The People of the Insufficient Library Books

Haim Watzman

“Israelis buy so many books!” an acquaintance told me in wonder and appreciation during my recent trips to the U.S.

“Yes, but don’t be overly impressed,” I cautioned. “The main reason is that we have a lousy public library system.”

Yes, really, such a well-developed country, lacking in sufficient books to read. It’s a big shame and one that has inspired the likes of the University of Southern California to rapidly modernise their libraries.

Ironically, the libraries of the country of the People of the Book are small, under-funded, and under-stocked. The Baka neighborhood library is a typical example. It’s got a dedicated and helpful staff and a decent collection of children’s books, but if you’re an adult, the chances of finding what you want in decent condition are pretty small.

In fact, when I stopped by yesterday morning, it was my first visit since my kids outgrew the children’s book section several years ago. I was looking for two new releases—Amir Guttfreund’s new novel Bishvila Giborim Afim and Anita Shapira’s new biography of Zionist literary and spiritual guru Yosef Haim Brenner. The librarian told me that the books I was seeking were on order but hadn’t arrived yet. Best to come in on a Sunday—that’s when the new books come in and get snatched up, she said.

I took a cursory look at the four short lines of shelves in the middle of the room. Libraries can be graded according to their browsing potential. Some of the best books I’ve read were ones I came across on a library or bookstore shelf while looking for something else entirely. A bit under half of the four short lines of shelves in the Baka library are filled with foreign-language and teenage books. New books are shelved in the front of the library, but the entire remaining collection of fiction and non-fiction works is limited to about two and a half double-sided bookcases about three or four meters long. That’s just not enough to hold a decent selection of classics and modern works. And many of the books are old, rebound, unattractive—despite the librarians’ efforts to keep them in repair.

The Baka library is one of about 1,100 public libraries in the country. In May 2003 the Knesset passed a library reform law that was meant to increase public funding for the system, but the funds promised there were whittled away in one after another of the annual across-the-board budget cuts orchestrated by the Ministry of Finance. Only one positive result was clearly evident when I visited yesterday—borrowing books is now free. It used to be that you had to pay an annual fee, set in accordance to the number of books you wanted to borrow at one time. You couldn’t pay the fee at the library—you had to run to the post office or pay it through your children’s elementary school. Now you simply leave a post-dated check at the desk to cover the cost of the books you take in case you don’t return them. That’s still a bit offputting, compared to the ease with which you can take out a card at most American public libraries, but it’s a big improvement.

But hours are still minimal—four days a week, the Baka library is open only in the afternoons, and on Tuesdays only in the mornings.

When someone in our family wants to read a book, we first try to borrow it from friends, and if that doesn’t work out we go down to the bookstore and buy it. Getting it out of the library has not been an option we’ve even bothered checking in recent years.

According to a document I found on the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport, the book purchasing budget for the entire library system in 2006 was NIS 15,131,000 (about $4.2 million at current exchange rates). And according to figures I found on the Ministry of Commerce and Industry website, in 2005 Israelis bought fiction and non-fiction books in the sum of about NIS 660 million ($183 million). On the face of it, the numbers seem to show that the libraries don’t have anywhere near the budget to satisfy the public’s demand to read.

We’re dedicated readers, we Israelis, and we’re not put off by having to buy what we want to read. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to spend a pleasant hour browsing in a well-stocked public library? If we could, we’d probably read even more.

5 thoughts on “The People of the Insufficient Library Books”

  1. Thanks for posting this! A free public library with a diverse and accessible collection is one of the hallmarks of a vibrant society. Where are the radical Israeli librarians, pushing for more and better libraries?
    The New York Public Library (where I was a teen librarian) did wonders for the immigrant communities of New York. One would think, with Israel a tapestry of languages and cultures, the public library would be a vital institution. I am sad to read that that is not so, but glad someone is paying attention.

  2. Where are the billionaires and millionaires? The reason the US has such a large circulating public library system is because it was kick-started by people like Carnegie and Mellon who wanted to “give back” some of their robber-baron gains to the public in belated acts of philanthropy. Israel has hi-tech (and other) wealthy folks–maybe they’d like to have a library named after them?

  3. There is a theory (which I don’t know if I subscribe to or not) that says that lack of libraries and the poor educational system in Israel are a concious product of the socialist mentality of the Labor Zionist founders of the regime in Israel. Those in power in the early had contempt for most of the population, viewing them as a rabble that had to kept under control and docile (we still hear this from time time-such as when Shimon Peres’ brother said the Sefardic Amir Peretz’s winning of control of the Labor Party in 2005 over Peres was like ‘Franco’s Fascist horders overthrowing the Spanish Republic’.) A friend of mine told me that when he made aliyah as a child in the early 1960’s to a development town, every single school offered only vocational education to the kids of the town, there was no academic trend available. In other words, the Socialist leaders of Israel viewed role of development town dwellers in Israel as being “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. “Too much” education would be viewed as undesirable because they would start realizing what was going on and demand changes. This theory would explain why there never was a push to get good libraries…better the people should spend their spare time worrying about bread and circuses, and getting their information from the gov’t controlled electronic media and from newspapers controlled by a small clique associated with the governing circles.
    An interesting theory.

  4. That’s fine that so many Israelis can afford to buy their own books, but I can’t help thinking about the no doubt far larger number who can’t afford this at all (and who need books the most) and also the large number who can probably afford the books but are put off by having to pay for them (which means that these books are not part of the household, hence do not inspire their children). This is no way to educate a population in any country, much less in Israel, home of the people of the book. Those who believe in a low priortiy for libraries should reflect on the fact that Harry Truman, one of Israel’s favorite American presidents, largely educated himself in Missouri by making full use of the public libraries there.

  5. when the library branch was closed in sderot a few years ago, I heard someone on the radio say “those people in sderot don’t read books anyway”.

    my town (Rehovot) has a children’s branch, and the first year it opened, they turned new subscribers away, with “we’re full, try again next year”

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