Middle East & Islamic Studies Collection


(The following statement is based to some extent on Library of Congress' acquisitions guidelines for materials from the Middle East and North Africa).

In making selections, there are certain difficulties in determining what is meant by materials of "research value." We can only attempt to define this term. Basically a book of research value is one that transcends merely immediate needs for information and potentially can stand the time as a source for scholarly investigation. By scholarly we mean a work identifiable by the presence of appropriate scholarly apparatus, thoroughness of treatment and orderly methodology. Since this definition is simply a framework, the critical factor in making selection decisions must be the knowledge and judgment of the Bibliographer or the person recommending and selecting the material for the collection.

The Library is basically a research library used mostly by the Cornell community. The collection on Middle East and Islam is not designed solely for Muslims or Arabs in America. It does not seek to acquire every publication issued on every subject. CUL is selective in what it acquires. The Library endeavors to acquire editions of original texts, scholarly works and reference works on the culture and civilization of Islam, Muslims, the Middle East and North Africa and related topics (defined in the Collection Policy). We shall abide by the following guidelines in the acquisition of materials on Islamic subjects.


One of Cornell University Library's (CUL) goals is to build an extensive research level collection of Islamica that can support in-depth research. In view of the proliferation of Islamic subjects and the repetitiveness of many publications the utmost care should be exercised in selecting materials dealing with Islamic subjects. The following guidelines should be followed:

1. The Koran and Koranic Studies

Do not acquire the following categories of materials:
A. New editions unless superbly illuminated.
B. Parts of the Koran.
C. New tafsirs, except when by a well known author and for the whole Koran.
D. Works on the names, terminology (alfaz) and strange aspects (gharib) of the Koran.
E. Works on the reading (qira'at) of the Koran unless they have some new information.
F. Indexes (faharis) of the Koran. Indexes in the new technologies should be considered carefully.
G. Works on the chanting of the Koran (tajwid).
H. Works on the inimitability (I'jaz) of the Koran unless by a major scholar.

2. The Hadith

The study of Traditions (Hadith) is as extensive as Koranic studies. The Library henceforth intends to continue acquiring Hadith-related works; but with some limitations (will Not acquire):

A. General works on Traditions are to be avoided except when written by a well known scholar, includes new data, or manifests a new approach.
B. Books on names, titles and genealogies.
C. The major collections, (the six books) or selections from them. Acquire classical books on Koran and Hadith if they are scholarly edited.
D. Books on biographies of al-ruwat and al-huffaz. Acquire only if they are new and scholarly edited, but no reprints (except if the CUL does not own any ed.).
E. Indexes and dictionaries unless they are not already represented in the collection or in new formats, such as CD-ROM.

Books on Other Islamic Subjects:

As a general rule the Library acquires materials of research value. The emphasis is on scholarly works with a definite methodology and that are of national and international level. With respect to the general topic of religion, works dealing with local religious groups, beliefs or controversies will be acquired selectively if they relate to matters of national or international significance, or if they have substantial value for research on cultural or sociological subjects.

Islamic writings have a wider parameter than most other religious writings in that all aspects of life in Islam are viewed as related to religion. That is the reason why we see, presently, the many endeavors to establish an Islamic "literature," such as Islamic economics, an Islamic medicine and Islamic social sciences.

1. Fiqh: (Jurisprudence)

The library acquires selectively those books that are scholarly or by well known jurists--old and new classical works when edited for the first time. Second editions should be carefully scrutinized for inclusion. Fatwas by modern Ulamas may be acquired selectively, one or two samples a year would be enough from the whole Arab World. al-Azhar will be given priority. Books on Muamalat and questions of cleanliness (taharah) and similar subjects are not to be acquired. Books on schools of jurisprudence (madhahib) are acquired whenever they are scholarly or their publications has raised issues and controversies of national or international level.

