Celebrating Armenian Literary Tradition in the Library of Congress

WASHINGTON (A.W.)–Walking through the Great Hall of the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C., is a surreal experience. The regal columns, golden walls, and elaborate artwork covering the high-rise ceilings are befitting of a European palace. The details are a sharp contrast to the otherwise quaintness of the city, yet fit so well. Every few feet, there is a different tourist taking photos, and a different language being spoken. The international aspect of the nation’s capital is represented in this one massive room.

“Brief Information to Avoid Injury in a Fire, Written by the Cavalier Aldini, Which Could be Important for Stampolts’is [the inhabitants of Istanbul].”
“Brief Information to Avoid Injury in a Fire, Written by the Cavalier Aldini, Which Could be Important for Stampolts’is [the inhabitants of Istanbul].”
America’s oldest cultural institution is also one of the most prolific. Home to more than 155 million items in over 400 languages, the LOC covers nearly 570 miles on bookshelves, and adds approximately 11,000 items daily. The Armenian collection began to grow steadily in 1948 when the Committee for the Armenian Collections of the Library of Congress was established. Since the Armenian specialist position was created two decades ago, the acquisition of Armenian items has profoundly increased, growing from a mere few thousand items to over 45,000.

“The Armenian exhibit at the Library of Congress is not the largest Armenian Library, but it is in the largest library in the world,” explained Dr. Levon Avdoyan, Armenian and Armenian Area Specialist at LOC. The Armenian collection contains items that may not necessarily be Armenian, but are related to Armenia or Armenians. One such example is the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau’s papers.

 

The exhibition

Last April to September, the LOC held an exhibition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing. More than 70 Armenian literary works were showcased, and thousands of people visited the exhibit during its five-month display. Avdoyan authored a catalog for the items featured in the show, titled “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: A Visual Survey of the Armenian Literary Tradition from the LOC.”

A 1487 image of St. John from the Verin Noravank Awetaran (Gospel Book) has stunningly rare pigmentation alluding to Yaqub, the leader of the Aq Qoyunlu (the White Sheep Turcomans) who ruled over Eastern Anatolia and the eastern parts of historic Armenia in the late 15th century.
A 1487 image of St. John from the Verin Noravank Awetaran (Gospel Book)

Two years prior to the unveiling of the exhibit, Avdoyan applied to commemorate the quincentenary of the first printed book in Armenian, Jacob the Sinner’s Urbatagirk. The event coincided with UNESCO’s designation of Yerevan as the World Book Capital 2012, which helped create a theme for the exhibit. “I wanted to focus on the literary history of Armenian literature, as opposed to simply the publishing,” Avdoyan told the Weekly.

The 35-year veteran of the LOC stresses that although the library does not collect artwork, coins, or sculptures, the collection is not limited to simply novels and scrolls. In the past, the library has accepted fabric pieces because of the central role the Ottoman Empire played in the fabric trade. “We accepted Mrs. Northrop’s donation of a silver bowl because it was inscribed. She gave it as a collection so we would keep it as a collection,” explained the curator.

 

Noteworthy acquisitions

Some of the most fascinating pieces in the collection include:

—A 1487 image of St. John from the Verin Noravank Awetaran (Gospel Book) has stunningly rare pigmentation alluding to Yaqub, the leader of the Aq Qoyunlu (the White Sheep Turcomans) who ruled over Eastern Anatolia and the eastern parts of historic Armenia in the late 15th century.

—The first published administrative map of Yerevan published in 1920, just weeks before the fall of the First Republic.

The first published administrative map of Yerevan published in 1920, just weeks before the fall of the First Republic.
The first published administrative map of Yerevan published in 1920, just weeks before the fall of the First Republic.

—Two Hmayil (prayer scrolls) from Bolis, 1725. Designed for domestic use and travel, the hmayil came into use in the 17th century, and remained popular until it dropped out of fashion a century later.

—The Canto Liturgico della Chiesa Armena (Liturgical Chant of the Armenian Church) from 1887 is of one of the first Europeanized liturgical manuscripts from the Armenian Church.

The Canto Liturgico della Chiesa Armena
The Canto Liturgico della Chiesa Armena

—Talaat Pasha’s note of thanks to U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau for hosting a dinner on the evening of April 24, 1915.

—From the vast Armeno-Turkish language collection of the early 20th century, a 1907 novel that gives advice to young men, and is rather sexual in nature.

—An 1859 manual published in Paris detailed the Armenian cotton cultivation in New Orleans.

