“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.