Library in the B'nai B'rith lodge on B'nai B'rith Street. This library was the city's first free public library. It was the precursor of today's National Library.

Thus far, the National Library has collected 10,000 Hebrew manuscripts, 2,000 Arabic manuscripts, 750 manuscripts written in Latin, English, French, Russian, Gez, Armenian and Georgian (Gruzini). These manuscripts have been gathered from all over the world.

Essentially, two important departments deal with cataloging manuscripts -- the Manuscripts Department and the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts.

The former department has replicated a significant part of its collection on microfilm while the latter department has obtained microfilm copies of manuscripts from international collections.

According to Rachel Misrati of the Library's Copyrights and Permissions Department, this means that in the case of the latter, the originals are not housed in the National Library of Israel.

Furthermore, according to Avraham David, head researcher of Hebrew manuscripts, digitization is a tremendously valuable process. It allows the library to expand its collection without having to absorb the cost of actually acquiring highly priced old texts, of maintaining a sophisticated security system to protect these expensive acquisitions and of employing expensive preservation or restoration technology. Significantly, it allows more and more material to be presented to the general public.

There are many eye-openers on the National Library's website. For example, we normally associate Isaac Newton's name with his scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, optics and mathematics. Through the careful preparation and guidance of the National Library, however, we learn that Newton added his genius to expounding upon religious topics.

Newton, for example, had a keen interest in studying the layout of King Solomon's Temple. Thus, he diagrammed and annotated the layout of the priestly area.

The National Library is a terrific teaching tool for all ages. For instance, with Passover approaching, classroom instructors could avail themselves of some of the online illustrated Haggadot. The Rothschild Haggadah is one beautifully illustrated text that might be adapted to a lesson.

The library is a treasure trove for both the Jewish and non-Jewish reader. A few stored "finds" underscore this statement. For example, the library is home to Deacon Bernhardus de Breydenbach's 1486 Mainz travel book publication. This travel book of the Holy Land so impressed people that 36 years later, there were translations in German, Flemish, French and Spanish.

Also found in the National Library is a Book of Psalms written in Gez. This text dates back to Ethiopia in the 14th to 15th century. Interestingly, in keeping with the tradition of the Eastern Christianity Septuagint, it includes poems from other parts of the Bible and from the New Testament.

Finally, of special note is a Spanish Bible from Ferrara, Italy. This text was first published in 1553, but was reprinted many times, especially in Amsterdam. The first printing was in Spanish and Portuguese for Crypto-Jews. There were actually two editions, one intended for Jews and one destined for Christians.

The Christian designated version had a dedication to the Duke of Ferrara.

The National Library goal of preserving the culture of the Holy Land and the creativity of the Jewish people is truly admirable, but attaining that goal is not so easy. For example, how does one locate books that have been produced worldwide over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years?

Overwhelming as the mission appears, the National Library nevertheless accepts the challenge. In its pursuit, it has gathered secular and religious works of significance not just to the Jewish people, but for Christians and Moslems as well.


 

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