2. Theology, Philosophy and Sufism

Probably the best intellectual and spiritual works in Islamic literature are in this category. CUL acquires classical texts if published for the first time. Second and later editions are to be acquired if they are based on new sources, that is new manuscripts not used in the first edition. Facsimile editions are also acquired. commentaries on the classical texts and studies on the classical authors may be acquired when they are not textbooks. Popular Sufi literature (such as the ritual of the turuq (Sufi groups)) should not be acquired. General and current books on philosophy in the West, unless they represent Arab and /or Islamic points of view and are done by leading scholars, should not be acquired.

3. Sects

Scholarly and research level books on the different sects such as Shi'ah, Ismatiliyah, Ibadiyah, Druze, Khawarii, Baha'iyah, Alawiyah, Zaydiyah and others may be acquired. Popular books attacking or defending the sects and books of propaganda by the sects are not to be acquired, except when they might have national or international significance.

4. Devotional and Ritualistic Writings

Popular devotional works, sermons, religious instructions, Da'wah literature, guides for pilgrims, Isra' and Mi'raj literature and fortune telling palmistry and astrology should not be acquired. Exceptions may be made, highly selectively, if the publication has raised issues of national or international levels. Books on rituals such as fasting, pilgrimage, prayers, holidays and such are not to be acquired. The same restrictions apply to similar Christian literature from the Middle East.

5. Books on Islamic economics

Islamic social sciences are to be acquired selectively when they are written by scholars or by leading Islamic figures such as Shaykh al-Azhar or the Mufti of Egypt. Books on what is called Sahwah, Islamic awakening, and generally literature on fundamentalism are also to be acquired selectively and when they are scholarly (or have potential use for scholars), as these are likely to become primary sources for researchers.


Statistics of publishing in the Near East and North Africa show that Belles-Lettres and Islamic literature represent more than 60% of all publishing. This is the area where strict selection should be applied. CUL does not collect exhaustively in belles-lettres from the Middle East. CUL collects, however, works of excellence and representatively works which reflect popular trends or which contain features of special interest.

New authors represent the greatest problem in selectivity. Normally, the library will collect works of new authors when recognized by positive reviews. However, if the author has not been established, the greatest care should be applied in acquiring his or her works. The general principal is not to acquire a work of this genre unless it has received several positive reviews showing that it contains originality or sets new trends. Normally, CUL does not retain and should not acquire belles-lettres which fall into the following categories:

1. Translations from Western languages into Arabic.
2. Translations from one Near Eastern language into another such as Persian, Turkish and Hebrew. Exceptions could be made for Kurdish or Berber into Arabic. Exception also applies when the translator is an eminent literary figure.
3. Translations, abridgments or textbooks like treatments of classics rendered into modern Arabic. An abridgment of the Iliad or the Shahnameh for example are not to be acquired.
4. Reprints of editions already in the Library's collections and in good condition.
5. Anthologies which duplicate materials already in CUL. Collected works of major poets, novelists and writers should be acquired.

CUL collects, respectively, samples in the following areas of belles-lettres, where large quantities of similar titles are produced in various countries of the Arab World:

A. Works by prolific popular writers
B. Devotional poetry.
C. Eulogistic poetry.
D. Works based on other works.
E. Popular retelling of well known fables, tales and epics. Examples: retelling of the Antar or Bani Hilal stories.
F. Children's literature.
G. Biographies that are meant for youth, or commemorative volumes essentially eulogistic in character.
H. Vernacular poetry (al-shi'r al-nabati, Zajal, popular songs).
I. Compendia of "wit and wisdom", example, collection of Jeha and Shu'ayb stories.

