How to Move Four Million Books

How did the National Library of Israel move its collections—not once, but twice—from one location to another? These photos captured the transfer of hundreds of thousands and then millions of books to the various homes of the National Library over the years

Ofrit Assaf Arye
On the left, moving the National Library of Israel’s books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus in 1960; on the right, the robot-operated automated stacks in the new National Library building

On January 10, 2023, the transfer of all the books from the National Library of Israel’s current location on the Givat Ram campus to its new home was completed. In all, 3.6 million books were moved, an important milestone ahead of the relocation to the new National Library of Israel campus across from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Since its establishment, the Library has undergone many changes, both in terms of its location and its collections. However, the transfer of its books on such a massive scale from one building to another was carried out only twice: in 1960, and in 2022.


Moving the Books: 1960 vs. 2022

In 1948, during the War of Independence, access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut off along with access to the National Library, then called the “Jewish National and University Library.” As a result, the Library’s collections were dispersed among different locations in the western part of the city, including the Terra Sancta building, the Yeshurun Synagogue library and several other places. In 1960, the Library moved once again, from the various buildings where its collections had been housed temporarily to its current location on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. Photographer David Harris documented this transfer in many fascinating photos showing how the Library staff worked diligently to move the hundreds of thousands of books from all the different sites to the new building. Today, photographers are once again documenting the process of transferring the Library’s books to a new permanent home.

Loading books for transport to the Library’s current building on the Givat Ram campus, 1960


The beginning of the transfer of books, October 2022. Photo: Udi Alfassi

As you can see, this is hard work. It involves first sorting, then packing and finally moving the books. Back in 1960, the books were loaded into sacks, bundled and tied with rope or packed into boxes. Staff members then loaded the sacks, bundles and boxes onto pick-up trucks. Today, the process mainly involves forklifts and semi-trailers – the collections have grown, after all.

Workers transporting books from the Terra Sancta building to the Givat Ram campus location, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new building. Photo: Albatross


The Jewish National and University Library storeroom at Terra Sancta, 1960. Photo; David Harris

The sorting process is also completely different today: in the past, the process was done completely by hand. Today, it is a combination of manual and digital work centered on scanning the books’ barcodes.

Sorting books at Givat Ram, 1960. Photo: David Harris


Sorting books in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Albatross

As of today, all the Library’s books have been transferred to the Main Automated Stacks in the new National Library of Israel building, stored inside special crates on a multistory shelving system. When a book is ordered, it is no longer located by an actual human being, rather, this task is now performed by a crane-like robot. The robot knows which crate to take from which shelf. It then moves the crate to a location where staff can pull out the specific book that has been ordered. Even more astounding is that there is no human involvement at all inside the gigantic automated storeroom, which maintains a low level of oxygen and contains the vast majority of the Library’s collections. The robot knows exactly where to find a particular book from among the millions packed in the precisely stacked crates.

Stacks at Givat Ram. Photo: Hanan Cohen


The automated storeroom in the new National Library of Israel building, 2022. Photo: Yaniv Levi Korem

From the photos, you can see that moving books on such a scale—whether hundreds of thousands or millions—is a visually compelling and technically complex process. And whether analog or digital, the Library has always taken care of its collections, making sure that each and every book is in its correct location on the shelf, with the storeroom space only expanding over the years.

In the coming year, the National Library of Israel will complete its relocation to the new campus and when we open our doors, all these millions of books will be available to you, along with the rest of the Library’s collections.


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