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As we have seen the origins of the Middle East Collection date to the establishment of Arabic studies at Penn at the beginning of the 20th century. It grew at a slow and steady pace as the course of Arabic and other Middle Eastern studies grew. The establishment of the Middle East Center in 1965 galvanized the collection activities of the Middle East Collection, especially in terms of collecting in modern topics such as history and politics. The Center has been a great contributor to the Middle East Collection's collection efforts in terms of funding and guidance. 

In 1965 the Middle East Center was established at Penn to promote the study of the modern Middle East, encourage Middle Eastern studies in a larger number of academic departments, and facilitate the flow of information about the Middle East throughout the university community and beyond. More than 30 academic programs and departments at Penn have faculty and students pursuing research related to the study of the Middle East.

The Middle East collection comprises approximately 70,500 catalogued volumes in Arabic, 12,000 volumes in Persian, 9000 volumes in Turkish, 400 volumes in Ottoman Turkish, 1,400 volumes in Armenian, and about a hundred volumes altogether in Azeri, Amazigh, Kazakh, Kurdish, Tajik, Uighur, and Uzbek. The Western-language component cannot be isolated and counted. The collection is particularly strong in works of Islamic doctrine and law, mysticism, medieval history, and Arabic literature. Most of the collection, including materials on Islamic and Arabic civil law, is housed in Van Pelt; most Western-language materials on art and architecture are in the Fisher Fine Arts Library; materials on anthropology are in the Museum Library. 

The Middle East Seminar room on the fifth floor of Van Pelt houses a collection of reference materials and basic sources in both Western and Middle Eastern languages. 

The collection has been built up largely since 1965, but Penn's long commitment to Arabic and Islamic studies is represented by a large number of rare nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works by noted European Orientalists and by the presence of numerous texts in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish printed during the same period. The Special Collections Department houses 26 Arabic manuscripts and one Persian manuscript. 

The strength of the collection lies in Islamic scriptures including commentaries on the Koran and prophetic traditions, Islamic law, the medieval and modern history of the Arab world and Iran, and the classical and modern literatures of the Arabic-speaking world (with an emphasis on Egypt and the eastern Arab countries), Iran, and to a lesser degree, Turkey. Holdings on Islamic Central Asia are modest. Since the early 1990s holdings on contemporary political, anthropological and sociological aspects of the Middle East have increased steadily.

1. Chronological

From the rise of Islam to the present day. Particular emphasis is placed on both medieval and contemporary Islam and Middle Eastern societies and on works pertaining to literature and history in the modern period.

2. Formats

Books, journals, newspapers and digital media. Documentary films and fiction movies are acquired selectively. When necessary, microfilm versions are collected.

3. Geographical

From North Africa east through Central Asia, Turkey, and Iran.

4. Language

Primarily Arabic, followed by Persian and Turkish. Materials in Turkish dialects are selectively acquired. Materials in English and French, and, to a lesser degree, German, Spanish and Italian on appropriate subjects are acquired.

5. Publication dates

The library's acquisition activities focus on recent Middle Eastern imprints. When the opportunity arises, retrospective materials, either in hard copy or on microfilm, are added.

Until recently the library participated in an approval plan with its vendors. At present, title by title selction is made until profiles are updated.

A. Arabic books and Western-language imprints from the Arabic-speaking world:

The library's longest-standing approval plan was with Sulaiman's Bookshop in Beirut, Lebanon. Through this source, current imprints from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq are acquired. For imprints from Egypt, the Sudan, Libya and North Africa, an approval plan was established with Leila Books in Cairo, Egypt in 1994. Works from the West Bank and Gaza are acquired through Andromeda Books.

B. Persian books:

Title-by-title selection is made from lists provided by our primary vendor, Iran Farhang. Persian music CDs and other media are acquired through Raha Books.

C. Turkish books:

Title-by-title selection is made from catalogs supplied by Libra Books/Rifat Bali. Turkish media is also acquired through this dealer.

D. Western language books:

Our vendor for English books is Yankee Books; for French, it is Touzot, for German, it is Harrasowitz, and for Italian, it is Casalini. Title-by-title selection is made.

Vendors' catalogs and lists are a primary selection tool, supplemented by use of the OCLC database, information gleaned from internet lists related to Middle East studies, faculty and student recommendations, and scholarly publications in the field. The general collection guideline is to acquire materials which will further the faculty and their students in their study and teaching.

