There are the parts of the Library people see and the parts of the Library people don’t see. The Machsan is one of these unseen parts. It is where the National Library of Israel keeps the majority of its books. Located in a cavernous three story basement, each floor is bigger than a soccer field and is filled with row after row of shelves containing over 5,000,000 titles on every subject under the sun. Books on Judaism, History, Mathematics, Art, Politics, books in Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, Chinese.
There is a law in the state of Israel mandating that two copies of every book published in Israel be sent to the National Library – this means that new books are coming in everyday and being added to the collection. The books are arranged according to the year and order in which they arrive. So, for example – now that it is 2012, the first book to arrive will be given the number 2012 1, the second book will be 2012 2 and so on and so forth. The Library counts the books on the shelves starting from the year 1936, but books can be found going all the way back to the 1700's.
The National Library of Israel permits access to many of the books in the Library’s collection for free, however most of the books cannot leave the Library and must be used in one of the Library’s reading rooms. The people 'above ground', in the reading rooms, order the books and then these orders are sent to the people below ground, in the Machsan. For every person who orders a book upstairs, a staff of less than 10 is hard at work downstairs, filling the orders and sending the books back to the readers who requested them. While tending to the stack of orders usually awaiting the staff, a Machsan worker will delve into the shelves, locate the books, and place them on a conveyer belt that hangs from the ceiling and runs the length of the room. From the conveyer belt, the book makes its way to a processing station where Machsan staff makes sure the book is in proper order. If everything checks out, the book is sent up in an elevator to the reading room from which it was requested. Some days, there are more than 500 orders placed, meaning a Machsan worker will cover many kilometers walking, and sometimes running, through the shelves to fill orders.
Although it is simple but hard work, it is also important work because helping people to read – which is ultimately what the Machsan staff is doing – is one of the National Library of Israel’s main goals, and it could not be fulfilled without the dedicated staff of the Machsan.