Campus & Community

Updating library collections: A global challenge:

4 min read

Travails of collecting detailed at annual librarian spring conference

illustration of
Illustration by Georgia Bellas

Shortly after Iran fell to Islamic revolutionaries in 1979, a book dealer sending volumes to Harvard’s libraries cut out pictures of the deposed Shah so that the books would not be confiscated.

The removed pages were sent separately later, but the incident illustrates the lengths that dealers and Harvard library collectors have to go to keep collections of regional publications current.

The Iranian example was just one of many given on Thursday (May 8) during the Spring 2003 Librarians’ Assembly, which brings together librarians from across the University and which was held in Harvard Hall.

The program, “The Challenge of Collecting in a Complex World,” featured Michael Hopper, head of the Middle Eastern Division in the Area Studies Department at the Harvard College Library’s Widener Library; Raymond Lum, Asian bibliographer at Widener and librarian for Western languages at Harvard-Yenching Library; and Andras Riedlmayer, the Fine Arts Library’s bibliographer in Islamic art and architecture.

The three talked about the difficulty of collecting in the Middle East and Asia, and of efforts to rebuild libraries and collections in a war zone, using Bosnia and Kosovo as examples.

Dan Hazen, librarian for Latin America, Spain and Portugal in the Harvard College Library, moderated the event. He said that conditions in developing nations make it particularly difficult both to find resources and to export them from their country of origin. While many countries maintain national bibliographies of publications, they are rarely up to date and often incomplete.

This situation makes collecting particularly difficult, Hazen said, because it’s hard to determine what is available in a particular country. In addition, there are sometimes national censorship laws to deal with, bans on exporting particular material from the country, unreliable postal service, and high tariffs on what can be exported. Together, these factors can present a daunting set of obstacles to overcome just to keep a collection current.

Hopper said the Middle Eastern Division oversees collections from 60 nations, in 50 languages, written in a variety of alphabets and which includes publications of a sizeable diaspora community that has spread around the globe.

He used Egypt as an example of the complexity of acquiring publications that would be routine here in the United States.

With national bibliographies unreliable, local book dealers are critical, since they know the local industry, the government officials involved, and the publishers. There have been times, he said, when bookstores have told them they’re out of particular volumes, only to find them later on the shelves. Other times, an Internet search conducted from America will turn up information that is unavailable to a book dealer in the same city where it is published or being sold.

Sometimes, Hopper said, the dealers have to send a staffer daily to a publisher for a copy of a journal, because they’re not sure when it will come out.

Over the years, Hopper said, he’s seen books seized by government officials and confiscated, books destroyed, and books published by one government agency being banned by another agency of the same government.

All these are factors in the cost of keeping a collection current, Hopper said. On top of the cost of the book comes the cost of the sometimes extensive efforts needed to acquire it, and any customs duties and shipping costs, which alone can be more than the cost of the volume itself.

The result, Hopper said, is that it’s sometimes easier to get books in nations other than the country where they’re published. It’s easier to get Libyan materials in Germany, for example, Hopper explained, than in Libya itself.

Finding materials of a particular group that has settled outside its homeland can be particularly difficult, partly because it requires first locating the community, Hopper said. Different communities crop up all over the world, such as Assyrian communities that have settled in widely separated places, from Tehran to Chicago to Moscow to Australia to Sweden to Worcester, Mass.

“Our task is complex, yes. Difficult, yes. Never-ending, yes, but very rewarding,” Hopper said.