Other Materials (non-fiction and non-religious)

The Library will continue to collect publications of learned societies, academies, research centers, and universities. These are acquired without much questions. CUL will continue to acquire materials in the following categories unless they are duplicates of titles already in the Library:

1. Classics.
2. Collected works of major authors.
3. Dictionaries, but not abbreviated editions.
4. Bibliographies.
5. Biographies, but not popular editions meant for juveniles-or young adults, or compendia of short biographies of well-known people.
6. Linguistics, grammars, works on dialects when they are not simply text books.
7. Works on socio-anthropological topics such as customs and social classes and Bedouin life.
8. Folk literature and folk songs, highly selectively.
9. Ephemeral materials such as political party manifestos, resolutions, and reports.
10. Reprints when they are not in the collections or when they are for a replacement.
11. Reports on development projects but not development plans.

CUL does not retain and catalog materials of the following types:

1. Text books and similar publications intended to prepare students for examinations.
2. Works that are wholly technical in character which duplicate information already available in Western language publications. Exception is made when the work contains an extensive new vocabulary.
3. Extracts from journals, books and newspapers readily available. Exceptions may be made when the original is not likely to be at CUL.
4. Reprints of titles which are in the collection and in good condition, or "2nd editions" which are really second printing. Exceptions can be made if the new edition is indexed and the older one is not and/or it contains a substantive introduction.
5. Compendia of "wit and wisdom" (nukat).
6. Commemorative volumes essentially eulogistic in character.
7. Hagiographies, lives of saints, unless well known.
8. How-to books.

In general when assessing whether non-literary and non-religious titles should be selected for addition to the collection, the central question is whether or not scholarly apparatus is present. If it is not there, the title should be examined carefully to see what it reveals about the study. If it is a class of material which is peripheral to the research and reference, then the question is whether it contains or constitutes something unusual or new, as well as whether or not it is a type of publication already well represented in the library's collection. Scholarly materials published in the Arab World, Iran, Afghanistan or Turkey that relate to other areas (i.e. Europe, Latin America or the Far East) such as a history of France, China, Brazil or the United States would be acquired only if it has reference to the Arab World or the Middle East in general.

Government publications

The Middle East, as a whole, has been experiencing a variety of abrupt changes and upheavals. Government, boundary changes and regional conflicts create complicated problems that the Library needs to document as much as it needs to document social and economic changes. When selecting government publications consideration must be given to the developmental circumstances of each country. Some materials which might appear of little value, increase in importance to the extent that publications from the country are relatively fewer and less accessible.

Normally, the Library acquires foreign documents of a national scope. Regional and city publications are acquired highly selectively. Examples: publications from East Saudi Arabia where most of the oil fields are located, or cities like Diyarbakir in Turkey where the Kurds are concentrated.

1. All official gazettes.
2. Annual statistical yearbooks, but not monthly or quarterly issues except when these are the only ones available.
3. Annual reports of the ministries and Outreach publications of the ministries, especially of information, may be acquired selectively.
4. Annual reports of central banks and major banks, economic reports such as the annual published by the League of Arab States may be acquired.
5. Collected speeches of heads of states and high officials may be acquired.
6. Legal materials such as legislative records, laws, treaties are acquired. (The Law Library collects rarely in vernacular Middle Eastern languages). Legal materials that is interpretive and non-governmental, and publications related to religious laws including civil status may be acquired, except when the book is a textbook and simply deals with legal procedures.

Ephemeral Materials

The Library is interested in acquiring ephemeral or elusive materials such as pamphlets, newsletters, election platforms, artistic posters, statements of political leaders, political parties manifestoes and resolutions, publications of dissent groups, religious and ethnic groups, human rights groups, liberation movements and women's movements. Likewise the Library is interested in acquiring materials on regional conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kuwait-Iraq conflict, the Western Sahara and others. As a rule of thumb, a pamphlet is a softbound publication less than 50 pages. The dividing line between a book and a pamphlet is indeed a thin one.


The Library acquires foreign newspapers of national or international scopes, very selectively. Regional or local newspapers are not acquired. Many newspapers from the Middle East and North Africa have versions available for free on the World Wide Web. (See Web page for this collection for examples).

Weekly news magazines should be limited to major ones, that is high circulation and widespread distribution. Right now the weekly Arabic magazines coming out of London and Paris have the widest circulation.

