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Hebraic Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther)
Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) (Italy, eighteenth century?). Depicted in the panels at the top and the bottom of this scroll are vignettes illustrating the story of Purim.

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) was created in 1978 as part of a general Library of Congress reorganization. At that time, three disparate administrative units -- the Hebraic Section, the Near East Section, and the African Section -- were combined. Together they cover some seventy countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. The division coordinates and directs the component sections. Each section plays a vital role in the Library's acquisitions program; offers expert reference and bibliographic services to Congress and researchers in this country and abroad; develops projects, special events, and publications; and cooperates and participates with other institutions and scholarly and professional associations in the United States and around the world.

The Hebraic Section, the oldest of the three, began operation in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitic and Oriental Literature, and it concentrates on Jewish culture, Israel, the Hebrew language, biblical studies, and the ancient Near East. Although proposed earlier, it was not until 1960 -- with mounting national academic and government interest in sub-Saharan Africa -- that the Library's African Section was established, administered initially by the General Reference and Bibliography Division. This section focuses on virtually all topics relating to sub- Saharan Africa. In 1945, the Near East Section was created as part of the Orientalia Division to serve as a focal point of the Library's programs for this pivotal area, which includes North Africa, the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Islam.

View of the African & Middle Eastern Reading Room
View of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room where researchers may begin their study of the Hebraic and Judaic collections housed throughout the Library of Congress.

Volumes about the Middle East and Africa were among the books making up one of the first major purchases by the Library of Congress, the 1815 acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's library, the subject and linguistic range of which greatly influenced future Library acquisition policies. Although sporadic receipts of publications from or about the region were reported in various annual reports of the Librarian of Congress over the years, systematic acquisition efforts for publications from this part of the world were limited before World War II. Yet today the African and Middle Eastern Division is recognized as a major world resource center for the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa. The Hebraic and Near East sections have custody of materials in many formats in the non-roman-alphabet languages of the region, which together number more than half a million volumes. The Hebraic Section collections contain some 160,000 volumes in Hebrew and related languages, including Yiddish, Ladino, Syriac, and the languages of Ethiopia. Materials in more than forty languages are held by the Near East Section, the major holdings of which are in Arabic (the largest language group represented, with approximately 130,000 volumes), Persian, Turkish, non-Cyrillic Central Asian languages, Armenian, and Georgian. Although the African Section has no formal custodial responsibilities, it maintains a pamphlet collection of more than 22,000 items.

The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian
From William Whiston, translator, The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian (London, 1737). This translation of Josephus's account of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century may have served as inspiration for the author of the Declaration of Independence. It survives from Thomas Jefferson's personal library. (Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

To further enhance holdings already strong in the fields of history, literature, economics, linguistics, art, religion, and philosophical studies, division curators participate in acquiring materials of research value through purchase, copyright, exchange, and gift. Noteworthy grants and gifts have also served to strengthen these collections. For example, gifts from Jacob H. Schiff, one in 1912 and another in 1914, enabled the Library to acquire nearly 10,000 volumes and substantially increased the Hebraica collections. In 1960 a grant from the Carnegie Corporation provided initial support for the African Section, including staff travel to many African countries to obtain publications for the Library's collections. Generous gifts from Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dadian in the 1990s created an endowment to develop and maintain the Library's Armenian holdings.

In the spring of 1997, the division moved from the John Adams Building to its present imposing location in the newly renovated Thomas Jefferson Building. The new African and Middle Eastern Division Reading Room houses a 10,000- volume reference collection and a rotating display of current events journals, arranged and maintained by each of the three sections. The division welcomes visitors and provides prearranged briefings on its activities and services for individuals and for groups. Researchers may consult specialists who readily provide in-depth reference assistance in identifying materials in their custodial collection as well as related sources about the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa in roman script and in other formats or specializations found in the Library of Congress General Collections or in units such as the Geography and Map Division, the Manuscript Division, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and the Law Library.

A Geshikhte fun a Shtetl, 1142-1942 (Horodetz: A history of a village)
Akiva Ben-Ezra, A Geshikhte fun a Shtetl, 1142-1942 (Horodetz: A history of a village) (New York, 1949). This memorial volume tells the story of Horodetz, a small town in Poland, destroyed in the Holocaust. Hundreds of Yizker-bikher (memorial volumes) have been published, constituting a unique literature of remembrance. These works are especially useful to genealogists because they often contain lists of names and photographs of people and places.

In the several display cases located in its grand reading room, the division mounts small exhibits such as Oil and Petroleum in Africa and the Middle East. Major exhibits featuring AMED collections have been mounted in the Library's galleries. From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress was prepared to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hebraic Section, and a version of this exhibit later traveled to several North American cities.

Special events and outreach activities have long been part of the division's agenda. Working through the three sections, it sponsors many library, cultural, and scholarly programs. Officials of the International Summer Seminar in Jewish Genealogy accepted an offer from the Hebraic Section to serve as host for the seminar's 1995 meeting, making the Library's outstanding genealogy-related resources readily available to participants. The Africana Librarians Council of the African Studies Association has held several of its semiannual meetings at the Library. As part of its fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1995, the Near East Section held a conference on "Arab-American Cultural Relations," and more recently, it cosponsored with the Embassy of Tunisia a panel of international experts who spoke on "Tunisia: Past, Present, and Future." Lectures, including a research seminar series, are another important and ongoing part of the division's outreach program. Well-known speakers such as MacArthur Fellow and human rights lawyer Gay McDougall, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, and Egyptian philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmoud have participated.

The Agam Megillah
The Agam Megillah (London and Israel, 1997). A recent addition to the Library's Hebraic collections is a modern decorated megillah by noted Israeli artist Ya'akov Agam. Produced on parchment measuring thirty-two inches high, the limited edition includes a silk-screened border by the artist, with the text handwritten by the scribe. In this megillah, the traditional text is adorned with distinctly modern decorative artwork. (Copyright © 2001 Artists Rights Society [ars], New York/adagp, Paris)

Another role of the division is to facilitate projects to enhance access to the collections, as it does through the widely acclaimed body of publications issued under its auspices. The catalog of the highly successful exhibit initiated by the Hebraic Section, Scrolls from the Dead Sea: The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Scholarship, published jointly by the Library and the Israel Antiquities Authority, received several awards for its design. The African Section has compiled more than forty publications ranging from bibliographies of official publications of African nations to short subject guides on contemporary issues such as Abuja: The New Federal Capital of Nigeria. Titles prepared in the Near East Section include The Holy Koran at the Library of Congress and American Doctoral Dissertations on the Arab World.

The African and Middle Eastern Division continues to exert a vital influence in the development of area studies librarianship. Its staff is recognized for scholarly publications. They serve as officers in area studies organizations and attend and participate in national and international meetings on their areas of expertise. And, finally, a significant contribution made by the division is in its training of young scholars and future librarians through briefings and presentations, the internships and volunteer positions it offers, and the mentoring it provides to promising candidates, thus preparing the way for the future success of the study of these vital areas in world culture.

Beverly Gray
Chief, African and Middle Eastern Division

  HOME  Foreword  In the Beginning...  The Books of the People of the Book  Beauty in Holiness  The Holy Land
  In the New World  A Note to Researchers  Publications on the Hebraic and Judaic Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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