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A Research Guide to Middle Eastern Studies: Prepping for Research in the Field

An introduction to resources both at Penn Libraries and freely available elsewhere online.

Online Guides

HAZİNE research guide


The catalog section of Van Pelt is your friend. Most fellowship applications will ask for an itinerary of where you will go and what you will see. Be prepared and have a detailed list of sources and institutions. In this section of the library, you will find catalogs to library and museum collections around the world. Print catalogs are essential because online catalogs are often incomplete and difficult to browse. 

Van Pelt third floor plan, Z call number section highlighted

A small sampling of Union Catalogs for some areas in the MENA Region.
United Kingdom
A union catalogue of manuscripts from the Islamicate world, currently housed in UK repositories.
Bibliography on Manuscript Libraries in Turkey and the Publications on the Manuscripts Located in These Libraries, Ed. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. Istanbul : Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture (IRCICA), 1995.
North Africa
Déroche, François. "A Note on the Mediaeval Inventory of the Manuscripts Kept in the Great Mosque of Kairouan." In Writings and Writing : Investigations in Islamic Text and Script in Honour of Dr. Januarius Justus Witkam, Ed. Robert M. Kerr and Thomas Milo (Cambridge: Archetype, 2013): 67-86
اتحاد مكتبات الجامعات المصرية
Egyptian Universities Libraries Consortium Research portal, which features the union catalogue for collections of Egyptian university libraries
Provides digital access to printed catalogs for libraries in Iran.

Tips for Research Visits

  1. Search through any available catalog in print and electronic form for your subject and build a list of items to view for each institution. Remember, online catalogs often do not contain everything. 
  2. Figure out what documentation each institution requires in order to gain access to materials. Sometimes that is a letter of introduction from your advisor, department, or another type of verification of your status at a university. Always bring your student ID and, if in a foreign country, bring your passport, since many institutions will make a copy of this document for their records.
  3. Identify your timeline to contact the institution. Often, but not always, museum and library websites will list how far in advance they require notice of your visit. Respect those deadlines and integrate them into your schedule. If you need additional permission for access from a central ministry (ie. Turkey), plan for the wait times and any documentation needed. Usually, a 1-2 weeks notice is acceptable, but some require over a month. Check to see if your target institutions differ based on space or staffing needs.
  4. Figure out how to set your research appointment. Websites will often, but not always, list this info. Sometimes institutions will have an online system to set up your research account and make requests (often public repositories). Some require direct emails with the librarian, curator, or a coordinator. When in doubt, email the specialist for Middle Eastern material. 
    1. Do you need language help to navigate this process? If you don't have time to learn the language of the institution, find a friend who can help with your requests, or make friends with linguistically gifted folks researching in the same place. 
  5. Even if you don't have to, email the specialist curator or librarian so the know you are coming. They can help you with your research. Ask about related material that you may have missed or additional background and documentation on your items. Museums and libraries often keep files on the provenance of a work. Sometimes these can include translations, preservation notes, or notes from other researchers. Often times, librarians and curators will also know if a document or item has been cited in the literature, so this can help you build your bibliography regarding the topic. 
  6. Check/ask for local hand lists of documents, which may include things not listed in the catalog. 
  7. Don't ignore items with short/vague catalog descriptions. That likely means nobody has worked on it yet, but it has no reflection on the value of a work.
  8. If you have time, branch out from your list and request potentially related items. You never know what may end up being useful, or what may have been miscatalogued (it happens more often than you might think).
  9. Follow up if you intend to publish. Especially for those of you using images, you may well need to clear permissions. 
  10. Be kind, be kind, be kind. If you plan to come back, or even if it's a one-shot visit, manners are essential. Staff will remember if you are rude and you never know when you will need their help again down the line.
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