Terrific Tel Aviv

Long stretches of Mediterranean coast grant a balmy climate to the 450,000 or so denizens of this young city.  Though Jaffa (Yafo), its southwestern boundary, has been inhabited since 7500 BC, Tel Aviv (TLV) was founded in 1909 so Tel Aviv-Yafo Libraries’ (TAYL) roots precede both the town and the State of Israel.

In 1886, though Jaffa had just 15,000, mostly gentile, people, the Assistance to Israel Society, aiming to aid Jewish settlers in the region, made its assemblage available in a private home in Jaffa.  Additional funding came in 1901 when it was renamed Sha’ar Zion (gate of Zion), and it moved around and grew until landing at these premises in 1977.

IMG_3866Sha’ar Zion-Beit Ariela Library  (BA), TAYL’s main facility, is a huge concrete structure flanked by appropriately enormous sculptures tempered by tropical palms and Norfolk firs.  Named after Ariela Gitter, the deceased daughter of one of its primary benefactors, Benno Gitter, it’s ideally situated between the Performing Arts Center arch and a vast plaza also sporting a museum in what is basically the White City’s hub of enlightenment.

Admiring the panels depicting people absorbed in reading at popular spots around TLV that mask the renovation, we strolled to the front door.  To the right of the patio, the gallery continues – an alley of dual purpose art loops through the scaffolding.


Miriam amidst her bibliophilic paraphernalia

We arrived early, and staff welcomed us warmly and brought coffee as we waited for Director Miriam Posner, who had kindly agreed to give me a tour.

A kitchen and offices for IT and Acquisitions surround a tiled courtyard where shadows from the crosshatching overhead play across the statues and potted plants and cool those eating lunch at the silvery metal tables.

Noting an interesting installation resembling a barren crow-speckled tree, I left my husband to relax in sun dappled splendor and went to meet Miriam.

IMG_3880Before starting here in 2010, Miriam developed educational materials and school libraries.  Her English is wonderful (as usual, any faults in translation are mine) as I knew from our advance correspondence.

TAYL has one music and 20 neighborhood sites (three more are coming soon).  During summer months, nine unmanned kiosks open 24/7 can be found in TLV’s parks, beaches and boulevards.

The system produces its own programs, and in one year held more than 1500 gatherings with over 100,000 participants, a third of those going to the 600 happenings at BA whose 107,000 square feet house both an auditorium and a function hall.

Planned as a cultural center, Miriam described the building as complicated, but said it has about seven, sometimes staggered, levels including two in the basements filled by stacks.  The public part is five floors and has nine study rooms.


Behind the scenes

The organization has about 110 workers, many part time.  In Israel, librarianship used to be a certificate issued at teacher colleges rather than an academic degree, but now two universities have information science programs.  A number of the 85 librarians at TAYL (35 at BA alone) have bachelor’s in other subjects, but the ministry requires a certain percent to have an actual MLIS.

Necessitated by the nation’s increased safety standards, reconstruction began in 2013 and should have cost 30 million NIS ($8,300,000), but, per Miriam, “spending this significant amount without making functional or aesthetic changes to the building was ruled out by the Tel-Aviv – Yafo municipality’s management, which instead chose to add some 40 million NIS more and conduct a vast renovation project, not yet finished. The library is hence adding new functions to the building such as a huge “City Salon” for locals to meet up and hang out.  An Arab influenced room within the City Salon, outfitted in divans and cushions will serve as a group meeting facility with a specially pleasant atmosphere. Another novelty will be making the edifice more visible from the street.”

IMG_3889Proceeding to the public areas, I was delighted when Miriam said I could use my camera anywhere as long as no children were there.  TAYL is too busy to be able to portray it properly sans people, and I was so impressed by this two tier section and the floor to ceiling books.

Panes overlooking the sky lit atrium and multiple windows inserted in rows of cement slabs hanging from the roof let natural sunbeams stream in.  Many teens come here to do homework on the geometric surfaces.  Free wifi is everywhere and by an arced help station, most of the hundred public computers are occupied.

Ascending to the balcony we take a gray circular staircase softened by a railing of blond oak instead of the new elevator that makes it wheelchair accessible.  A ledge for studying and more internet modules runs along the cavity formed by the soaring inner space.

IMG_3913Next was the music library, its glowing wood and crimson carpets imparting a distinct personality.  Rock, classical, pop, jazz and blues are a few of the genres of A/V offerings alongside 7000 volumes of Hebrew poetry.

