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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 035-130-E
Division Number: IV
Professional Group: Classification and Indexing
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 130
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

Multilingual and Multiscript Subject Access: the Case of Israel

Elhanan Adler
Israel Center for Digital Information Services,
Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University
Jerusalem, Israel


Israel is an extreme case of a multilanguage and multiscript environment. Several different library approaches have evolved to enable subject access to materials in different languages and scripts. The use of subject headings and word searching, primarily in English, seems to be the prevalent trend in academic libraries while public libraries are just beginning to evolve from classified catalogues to Hebrew language subject headings.


The State of Israel has two official languages: Hebrew and Arabic, with English a common but unofficial third language. Highway signs, corporate logos, etc. usually appear in two or even all three of these languages which not only use different scripts, but have different directionality, Hebrew and Arabic being written from right to left. Romanization practices are many, both official and unofficial, and the lack of vowel points in most Hebrew and Arabic texts further complicates the possibility of bringing data to a common script-representation. This has naturally lead to retaining these scripts in bibliographic applications as well.

Aside from the question of "official" vs. "unofficial" languages and scripts, Israel is unique in that Hebrew, its primary official language, was reborn as a spoken language only in the last century, being used for some 2000 years previously only as a language of writing and prayer. Indeed the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken, modern language was accompanied by a great deal of resistance and required the creation of a much new terminology to accommodate the needs of a modern society. The Academy of the Hebrew Language still "invents" new Hebrew terms as needed and fights (with limited success) against the pervasive influence of English in everyday Hebrew.

Furthermore, as a country which actively encourages Jewish immigration from all countries of the world, the mother tongue of many Israelis is none of the official or semi-official languages. Indeed there is a saying that many Israeli mothers learned the mother tongue only from their children.

Such a "Babel" of languages and scripts has left its mark throughout Israeli bibliographic practice.

Israeli descriptive cataloging practice, both manual and automated, has been to maintain separate catalogs for each script: Hebrew, Arabic and Latin. Many Israeli libraries also maintain a fourth catalog for entries in the Cyrillic alphabet; while Cyrillic is more easily romanized than Hebrew or Arabic, Russian is the mother tongue of a large segment of the Israeli public (particularly in recent years) which has justified maintaining this additional script.

Subject access in such a multilingual environment is, however, much more problematic and the approaches taken much more varied.

The early Israeli library tradition was established at the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL). This library, founded in 1892, was for many years the largest and most important library in the country and for many years the site of the only school of librarianship. Its professional practices, particularly as developed during the 1920s and 1930s usually became de facto standards for all the other libraries in Israel. Only in the last thirty years, with the development of other Israeli universities and the opening of additional schools of librarianship, has its role shifted from standards-setter to that of first among equals, allowing additional approaches to appear as well. This is particularly true of subject access.

The early Israeli library subject approach, established at the JNUL, was to use the classified catalog (DDC with special expansion for Judaica and Islamica). Preferring an artificial language of numbers to natural language terminology was an ideal solution for a multilingual society, particularly at a time when the Hebrew language was inadequate to handle scientific terminology and the English language was not as common as it is today (had natural language terminology been used at that time there is a good chance it would have been German rather than English as a large segment of the academic community was educated in Germany). The tradition of using the classified catalog (usually without an index) is still firmly ingrained in Israel today and found not only in academic and scientific libraries but in most public libraries as well.

The first major Israeli library to turn against this tradition was the University of Haifa Library. As a new, swiftly growing library, it was the first major Israeli library to adopt the Library of Congress (LC) classification , a system ideally suited to a large open-shelf collection, but poorly suited for use in a classified catalog. After considering the possibility of creating Hebrew subject headings, the University of Haifa decided to use the existing Library of Congress subject headings as well. The rationale for this decision was primarily a pragmatic one: having to translate English subject headings into Hebrew, particularly for non-Judaic academic literature, and maintain a Hebrew language thesaurus, would require a great deal of professional intervention and effectively negate the advantages of using LC copy cataloging and classification. The University of Haifa also felt that in a university community in which everyone supposedly had a good reading knowledge of English, using English subject terminology would not be too great a handicap. This approach was subsequently followed by several other Israeli university libraries, including several libraries of the Hebrew University itself, the home institution of the JNUL.

