The Garden Library for the Migrant Communities and Neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv
“When a man’s world fills with darkness, he reads a book and sees another world.”
- S. Y. Agnon, Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, 1966
The Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers was founded in 2009 as a social-artistic urban community project by ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective.
The Library books are illuminated after dark
The library is located in the Lewinsky Park, by the Tel Aviv central bus station. It has no walls or door. It is comprised of two bookcases, which are supported by the walls of a public shelter located in the heart of the park. The taller structure contains books for the adult readers. It is transparent and illuminated from within so that, at night, the books glow in the park. Across from it is a shorter – children’s height – cabinet. The doors to the small cabinet swing down to form a parquet floor for the children to sit on and review the books.
A high, permanent canopy stretches above the two structures, which provides shelter from the sun and rain, protects the books and the visitors, and establishes a space for browsing, reading and social meetings.
Why a library?
Because we see the right to a book as a fundamental human right.
Because, as alluded to in the opening quote by S.Y. Agnon, a book provides both escape and shelter, a home, an identity, and a mother tongue.
Why in Lewinsky Park?
Because this is the place migrant workers congregate on weekends. It was important for us that the library come to the people, that those who maintain illegal immigrant status will come without fear, that the library would not have a closed door or a guard at the entrance who would check and ask questions.
The Garden Library - architectural rendering
The library contains approximately 3,500 books in Mandarin Chinese, Amharic, Thai, Tagalog, Arabic, French, Spanish, Nepalese, Bengali, Hindi, Turkish, Romanian, Sinhala, Tigrinya, and English. The children’s cabinet also holds books in Hebrew.
Book sorting at Mesila, the Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Worker and Refugee Community of Tel-Aviv
The book lists were compiled after consulting with native speakers of each represented language. The selection appeals to a wide range of tastes and includes classics and master works of literature, in addition to bestsellers, suspense, romantic and graphic novels.
Sorting by Emotions
We decided from the outset not to take any element of the library as a given. This decision was realized in the choice of location and structure as well as in the sorting system applied to the books.
We determined to replace conventional sorting systems with a unique system that would embody the spirit of the library: In addition to a color sticker marking each book’s language and listing its catalogue number, a second, 5cm-high, sticker at the bottom of each spine denotes the feelings the book aroused in the readers. The books are not catalogued according to conventions of genre or author name, but according to the feeling they arouse.
How does this work?
Within the inner binding of each book is a sticker asking (in the language of the book): “How would you describe the book?” Alongside it are seven words describing emotions the book may evoke: amusing, boring, bizarre, depressing, exciting, inspiring, sentimental.
Emotional categories stickers (English, Nepalese, Mandarin, Thai)
Each emotion is color-coded. A reader returning a book is asked to choose the word which best describes his or her feelings. If the first reader, for example, thought that the book was amusing, the book will be marked by a wide purple color strip and will be placed in the Amusing section. If the second reader will agree with the first, the purple sticker will be divided in two (to indicate the number of readers) and will be returned to the Amusing section. If, however, the third reader will determine that the book is boring, the next sticker will be divided into three: two-third purple and the upper third blue, and the book will move to the Boring section. No matter how many readers thought the book was amusing, it is that last reader that decides how the book will be categorized.
The library is a small and parallel world: the books wander between the shelves as their readers have wandered/are wandering the world. They carry with them their emotional history.
The feeling sticker proposes an opening for conversation about the book, an initial stimulus for live discussion between the readers.
Mostly, we sought to create a system that anyone could impact, in which every participant counts. For this very reason the placement of the book is not decided by popular vote, but by the last reader. Even if ten readers thought a book was amusing and the eleventh thought it was dull, the book will move to the Boring shelf – at least until the next reader weighs in.
The library website
The library website is an independent project intended to engage viewers who are not primarily the patrons of the library. The site will offer visitors the possibility of sorting and ordering the books upon the virtual shelves in a number of ways, according to the emotional categories, the various languages, the relative popularity of a particular category, etc.
The visual mapping will familiarize site visitors with the library’s reader communities, their opinions and preferences. The history of the emotional judgments will permit dynamic illustration of “wandering maps,” displaying the relative placements of the books at any point in time and the dynamic changes along the axis of time.
At the moment, the library catalogue contains limited information about a significant part of the current inventory. The database entry for these books contains only a catalogue number and scans of the front and back of the book. The site will host a wiki feature that will appeal to visitors from around the world to complete the information about each and every book in the book’s native tongue. Internet surfers in China, for example, will be able to type, in Mandarin, the Mandarin books’ pertinent information.
The library is open from Fridays to Sundays in the afternoon hours. It is operated by a group of about seventy volunteers, and managed by a paid manager who works a quarter-time position. Four volunteers man each shift, two of which work with the children.
The Children of the Library
The children of the foreign workers who had previously lacked any organized activity at the park were immediately drawn to the library. Many of these children are now “the library kids.” They arrive on a weekly basis and some stay throughout operating hours.
We soon discovered that one of the most important and unplanned functions of the library is to provide these children with a fun, supervised environment away from the addicts, alcoholics and sex workers who regularly congregate in the park, and to provide their parents with the peace of mind to relax and socialize with their friends.
The librarians read to the children and help them with reading and writing—all in Hebrew, the language of their primary school education and the primary language in which they speak to each other. Some of the volunteers run workshops and carry out various activities. About once a month we bring over a theatre show, a professional story hour, or a puppet theatre. All activities are provided free of charge by volunteers.
And the future?
Maintaining the library, even in its current configuration, is not an easy task. Securing the necessary funding for ongoing maintenance and administration is our main concern.
With the limited funds available to us, we are beginning to work on a book fair and a series of arts and cultural events. In June, for example, we presented the “Lewinsky Park Ballet” on the lawn next to the library. The evening consisted of traditional dance and music from Sudan, China, India, Ecuador and Ethiopia. The highlight of the show was an original library production with participators from Israel, Sudan and India.
Ultimately, we hope the library will become the basis for a larger multicultural community center that will reflect the great cultural diversity of the foreign communities that gather weekly in Tel Aviv.
Cast of Ballet in Lewinsky Garden - an original Garden Library production
Ballet Night at Lewinsky Park - a salute to the foreign worker communities in Tel Aviv. Produced by the Garden Library, the Mesila Center and Artis, a multidisciplinary group.
The Garden Library on opening night (Sept. 26, 2009)
Founders and supporters
ARTEAM, Interdisciplinary Art Team is a not-for-profit art organization. ARTEAM initiated and produced the library.
ARTEAM members are: Hadas Ophrat – interdisciplinary artist and art entrepreneur, Romy Achituv – artist, Marit Benisrael - interdisciplinary artist and writer, Tali Tamir – curator, Nimrod Ram – artist, Yoav Meiri – architect. Yoav Meiri designed the library in collaboration with the ARTEAM group members.
Lior Waterman – artist, and The Garden Library’s manager
Mesila center was founded by the Tel-Aviv municipality to assist and support foreign workers and refugees in the city. Mesila has become a full partner in the project.
A special thanks to the following institutes for their funding support:
Tel Aviv Municipality and the Tel Aviv Yafo Centennial Committee
Pais – The Israeli Lottery Organization
The Israeli Center for Libraries
A special thanks to the following for book contribution and assistance in importing books from around the globe:
Rania Ho, Beijing, China
Ami Zarchi and Ido Berger, Bangkok, Thailand
The Israeli Embassies in the Philippines, Thailand and China
The Israel Foreign Office
Book Publishers and private people who contributed books to the library