Literary, historical and scientific journals should be acquired selectively, but University, research institutes and learned societies' journals should be comprehensively acquired. Entertainment and recreational magazines are not to be acquired.

Documenting material acquired

In order to avoid questions or difficulties during periodic financial audits, we need to pay special attention to those situations in which we are buying material from, or selling it to, individuals directly connected with Cornell. This is even more critical when the selector is in effect selling something to the University, and is being reimbursed from the budget lines for which he or she is responsible. Ther are three basic rules for such situations:

a. If one buys something for the collection, using his/her own money, and then is reimbursed, always be sure to get a receipt at the time you purchase the item; and then include that with the transaction that is sent to Accounting. In that way there will be no questions about how much you originally paid.

b. If you buy or sell something to or from a Cornell person--and especially if you are selling something that you own yourself--always include clear documentation on how the price was determined. Provide some reference or explanation.

c. In any cases of doubt (again, especially when you are selling something you own, which is being paid for by a budget that you control), always obtain authorization from the supervisor, whoever that may be; by doing this, you ensure that your supervisor is officially verifying the transaction. All such documentation should be included with the information sent to Accounting.


What's an Item of "research value"

-- Some of the obvious questions are : Is it authoritative? That is to say, well-informed, sound, scholarly, and reflecting an up-to-date knowledge of the facts, the sources, the issues, and the debates? Is it objective? That is to say, does it give different views on disputed questions and avoid partisan or polemical statements? Some modern schools of epistemology would consider this aim impossible, noxious, and, at best, hypocritical, and would insist on the essentially partisan character even of dictionaries--perhaps especially of dictionaries. Another question, important in judging a work (works of reference specifically), is it comprehensive yet balanced? That is to say, does it include all that should be included, exclude what is not relevant, and maintain a proper balance of topics and of the length and manner at which the various topics are treated?

A work might be described as academic or, better, scholarly, in purpose: that is to say, offering up-to-date information and guidance on the state of knowledge and opinion among specialists in the field. The author (s) of such a work is asked to support the analysis with references to original sources and to scholarly literature in all the major languages. It is taken for granted that, whatever his own religious, ideological, and other allegiances may be, the author will aim at objectivity in his expositions and give adequate representation to viewpoints other than his own, both in the text and--no less important--in the bibliographies.

Conversely, in works considered non-academic or, non-scholarly, the approach is what one might call the topical and practical, that of the many popular books, mostly in one volume, which aim at supplying quick and accessible guidance, on topics of current importance, for the undergraduate, high school, journalistic, and political reader. Such works are addressed to the general public rather than to the practicing or aspiring scholar. They contain few if any references to original sources and their bibliographies are mainly English, with perhaps an occasional reference in another laguage.

A third type might be described as polemical or partisan--according to the new epistemology, this is indeed the only form of scholarship, though it may be disguised in various ways. A variant of this, no longer as popular as it was, but still widely adopted, is the apologetic--(for instance, the desire by some Muslims, and also some non-Muslims, to present Islam in terms likely to win the approval of the non-Muslim and, more particularly, the Western reader and to omit or at least gloss over those aspects that would obstruct this aim.)*

Finally, for those dealing with a religion or a culture other than their own, there is the currently fashionable approach that might perhaps best be described as deferential. This sometimes leads (Christian, Jewish, etc.) writers to discuss Muslim beliefs and practices with a cautious respect they would never accord to the sanctities of their own or each other's religions. This approach is not always as acceptable as its practitioners appear to think. Many representatives of non-Western cultures see it as an insulting form of condescension--Westerners judging them by a standard lower than their own and even treating them as cases of diminished responsibility.

*Islam Partially Perceived / Bernard Lewis. First Things 59 (January 1996): 40-44.

Selection Priorities (February 1999)


Middle East & Islamic Studies, http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast

Ali Houissa, The Middle East & Islamic Studies Bibliographer.