How Has Israel’s National Library Responded to the COVID-19 Crisis?

Staying healthy and maximizing opportunities during a complicated and difficult period

Zack Rothbart
The NLI approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, while also identifying strategic opportunities to better fulfill our mission now and well into the future.

The COVID-19 crisis has presented unprecedented challenges as well as opportunities for cultural and educational institutions across the globe, including the National Library of Israel. NLI’s renewal and dual mandate requiring it to engage both domestic and international audiences, as well as the current construction of its new home, have in many ways magnified the challenges posed by this difficult period, as well as – and perhaps even more so – the opportunities it presents.

Following a brief summary of the crisis in Israel, below are a few examples of the adaptations we have implemented and some of the ways in which we have aimed to maximize potential opportunities in fulfilling our mission during this time.

The COVID-19 crisis in Israel

The Israeli governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic began with recommendations against non-essential travel to China from 26 January 2020. Over the next few weeks, flights from a number of countries with high infection rates were suspended, and on 26 February, the government urged cancellation of all travel abroad.

A Magen David Adom worker wearing protective gear, 2020 (Photo: Talmoryair; CC BY-SA 4.0)

From 9 March, all Israelis returning from abroad were required to home quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. On 12 March, all schools and universities were closed, with other restrictions in the public sphere put in place. A week later a national emergency was declared and on 25 March, citizens were prohibited from moving more than 100 m from their homes, with the exception of a few permitted reasons, such as medical care and procurement of foodstuffs. Citizens were shortly thereafter required to wear masks in public places. Cities and neighborhoods with high infection rates were in some cases fully quarantined, with the army providing citizens with basic services and support.

For the festival of Passover, beginning on 8 April, even stricter lockdown measures were in place, as they were in majority Muslim areas during the holy month of Ramadan, which began on 25 April.

Police officers during a national lockdown, 2020 (Photo: Israel Police; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gradual easing of restrictions began in the last week of April. Schools, some commercial entities and public areas were allowed to begin opening in accordance with very strict regulations, starting from the beginning of May. While much of the public sphere and economy was open during the summer months, regulations remained in place with regard to mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Various levels of lockdown restrictions have been in place since early autumn 2020. Overall, in terms of public health, Israel has fared relatively well, case fatality rates among the world’s lowest.

Ensuring staff welfare and flexibility

As the severity of the pandemic became increasingly clear, the management of the National Library chose to try and enable continuity of work processes and routine to the greatest extent possible, while ensuring the well-being of its staff and visitors. With the introduction of restrictions in the beginning of March, National Library employees capable of working remotely were largely encouraged to do so and as restrictions tightened and the Library was closed to the public, the vast majority of Library staff were either working remotely full time or taking partial or full paid leave, utilizing vacation days to do so.

Most National Library employees have worked from home for much of the pandemic period

A bank of vacation days was established so that employees with many accrued days could donate them to help colleagues take paid leave. Many employees who usually work in public services were given various cataloguing and other tasks that could be performed remotely, so that they would not have to take paid or unpaid leave. Throughout this difficult period, we have tried to prioritize the medical, mental and financial well-being of our employees, with only a few employees placed on unpaid leave.

Throughout the closure periods, a skeleton staff came into the Library daily, to ensure the security and well-being of the collections as well as continue to progress on digitization projects. All of these employees were given special permission in accordance with governmental regulations and have adhered to strict social distancing practices. As will be discussed below, the crew at the construction site of our new home was also permitted to continue working.

Serving the public differently

With the Library closed to the public for what was initially an unknown extended period of time, we wanted to ensure that researchers knew that our reference staff was continuing to work remotely and that they were available through a variety of channels. We posted this information prominently on our home page and on social media.

As we have many researchers who come on a daily basis to the National Library building, many of them were not familiar with the different ways to reach our reference team (i.e. via email, chat, WhatsApp and phone), nor were they necessarily overly familiar with our vast collections of digital resources. Thus, to continue serving the public under these complex circumstances, we felt it was critical to make this information more widely known to our user base.

In addition to highlighting this information clearly in places where our users would find it, we also produced a series of short instructional videos to help them adapt to the new reality and use online resources in an effective manner, as well as a new centralized portal to more easily access approximately one million digital items. As many scholars also usually come from abroad, these actions will continue to have additional value as long as international travel is severely limited.

As soon as the initial government regulations for reopening to the public became clear, the National Library staff began dedicating very significant human and financial resources to ensure that the building could reopen as soon as possible, while adhering to all of the strict government-mandated requirements, which entailed significant physical and procedural modifications. All visitors and staff must sign health declarations and have their temperatures taken prior to entering the building, as well as maintain social distancing while on the National Library premises.

