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History of the Middle East Collection

Middle Eastern studies have been part of the University of Pennsylvania curriculum for more than two hundred years. The Middle East studies collection of the library began at the beginning of the twentieth century when it was decided that the study of Arabic had a place in the University's already well established Semitic language cirriculum. From there the collection grew along with Arabic scholarship at Penn at a slow and steady pace. By 1907 Penn was offering a rich program, consisting of Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Hebrew, and Syriac, with Coptic and Egyptian added in 1910, and the Iranian languages and Turkish in 1915. The program of study was largely historical and philological and was centered in the Department of Oriental Studies which later became the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. The details of this history can be found in Cyrus H. Gordon's "The Pennsylvania Tradition of Semitics: A Century of Near Eastern and Biblical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania" (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).

Parallel to these scholarly endeavors has been the Library’s collections and support. The first Arabic book acquired by the Library can be seen in the Founder’s Collection (215 O), a 1775 edition of the poems of ‘ Alî b. Abî Tâlib.

During the inauguration of the “New Library Building” on February 7, 1891, Mr. Horace Howard Furness spoke of the new library and its collections, remarking:

“In Arabic literature our Library is unquestionably the best to be found on this side of the Atlantic. We have all the important Occidental publications and many of the Oriental, a practically complete list of all Arabic grammars and dictionaries; a handsome edition of the Koran, and an especially rich collection of Arabic Poetry and Numismatics. Also an excellent collection of works on Semitic Epigraphy, including Phoenician, Palmyrene, Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions.

“For this fine choice collection, we are all of us indebted to the devotion of Professor Dr. JASTROW, the learned son and learned father, and whose name, although so young in years, is old enough in fame to be known in two hemispheres.”*

Penn's libraries began large-scale collection activities from the Middle East in the years following World War II thanks to US government-sponsored programs such as the Farmington Plan and PL-480 program. With the establishment of the Middle East Center in 1965, the Library diversified its holdings to reflect the broad interests of students and faculty in Middle East and related studies including sociology, economics, law and popular culture. In 1970, the Library appointed its first Middle East bibliographer, J. Dennis Hyde, who set the solid foundations for the ongoing collection Arabic, Persian and Turkish materials. The collection has maintained its reputation as one of the most important of its kind in North America.

In January of 1986, in response to the need for specialized handling and processing of its acquisitions, the Middle East Technical Services Unit was created. In 1994, the Unit was one of the early institutions following Library of Congress to begin cataloging its holdings using Arabic script. The results of these endeavors can now be seen today with the upgrade of the Franklin library catalog which allows users to search in Arabic.

Collaborating nationally and internationaly has always been a part of the Middle East Collection's aim. Dr. Hyde was one of the founding members of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA). Past and present Middle East bibliographers at Penn have traveled overseas to the region to collect library materials, and have fostered ties with institutions to exchange publications and promote international librarianship

Further details of the collection’s history and development can be found in the Collection Development Policy.

*SOURCE: Proceedings at the Opening of the Library of the University of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia: University Press, 1891): 11-12.