—The Mkhitarist presses of Venice and Vienna produced publications about secular topics, in addition to religious ones. One pamphlet is an 1831 Armenian translation of the various writings by Giovanni Aldini on fire safety. On the left is a hand-colored engraving of the clothing and objects needed to avoid injury. The title on the right reads, “Brief Information to Avoid Injury in a Fire, Written by the Cavalier Aldini, Which Could be Important for Stampolts’is [the inhabitants of Istanbul].”

Hmayil (prayer scrolls) from Bolis, 1725
Hmayil (prayer scrolls) from Bolis, 1725

 

Online catalog

The depth and breadth of this phenomenal collection is not limited to the library itself. Many of the collection’s publications—including rare books, manuscripts, and visual materials—have been digitized and can be viewed online for free. The following links are websites related to Armenia at the LOC:

—The Armenia Country page (http://www.loc.gov/rr/amed/nes/cty/cai/caihome.html) provides access to various online sources related to collections, programs, and research methodology.

—The text and illustrations of the chapter on “Armenia and Georgia” in the Near East Collections: An Illustrated Guide (http://www.loc.gov/rr/amed/guide/nes-armeniageorgia.html).

—The online version of the exhibition last year, “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress” (http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/armenian-literary-tradition/Pages/default.aspx).

—A search under “Armenia” will yield photographs, posters, and a variety of important graphic material on Armenia and Armenians (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/).

—A search under “Armenia” in the American Memory Page will yield photographs, documents, maps, folksongs, and historical articles on Armenia and Armenians (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html).

—A search under “Armenia” will yield materials digitized by the LOC with UNESCO on the World Digital Library. All of the items in the “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress” exhibition are available for viewing at http://www.loc.gov/wdl/.

From the vast Armeno-Turkish language collection of the early 20th century, a 1907 novel that gives advice to young men, and is rather sexual in nature.
From the vast Armeno-Turkish language collection of the early 20th century, a 1907 novel that gives advice to young men, and is rather sexual in nature.

 

Funding

Many individuals and foundations gave generous grants for the “To Know Wisdom and Instruction” exhibition, including the Zohrab Leibmann Foundation, Roger and Julie Strauch, the Sami and Annie Totah Family Foundation, and the Rita Balian Family Foundation. The Dadian Fund, in particular, allowed the library to hire Avdoyan as its first Armenian-language area specialist in 1992, and has provided funding for various Armenian programs, including last year’s exhibit. The late Arthur Dadian was the chair of the Committee for the Armenian Collections of the Library of Congress when it was established in 1948, and met with Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress at the time, to donate the 111 items that the committee had acquired. Since Dadian’s passing in 1991, his wife Marjorie has continued to sponsor the Armenian collection by creating an endowment from her husband’s estate for the growth and maintenance of the library’s Armenian collection. The gift was generously increased by a donation from Mrs. Dadian’s own estate in 1995. “The Dadian name remains inextricably tied to the Armenian collections and programs at the Library of Congress,” Avdoyan said.

 

How to donate

The principal purpose of adding items to the collection is to garner materials that will be important for the future, not the present, Avdoyan explained. “We try to predict what would be of lasting research value 50 years from now. …we’re really here to further research and help them accomplish research. That happens quite often. You can’t know everything in the collection, so when someone asks you a question, it allows you to think about materials which might be relevant and learn something new yourself.”

In the 1940’s, art historian Sirarpie Der Nersessian of the LOC’s Armenia Committee created a pictured bookplate that accompanies all donations. The bookplate features traditional Armenian iconography and the first six letters of the Armenian alphabet. Donors may indicate that the work was “Donated to the Library of Congress Armenian Collection” either “By…”, “In Honor of… By…”, or In Memory of… By…”.

To donate a gift to the library, readers may contact Avdoyan directly. All donations are tax-deductible, and donors receive a letter in the mail once the contribution is processed. As Avdoyan put it, “It’s a living memorial.”

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Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is the Assistant Project Manager of Hamazkayin’s h-pem, an online platform to engage young diasporans in Armenian art and culture. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. Her writings primarily focus on highlighting unique facets of, and approaches to, identity, community, art and youth events.

3 Comments

  1. Good job , Lilly ! I say it with great admiration for a purposeful,well written article that is also informative.

  2. This is a great piece on a program that is a treasure trove by itself. Glad to see that the Armenian Weekly has published an article about the Armenian section of the Library of Congress.Would it be great to see scholars using it!

  3. I discover Armenian translation of a brochure Giovanni Aldini: “Brief Information to Avoid Injury in a Fire, Written by the Cavalier Aldini…”
    The invention of Giovanni Aldini (asbestos fire clothes) was the subject of publications in many languages. I am writing in France a book about the asbestos industry. I would like to present this brochure. Is it possible? how?

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