Subsequently the University of Haifa itself did create a thesaurus of Hebrew indexing terms to support its Index to Hebrew Periodicals project (1977 to date). This thesaurus currently contains several tens of thousands of Hebrew indexing terms with necessary cross references. Having been developed for Hebrew article indexing, however, it does not contain much of the terminology necessary in an academic library with a large percentage of non-Hebrew material. This thesaurus has also served as the basis for a list of Hebrew subject headings for public libraries which has recently appeared and is being used by the Israel Center for Libraries, the cataloging agency for most public libraries. A more limited Hebrew thesaurus was also created by the Henrietta Szold Institute for use in its bibliographic project Current Research in Behavioral Sciences.

An alternate approach has been taken by the library of Bar-Ilan University. While recognizing that the existing Hebrew terminology infrastructure is insufficient for many Latin character publications, Bar-Ilan has created a list of Hebrew subject headings for use with Hebrew language publications. As a large percentage of Hebrew publications are on Judaic and Israeli topics, the use of Hebrew terminology for these subjects is much simpler, and other headings needed are translated from the Library of Congress terms. The disadvantage of this approach is that it causes a split subject file and in order to locate materials on a given subject in both Hebrew and Latin scripts it is necessary to search both subject catalogs, using different terms in each.

In recent years several of the university libraries which maintain classified catalogs have tried to enrich subject access by adding textual retrieval elements. Thus, the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, while retaining its UDC classified catalog, has enhanced it with English language cross references which serve as an additional subject access (searchable both as headings and by word). The Jewish National and University Library has also enhanced its classified catalog by appending English language terminology to the DDC-based numbers themselves, creating headings such as:

    372.114.4 Elementary school teachers - Evaluation.
    296.54 Halakha and poseqim after Moses ben Maimon and before Joseph Caro
The text appended to the classification numbers is the explanation of the number, often including scope notes, and can be retrieved via word searching only. The use of English terminology in these headings is primarily to avoid the technical problems of bidirectional text.

In the early 1970s there was some thought of creating a uniform set of Hebrew subject headings for all fields based on LCSH. The necessary funding for this project was not available and it was shelved.

It would appear that with the exception of Bar-Ilan University's split-file approach, the Israeli university libraries feel reasonably comfortable with using English terminology for their subject retrieval (either via LCSH headings or enhancements to the classified catalog). The Israeli public libraries, on the other hand, do not feel that they can expect English literacy from all their readers. While dissatisfied with the classified catalog, they have only recently been able to receive copy-cataloging with Hebrew subject headings and its usage is yet to be evaluated.

The word-indexing capabilities of modern OPAC systems create a new challenge to multilingual and multiscript databases. Despite the lack of Hebrew or Arabic subject headings in most OPACs, it is possible to retrieve some relevant material by entering words which may appear in the title, subtitle or other indexed data fields. While providing limited recall and often low relevance, the immediacy of such searching, and the familiarity with its approach as found in Internet search engines may lead to increased reliance upon it as an alternative to conventional subject access. While this is a problem in all OPAC systems, it would appear to be a particularly complex one in a multiscript environment.


Adler, Elhanan. "Implementation of the Library of Congress system in the Library of the University of Haifa", Yad Lakore 14 (November 1974), 64-86 (in Hebrew)

Adler, Elhanan. "Judaica cataloging: the Hebrew bibliographic and Israeli traditions", Judaica librarianship, 6 (1-2) (spring 1991-Winter 1992), 8-12.

Hoffman, Gita, et.al. "Hebrew Subject Headings: development and implementation at Bar-Ilan University", Judaica librarianship 6 (1-2) (spring 1991-Winter 1992), 24-37.

Lazinger, Susan and Elhanan Adler. Cataloging Hebrew materials in the online environment.

Englewood, CO, Libraries Unlimited, 1998. particularly chapter 7: "Hebraica, Judaica and Israelitica Subject Cataloging"


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