NLI began in 1892 when B’nai B’rith opened the Midrash Abarbanel Library in Jerusalem with a mandate to collect “the treasures of Jewish literature.” As Jerusalem’s first free public library, it quickly became a cultural center of the Yishuv and by 1895 housed over 10,000 volumes, including books in the fields of science, humanities, education, mathematics, and philosophy, along with Jewish literature. In 1925, the Library was incorporated into the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus and was renamed “The Jewish National and University Library.”
“It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development.
But it is no paradox for those who know the soul of the Jew.
It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs.”– Chaim Weizmann, at the Founding of the Library in 1925
During Israel’s War of Independence, when access to Mount Scopus was cut off from West Jerusalem, the Library’s collection was smuggled off campus and preserved among several buildings in the city. In 1960, around the time when Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus was established, a new dedicated building opened and has served as the Library’s home for over 60 years.
Recognizing the need to reimagine the Library’s role for the state and the Jewish people worldwide, the leadership of the Library launched a comprehensive consultative process to formulate the Library’s future path. This process culminated in the Knesset’s passage of a new law in 2007, officially establishing “the National Library of Israel” with a new name and orientation: to collect, preserve, cultivate and endow treasures of knowledge, heritage and culture, with an emphasis on the Land of Israel, the State of Israel and the Jewish people in particular.
In 2011, the National Library embarked on a visionary journey of renewal that makes it a model for 21st century libraries as a vital center of scholarship, knowledge dissemination, cultural life, and creativity, serving Israel’s diverse communities and the Jewish people worldwide, and providing universal, open access to knowledge and heritage to audiences in Israel and across the globe. The cornerstone of the new building was laid in 2016 and the building opened its doors in October 2023.