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Earlier today, I spent something like 3 hours wandering my way around the labyrinth that is the National Library of Israel. Located on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University (an offshoot of the main campus, here on Mount Scopus), this massive edifice towers above the other buildings I saw on the campus, and then manages to have a comically-small set of 2 doors to enter and exit the place.

Going inside, I first had to surrender my backpack, although I was allowed to take my laptop/notebooks with me as needed. Although I understand security, what I didn’t understand is how the National Library here understands “library” conceptually the same way that most other countries do. They managed to interpret it in a very Israeli sort of way.

Being directed around the corner, I found the well-hidden and unmarked reference desk with the very nice Jewish Hungarian lady (as I found out after conversing for a while about just how I might properly use their search system). As it turns out, there are different databases and/or catalogs keeping track of different styles and genres of books, magazines, microfiche, etc. None of this was particularly clear up front, but having lived in Israel for a few months now, that is understandable enough.

After getting a pretty thorough idea on how to even go about searching, soon thereafter I discovered that the online catalog pages are constructed in an odd way… because once you finally figure out 1) the magical correct database to search; 2) the magical correct search terms to use; and 3) have selected an author and title which sounds promising, you will always have to click anywhere from 3-7 links to even look and see if a) it is available online or b) if they have a copy in the library. That process done, you need to copy down the call-number, author, volume/year (if its a magazine), and then go and determine if the book/article at hand is 1) available in a general reading room already; 2) in a closed stack and therefore requiring you to fill out one form per book/article wanted; or 3) somehow was misfiled online and is not available for some reason (one of the books I wanted to see, from 1904, is partially preserved as negatives of the prints on metal plates, and therefore can only be accessed by specialists and high level academics, neither of which I am at this point).

Those steps finished, a person then needs to fill out an individual piece of paperwork for each book/article desired completely correctly (any mistake means that you’ll have to resubmit that paperwork for that article/book) and turn them in on the ground floor. Then, you are directed to go up to the proper reading room. As a newcomer to the this institution, I inquired “oh, well which reading room do I need to go to, and where is it?” Silly questions indeed; obviously, when doing a research project on the etymology of words denoting conceptions of the underworld, the most sensible way to organize books related to this subject would be to have them in separate closed stacks and then force the researcher to magically determine which reading room any given book would end up waiting for him/her at. Clearly.

To make a long story short (although at this point, one can understand that the concentrated Israeli bureaucratic tendencies of the National Library were starting to poison my system), I eventually had an armful of books which I was not allowed to check out (remember, there are only one copy of most books). This forced me to choose one of two options: 1) stay in the reading rooms (again, being only able to read the books associated with their reading room IN their reading room, forcing me to switch locations to cross-reference anything); or 2) go make a literal metric tonne of photocopies. Being of the disposition that renders me unable to do homework in any library setting (too much noise, I am usually too tall for the chairs and desks there, etc), I went with the second option.

Suffice to say that they kicked me out at 6:45 (their somewhat random closing time), although I was still in the middle of making copies. Like, I made NIS 41 worth of copies (nearly USD $10, which is a LOT of copies) from all the books I took out. First, because being able to write in and amongst the ideas I am considering will be useful, but secondly and more importantly: I want to avoid going back and would much prefer to keep my ability to do homework in my own room.

Somewhat negative factors aside, they had an excellent and fascinating collection of books pertaining to my independent study about Hell, so I look forward to getting through all of what I meticulously photocopied (once the 30-page paper on Anwar El-Sadat is finished, of course).

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