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Interview: Michael Hopper

Michael Hopper originally came to Harvard in August of 1985 as an Arabic-language cataloger in the division that he now heads. In 1991, he was appointed Islamic Studies Librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but returned to Harvard after 14 months. He has served as head of the Middle Eastern Division since 1994. Hopper holds a bachelor's degree from Ambassador College with a double major in religious studies and agribusiness, a second bachelor's from the University of Kentucky in Middle Eastern civilization, a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Indiana University, and a second master's in library and information science from Simmons.

LN
Widener's Middle Eastern Division is one of three divisions formerly known as "Area Studies." When was the Division originally formed?

MH
In 1954, with the advent of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the appointment of Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb to the Jewett Professorship of Arabic, the library began to take a more serious interest in the collection of Middle Eastern materials. Through the efforts of Professor Gibb, the library acquired an Arabic collection of some 3,000 volumes. With no one to process these materials, a newposition was established in the Catalog Department of Widener, and in 1956, the library had its first full-time Arabic cataloger, who also advised on book selection.

Records seem to indicate the library had at least 20 Arabic titles in 1830, and by 1949 there were 1,984 volumes of Arabic. Systematic collection did not begin until 1954. It is also interesting to note that a separate Middle Eastern languages section of the card catalog was created—either upon the opening of Widener or transferred from Gore Hall.

As the teaching and research activities of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies grew, the library recognized the need for research materials in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. In 1959, the position of Middle Eastern specialist was created in the Catalog Department. Three years later, the Middle Eastern Division was organized, and the new position of assistant librarian for the Middle Eastern collections was established as its administrative head.

After some years as a part of Area Studies in Widener, the Middle Eastern Division is once again independent, reporting directly to Jeffrey Horrell, associate librarian of Harvard College for collections.

LN
What is the Division's charter?

MH
The Middle Eastern Division has as its mission the documentation of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, as well as their diaspora communities throughout history, in order to support teaching at Harvard and to serve as a resource for the scholarly community not only for the present, but also for future generations of students and scholars.

LN
How has the Division evolved over time?

MH
For various reasons, the collecting activities of the Division for the first 30 years were not as broad as they should have been. In the 1990s, we began to broaden the scope of collecting to make the collection more comprehensive and, thus, representative of the Middle East. We wanted to make sure that we represented minority communities in the Middle East also. This is an area to which little attention has been devoted in most research libraries, as if the Middle East were somehow monolithic in nature. One of our successes in this area has been to build a significant Assyrian collection, documenting the history and culture of the Assyrians, a Middle Eastern Christian community still present in the Middle East and maintaining vibrant diaspora communities with their own organizations and publications. Now with the Internet, there is also a lively cyber-community of Assyrians.

This segues into another collecting area that became increasingly important—that of the documentation of Middle Eastern diaspora communities in general. Given the political situation in the Middle East, significant emigré communities developed outside the Middle East. A striking Iranian community gathered around Los Angeles after the fall of the Shah. Among those aware of this community, Los Angeles is jokingly referred to as Tehrangeles or Irangeles. Today, we receive almost 100 Persian serial titles from California alone.

At the same time, you had the breakup of the Soviet Union, and with this came a transfer of responsibility for collecting in the vernacular languages of Central Asia and the Caucasus from the Slavic Division to the Middle Eastern Division—although the Slavic Division still retains responsibility for Russian materials from these areas.

Finally, there has been a flourishing of the press in various countries. One example is Saudi Arabia. With the advancement of the educational system in Saudi Arabia, you now have a significant number of university and scholarly publications. At the same time, regional literary clubs have developed, with each publishing its own journal, as well as a series of literary works and literary criticism. On average we receive around 600 new titles from Saudi Arabia each year.

All of this adds up, and this is most notable in the increase in our Arabic collection. The number of Arabic book titles has doubled since 1992, and soon we will approach 150,000 titles in Arabic alone in Widener.

LN
What are the key challenges facing your Division today and for the future?

MH
We must maintain our collecting activities and increase collecting to reflect publication patterns. At present, I think we do a very good job of acquiring and making available most mainstream material from our areas of the world. We acquire material from some 44 countries and in over 60 languages. It is always gratifying to have a visiting scholar come to Harvard for a semester and express elation over the material they are able to find here which does not exist elsewhere. We had one such scholar from Germany, and she now assists us in acquiring material from the Arab and Turkish communities in Germany. She has also supplied us with material from various demonstrations in Germany around the Iraq War. Her enthusiasm for the collection is contagious!

However, we can do more. For example, I would like to have at least two major newspapers from each of our countries in the collection. We also want to expand our collecting scope and go after those areas that would continue to distinguish the Middle Eastern collection. This means acquiring more grey material, ephemera, and non-mainstream publications, and expanding our holdings of electronic resources and non-print material, such as videos, cassette tapes, CDs, etc. These resources are becoming increasingly important in today's academic environment, and we have just begun to make inroads in collecting these types of material. There is also a ton of material available on the Internet that is not available elsewhere. We need to archive this material.

LN
How have your interactions with the faculty grown or changed?

MH
We are more proactive with the faculty—and, I might add, with the students. We work closely with the Harvard College Library instructional program to offer classes to both faculty and students geared toward helping them navigate the vast ocean of material that exists within the library. For example, every fall we offer a course for incoming graduate students at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and we are always invited to their orientation session. We attempt to impress upon them the need to establish contacts within the library from the beginning of their work at Harvard.

LN
To what extent is the day-to-day political situation in the Middle Easta factor?

MH
Not just the day-to-day political or economic situation, but the difficulties of acquiring material from our regions of the world in general have an impact on our work. In many of our countries, there is no established book trade; little or no timely bibliographic control; short publication runs of titles; many publications of an ephemeral nature; the ever-present twin demons of censorship and bureaucracy; and greatly varying methods, times, and costs for getting the material to Cambridge. You would be amazed at the various machinations we have to go through to acquire material sometimes.

The past decade or so, we have had difficulty acquiring material from Algeria and Azerbaijan, but thankfully, this is beginning to change. For many years, we have acquired most of our Libyan material via a librarian in Germany. Most recently, the amount of time it takes to receive material from Palestine has jumped from the "normal" one month to anywhere from two to four months. Overall, though, despite these impediments I think we miraculously succeed.

LN
How is the war in Iraq affecting your work?

MH
I don't think there has been a direct impact except perhaps in the subject matter of some of the material that we receive. What is worthy to note here is that after the Iraq-Kuwait Crisis (1990-1991), we were forbidden to acquire material from Iraq under the embargo regulations of the Treasury Department. This restriction was only lifted after the Iraq War last year, so we are in the position of trying to acquire Iraqi material from the last 13 years. To add insult to injury, there was no exemption for Northern Iraq, which was not under the control of Saddam Hussein. In fact, Northern Iraq had experienced a renaissance of publishing by various groups in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkman, and Assyrian. There was a freedom of the press that would have been unthinkable under Saddam Hussein.

You may be interested to know that we had an invoice from our Iraqi vendor from March 1990, which we only paid this past year. Last spring, we reestablished contact with our Iraqi vendor, and he has been sending us material on a regular basis ever since. He has produced several lists which we have searched and tried to fill lacunae in our Iraqi collection. In addition, he has been somewhat successful in filling in gaps in our journal holdings. If your readers would like to see some recent material from Iraq, they can do a title search under in HOLLIS under "Iraqi textbook collection," and they will find titles of both pre- and post-Saddam school textbooks.

LN
Thank you.

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Last modified on Friday, May 21, 2004.