The Judaica, Israel, Islam and Middle East Reading Room at the National Library of Israel after dividers were installed in order to adhere to public health guidelines

When permitted to come, readers are required to reserve study areas in advance and dividers have been installed throughout the reading rooms and at service desks, and in employee areas. Surfaces are disinfected frequently according to a strict schedule and all users and staff must use provided gloves and disinfectant when utilizing shared equipment such as computers, printers and refreshment areas. On the practical level, as well, we needed to purchase additional laptop computers, equipment and licenses so that staff could effectively work and meet remotely in adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Photo used to announce the initial reopening of the National Library in May 2020

All of these actions clearly required significant time, money and effort on the part of our staff. No reader reservation system existed and so one was developed in-house. We had to design and produce a significant amount of new signage to ensure that visitors knew the procedures and adhered to them. Cleaning and disinfectant supply costs are clearly higher than they were before, and we purchased and installed hundreds of dividers and reconfigured work areas and schedules to protect the welfare of staff and visitors.

Capitalizing on opportunities to improve education

As part of the National Library’s current renewal process, a broad range of educational and cultural initiatives have been developed over the past decade. Some of these were already digital in nature and so we had a strong foundation upon which to build during this complex period.

With schools closed, NLI proactively undertook a wide range of programming to help students, educators and communities transition to both new realities and teaching methods focused more on actively guided and independent learning. This programming has included trainings for teachers; the development of new content suitable for families to learn together; active online educational activities for youth; and the development of new materials and adaptation of existing materials specifically for distance learning.

The Library greatly expanded its online educational resources and activities in multiple languages

As part of ‘Pocket Library’, an initiative of our Israel National Center for Humanities Education undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Education, we offered dozens of audio books through the iCast app, including many works by some of Israel’s most beloved authors for children and youth. We also developed, expanded and promoted a wide range of other educational materials, activities and resources based on National Library treasures in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French.

Moreover, normally hundreds of schoolchildren come to the National Library for programming every week in Hebrew and Arabic. Obviously, once schools and the Library were closed, these programs also could not take place, and so we developed a model to suit the new reality, in the form of a digital program that integrates Zoom gatherings with digital activities like virtual escape rooms, riddles and interactive activity pages, games, competitions for prizes and so on.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel our regular annual summer program for Arab youth, which usually has around 100 participants from the Jerusalem area. Nonetheless, as with many other areas, we are focusing on the positives and potential presented by this new reality and actually saw a number of advantages to a digital program. It enabled us to offer the program to a broader audience, in terms of both the number of participants and additional geographic locations.

A dance workshop was one of many in-person activities that took place as part of the summer program for Arab youth in previous years

Logistically, in the past, it only made sense to offer the program to around 100 Jerusalem children, but we opened this year’s program up to hundreds of participants from across the country. We were able to offer enriching and engaging educational content to the many youth who were stuck at home and did not have many other similar options or resources; and it also provided us with experience, insights, tools and new audiences to further improve and expand our online Arabic educational materials and programs, which will serve throughout the year and in the long term.

These new creative initiatives and avenues for engagement have allowed us to reach new audiences including many youth. With all of the difficulties, we have tried to see the crisis as presenting an exceptional opportunity to connect youth with the National Library’s cultural treasures in creative, innovative, interesting and diverse ways.

We hope that making the most of the opportunities presented during this complex time will allow us to continue engaging young audiences, while developing digital products and content that will continue to inspire long after we return to our new routines. This is truly an historic opportunity upon which we have aimed to capitalize in thoughtful and expedient ways.

Cultural programs under lockdown

To continue fulfilling its mandate and serve as a platform for culture, knowledge and inspiration even during this difficult time, NLI launched ‘The Reading Room’, a virtual space to enjoy live lectures, conversations and interviews via Zoom, as well as a range of previously recorded events in various languages, and in partnership with institutions and organizations across the globe. Overall, tens of thousands of people have participated in hundreds of online events since April. Our annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival was also presented in a virtual format this year. While we hope that restrictions will continue to be eased, we also look forward to continuing to develop our online culture program to reach and engage diverse audiences across the globe.