IMG_3916Beyond TVs set up to watch videos of concerts, bentwood armchairs, prints of cherubic oboists and spiral steps leading to a catwalk under frosted glass are reflective of a bygone era.

The other lyrical locale, the Felicia Blumental Music Center a couple of kilometers to the west, has a youth segment, LPs, CDs, scores and operas on DVD, as well as personal effects of prominent performers, pianists, and cellists.  It has instruments too – sign up to try out an acoustic guitar.

The municipality pays employees and maintenance.  TAYL has a dedicated budget for materials, furniture, equipment, programming, professional development and marketing from the Culture Ministry but money earned for rentals etc. goes back to the municipality.

Rather than buying duplicates they attempt to have one of everything.  Most stuff is in Hebrew but there are English, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish and French titles, 180 journals in Hebrew and English and audiobooks.  One of the four branches in Jaffa, the Anna Laura Library at the Arab-Jewish Community Center, has literature and staff conversant in the language.

IMG_3907The further console has jigsaw puzzles to borrow, a rarity in the US.  BA has lots of face out displays.  Tilted tiered tables and racks on the walls tempt you to peruse more recommendations.

The system has digitized around 500,000 of their items but because of copyright issues most of them must be viewed at TAYL. Soon Beit Ariela is about to start a large-scale digitizing project together with the National Library, meant to preserve materials of the Israeli Dance Archive and the Theatre Archive, both residing at Beit Ariela and make some of these materials accessible online.

In 2008 a law made libraries free.  Cardholders are allowed five pieces for one month and two renewals.  No courier means you may need to travel to pick up or return materials, but if something is out you can request it from home.


Drippy discards

As we wend our way toward the juvenile area, the rehab is noticeable.  Ultramodern fixtures abound.  Emitting aquamarine rays, self check is obvious and porpoises frolic on a big screen above a consultation desk.

IMG_3923Youth librarian Noa gamely posed before cases of board games in her space age space.  Neon beams of rainbow hues radiate around the room.  In fact, Facebook has a video of adolescent astronauts exploring the futuristic nooks and crannies of the newly revamped department.

IMG_3924And it features festivities.  Shots of tots assembling bird’s nests and teddy bears, dressed up for Purim celebrations, watching cartoons and playing Portal 2 on computers mingle with ones from an event in a park where happy kids enjoy messy crafts, a jungle gym, giant Tic Tac Toe and obstacle course equipment.

There are storytimes for preschoolers at all sites and tweens have a robotics club.  More than 3000 people are enrolled in nineteen writing seminars for youths and adults.

Carts full of sturdy dump trucks, hard hats and baskets of Lego blocks promise tons of fun as does the Cinderella coach puppet theater.  In a poor neighborhood, a branch lends toys to infants and toddlers aged 0-3.

IMG_3944A sixteen year old fabricates these fascinating dioramas.  Miriam has a literary themed one in her office and the exhibit here has a tailor shop, garden tea, gingerbread cottage and a cozy farm kitchen.  A fantastic unicorn prances in a forest of polka dot toadstools.  Moss and lichen stand in for shrubs and red maples.  This talented teen taught a session on her hobby, Penguins and Hot Chocolate!, last winter and Facebook has pictures of youngsters proudly proffering their adorable concoctions.

A papier-mâché castle in a different vitrine comes from the beloved Lea Goldberg story about coexistence, Apartment for Rent.

Walls are decorated by oversize stickers of characters that are easily peeled off and changed as new favorites are discovered.  Monkeys swing from tree limbs, tiny hippos twirl and a flamingo cozies up to a zebra.  A bespectacled alligator lazes against a rock while his grandfather brings over an ice cream treat.  A list of books the illustrations originate from is tacked up near a transparent enclosure for joint projects with conference call capabilities so pupils can contribute remotely to the school paper or group assignment.

IMG_3931The nature spot in front of it encourages appreciation of the outdoors.  Magnifiers of all shapes and sizes let boys and girls closely examine shells, pine cones and drawers of intriguing flora and fauna.

In the middle, a pale blue partition sprouts ruby poppies and bright gold asters behind the pillows and plush animals scattered on the curved couch.  The back has compartments for suggestions and magazines.  Poofy hassocks and plastic horses provide seating options and beneath a firmament of changing colors by the former entryway for Children’s, small hands have evidently tinted a collage of Mary Poppins.