The values below apply to the vernacular-language component of the collection, and so are applicable to Arabic, Persian and Turkish collecting. They may also be regarded as general indicators of the collecting practice of the Western-language component.

Subjects Collected General:
Statistical materials, such as country yearbooks (4F), are collected. Conference proceedings and festschrifts related to a collected subject where published in Western languages are also collected (3F). Conference proceedings in vernacular languages are only collected when the contributing scholars involved are known. Biographical works (2F) are sometimes collected on single figures, but bio-bibliographical works and biographical dictionaries (3F) are always acquired. Manuscript catalogs from major Middle Eastern libraries are collected (3F). Works on the Middle Eastern languages, their grammar, history and rhetoric are not usually collected (2F). On the other hand, scholarly dictionaries are collected (3F). Genealogical works, and works of Christian theology are not usually collected (2F).

Anthropology. (1F) This subject is given secondary importance in our Collection policy. Most of the works in the subject are paid for by the University Museum Library, and are housed there. The University Museum Library receives collection advice from the Middle East Studies Librarian where necessary.

Economics. (1F) This subject too is of secondary importance for collection. Statistical materials are of higher importance.

Education and Health. (2F) These subjects too are of secondary importance. Statistical materials again are of higher importance (4F). Works of popular medicine are not collected (2F).

Food Culture. (4F)Cookbooks, and works which show how food fits into the social life of an area or time period are collected. Works in the vernacular languages are given precedence.

History and Political Science. (5F) These are given precedence in collecting. History from the Classical through to modern times is of primary importance. Specific importance is placed on primary source materials, such as archival materials, and Classical works. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia North Africa and the Gulf States are all collected. The political systems of the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) states are all primary collection subjects. Foreign relations of the MENA states with each other, and especially with the United States are also collected. Biographies of leaders and other important figures are of lesser importance but are still collected. Important works on the Arab-Israeli conflict are collected (3F).

Islam. (5F) Classical works on Islamic doctrine, philosophy, hadith and law; works on Sufism, Koran commentaries, and biographies of Islamic scholars and mystics are all of prime importance. Modern works are of secondary importance, but are collected when on specific important topic such a jihad/religious violence/terrorism, human rights, democracy or Salafism/Wahhabism (4F). Islamic devotional literature is of secondary importance (2F). Only important works on Islamic sects, such as Shiism, are collected (3F). Works by modern Islamic preachers, especially in cassette form are of primary importance (4F). Modern civil law of the Arab countries is of secondary importance (2F).

Islamic Art/Architecture. (1F) Works on these subjects are housed in the Fine Arts Library and are purchased by them with advice from the Middle East Studies Librarian.

Language & Literature. (4F) Works of Classical Arabic literature are of primary importance, and are collected comprehensively. Modern Arabic literature is also important, but the collection of samplings of literature from the different countries or major modern authors is the collection strategy. Grammatical and rhetorical tracts are of lesser interest. Works of literary criticism (3F) are of secondary interest, unless they deal with important authors, or literary movements. Of particular interest are translations of literature (5F) in the vernacular into English or to a lesser degree French. Dictionaries are collected selectively (3F), usually concentrating on dialectical material and classical works.

Media studies. (4F) This relatively new topic is an important part of our collection policy. Works on mass media, the Internet, sociology of mass media and communications/copyright law are all collected. Works on film are also collected.

Sociology. (3F) This subject is of secondary importance for collection. Statistical materials are of higher importance. Works on youth and youth culture are collected. In general, works on ethnic groups and tribes are not collected. However, works on the Kurds, Druze, Assyrians, and the Copts - their history, politics and social customs - are of importance for collection. Travel literature from no later than the early 20th century and earlier is also collected.(3F).

The library does not routinely collect the following subject areas and types of material: children's literature, popular religious material, technology, business/finance, applied sciences, translations into Arabic, Persian or Turkish from Western languages, general encyclopedias and dictionaries, agriculture, geography, modern civil law of the Arab countries, medicine, works of Eastern Christian doctrine and history, genealogy, numismatics, and reprints of earlier editions without significant added materials (2f).

Penn is located near several large Middle East studies collections, most notably those of Princeton, New York University, Columbia University, Yale and the New York Public Library. Works from the Columbia and Yale University Libraries may be borrowed through Borrow Direct, if not held at Penn.