The Reading Room“, a new virtual venue for live and previously recorded events from the National Library of Israel

Usually every year we have events exploring Muslim culture timed around the month of Ramadan. With gatherings prohibited due to coronavirus restrictions this year, we led ‘Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem’, a broad collaborative effort to offer diverse opportunities to experience Ramadan, bringing together Jerusalem’s great cultural institutions, religious bodies, grassroots initiatives and community organizations. The initiative sought to provide a virtual platform for Muslims and non-Muslims in the city and around the globe to mark the holy month.

While its overarching goal was to expand awareness about Muslim culture in general and Ramadan in particular, this year, under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, the platform also provided meaningful programs for those unable to participate in Ramadan’s traditional prayers, family gatherings and public events. Events were live streamed, recorded and are now available on demand via the trilingual (Arabic, Hebrew and English) website. Held in one of the three languages, the events included lectures, talks and virtual tours related to Islamic culture and history; traditional Muslim recitations and prayers; intimate conversations in Jerusalem homes; musical performances; culinary workshops; special programs for children; and more. Around 70% of the nearly 30,000 sessions on the platform were on the Arabic site.

Our annual program ‘Bustan – Writers’ Encounter: Residency Program for Jewish and Arab Writers’ offers an innovative opportunity to utilize the National Library’s extensive collections of Hebrew and Arabic literature to provide a foundation for engagement, creativity and conversation that fosters connections between writers from different communities and supports their production of new work. Six poets were selected for the fourth cohort of Bustan in 2020, representing a diverse group (in terms of religion, language, age, gender, ethnicity and professional background) of highly accomplished fellows who share a love of poetry.

This year’s program was adapted to the new realities, which are unfortunately defined by uncertainty and social distancing. It included an orientation, a retreat and an intensive month-long program of writing workshops, peer-to-peer learning, exposure to National Library experts and collections, and a special translation course. Almost all of the program was able to be held in person in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive

Image used in marketing materials to encourage individuals and communities around the world to contribute materials to the Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive

At the end of March, we announced the creation of the Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive, which documents the unprecedented impact the current coronavirus pandemic is having on Jewish culture, tradition, law and society globally. We are asking the public to contribute digital and physical materials reflecting this impact, including things such as synagogue emails about communal prayer on Zoom, public appeals to help lonely community members, announcements about innovative halachic (Jewish legal) rulings, promotional materials for creative Jewish distance learning initiatives, posters for emergency loans and so on. We are also leading a coalition of partner institutions and organizations across the world to try and help ensure that the collection will be as comprehensive as possible. The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive will be included as part of our broader archive collection, which contains millions of items, including personal and communal archives, photographs, documents, letters and more from many of modern history’s most prominent cultural figures.

Construction on the new National Library campus

Simulated view from Ruppin Boulevard of the new National Library of Israel campus, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem and on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The new NLI will be a striking, multifunctional architectural icon, enabling NLI to most fully realize its ambitious mission and tremendous potential. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, with Mann-Shinar serving as the Executive Architect, the building and its surrounding gardens and plazas will reflect the central value of opening access to the National Library’s treasures for broad and diverse audiences. Within its 45,000 square meters (480,000 sq. ft.) of space, it will provide venues for exhibitions, cultural and educational programming and more in a secure, sustainable and state-of-the-art environment. The lead partners in the building renewal project are the Government of Israel, the Rothschild Family through the auspices of Yad Hanadiv and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Family of New York.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

With the new NLI campus just over a year from completion when the pandemic began, it was critical to minimize the impact of the crisis on construction progress, to the greatest extent possible. Construction was designated as an essential industry by the government regulations related to COVID-19 and therefore work on the new campus has been permitted to continue as long as we can ensure that some 130 employees on site 6 days a week comply with all public health requirements. And so, for the aspects that have been in our control, we have done our utmost to ensure that the project stays on schedule, with the project team constantly monitoring the situation locally and globally to prepare for various potential scenarios. As a result, the crisis has only caused a project delay of a few months, due to difficulties importing some materials, though our team is now working to try and mitigate the impact of those delays, while preparing for any other potential impacts moving forward.

Looking back, looking ahead

Virtually every country, institution and individual in the world has been impacted in some way by the current COVID-19 crisis. Many of us certainly never planned for such an event and so as the situation has unfolded, we have had to largely react in an ad hoc manner. At the NLI, our approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, and as new circumstances developed we have sought to identify strategic opportunities to not only make the most of the difficulties presented by this complex new reality but also build programs and initiatives that will help us achieve both short-term and long-term strategic goals in striving to serve as the open, dynamic and meaningful institution of national memory for the State of Israel and all of its citizens, as well as the Jewish people worldwide.


An expanded version of this article was first published on 12 January 2021 in Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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