Trained supervisors and YA mentors instruct juniors on the Makerspace technology.  Furthering TAYL’s mission of inspiring independent thought and meshing the digital and physical worlds, quality software and machines let users create and edit manga and comics, logos and three-dimensional figures.


Curl up in a cutout

Unfortunately, many of the announcements on Facebook are graphic, so I can’t translate them as I have absolutely no familiarity with Hebrew apart from חי (chai or l’chaim, exclaiming “to life!”), but I see notices for biblical discussions, genealogy groups, talks on “how to write about the family and stay alive” and the history of linguistic humor, and author meet and greets.  Short biographies honor the anniversaries of the death of Shel Silverstein and Frank Baum.  Blessings and hopes for an easy fast are sent to Muslim clients for Ramadan.  Patron profiles present blurbs from families on who they are, what they do and why they love TAYL.  It advertises the poetry slam, Chanukah parties and the comfort of long hours spent on newly purchased fit balls.

Lots of people follow the page and posts elicit comments, lively dialogue and praise over the imaginative input.  Snaps proliferate of parents reading to kids, browsers sheltered by the mobile street libraries’ awnings and enjoying paperbacks on nearby loungers and a staffer’s book themed tattoos.  An invitation is extended to download the app for the new Instagram account and there are tips on how to get into BA since ingress varies as the renovation progresses.


By the study spots

Beit Ariela’s An Island in The City, a quiet space exclusively for writers, facilitates concentration.  The library is trying to strengthen literacy programs and promoting lifelong learning and reading to citizens is a major goal.

Videos galore, some boasting thousands of views, tout the jazz improvisation series, a songwriting workshop and the systems’ recent accomplishments.  Announcements of new services, calls for volunteers to help during summer vacation and job applications round out the mix.IMG_3980The Design and Visual Information Library’s plentiful purple folders carry half a million clips from periodicals, leaflets, postcards, reproductions, calendars, brochures and sales catalogs on various themes and they’ve scanned 15,000 already.

BA has many rare treasures, but sadly doesn’t have the funds to conserve them properly.  With databases and 100,000 items, the Ramban (Maimonides) Library is the second largest repository of Jewish Enlightenment literature.  The Dance Archive of Israel has slides, letters, plans, accessories, memorabilia, costume notes and scene and choreography diagrams.  Ethnic and ritual dance, studios and recitals feature in some of its 3800 videos.

The Yehuda Gabai Theatre Archive documents the early years of drama and acting in Israel going back to 1911.  Named for an important actor and founder of the Theater Museum, it has playbills and posters, sketches of backdrops, caricatures, reviews and film negatives.IMG_3962Diana, the Reference supervisor, oversees 35,000 encyclopedias, dictionaries, and compendiums and is in charge of indexing the main newspapers going back to the late 1800’s.  Office software is loaded on the terminals and there are three microfilm machines.

Furniture from a famous Zionist leader, Ahad Ha’am (aka Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg),  a prolific publisher and thinker, recreates his study.  Pocket watches, eyeglasses, diaries and family papers lie among his many possessions as well as several portraits painted by well known artists.IMG_3964We carried on towards a large chamber free for nonprofits that businesses and individuals can rent.  It’s great for meetings, class visits or lectures from experts in the arts, Judaism, cinema etc.  Hearing impaired attendees use audio enhancement headphones.

TAYL’s largest branch at Migdal Shalom has quarters for teams of entrepreneurs developing internet or tech startups plus an LGBTQ collection.  Writers have A Room of Your Own for half a year and the Music Library designates a slot just for composers.


The concrete pillars are symbolic of Brutalism, BA’s architectural style

The system was the first  in the country to have e-books, and now, as part of a consortium of 85 institutions using Overdrive, has e-audiobooks too.  They have over 900,000 units (@ 400,000 at BA alone) and annual circulation of more than 400,000 to the 35,000 members.

Online there are podcasts, blogs and YouTube segments.  A separate url of searchable holdings by location links to guides, keys and a plethora of databases (the 17 allowing remote access include an enrichment site for little ones and the Haifa Index of contemporary articles in Hebrew).

The National Library is still digitizing old newspapers so people come here for the physical copies.   TAYL developed an index of the local paper which was incorporated into Ex Libris’ line of products so can be used from anywhere in the world.


Tel Aviv from Jaffa

As we walked through canyons of bold and beautiful Bauhaus behemoths to the seaside promenade a mile away, I marveled at TAYL’s intellectual resources and how it enhances the lives of city dwellers.  I am extremely thankful to Miriam for taking the time and effort to reveal the library’s magic to me.

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