‘To Know Wisdom and Instruction: Library of Congress’ Exhibit Celebrates 500th Anniversary of Armenian Printing

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

WASHINGTON — The 500th anniversary of Armenian printing this year provides an opportunity to highlight the prominent early role Armenians, who at that time already had lost statehood and had their homeland come under foreign rule, played in the Near East in this field. It also is an opportunity to present some of the fruits of centuries of Armenian literary and cultural work. While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) selected Yerevan as this year’s world capital book city, there are exhibitions and conferences taking place throughout the world. In the US, the Library of Congress, thanks to the efforts of curator Dr. Levon Avdoyan and a team of staff members, inaugurated a beautifully designed exhibit on April 19, titled “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress.” It will remain on display until September 26 of this year, Monday-Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is no charge for access to this exhibit.

The exhibit includes 76 items from as early as the 14th century, and as late as 2010. The early manuscripts on display show that Armenia had a long and illustrious literary tradition which quickly was transformed by the adoption of printing. The exhibit includes the first complete Armenian-language printed bible from Amsterdam (1666), the first modern Armenian novel, the first transcription of the Armenian liturgy with European musical notation in the 19th century, an 18th-century phylactery or prayer scroll and various rare 19th-century publications. Maps, such as one of Yerevan in the early 20th century, sheet music and modern diasporan, Ottoman, Soviet and post-Soviet Armenian books and periodicals show the vitality and range of Armenian printing. Non-printed items such as manuscript illuminations, elaborately embroidered fabrics, musical recordings and photographs highlight the richness and range of the Library of Congress collection. The exhibit is accompanied by a 100-page illustrated catalogue compiled by Avdoyan, available at the library gift shop or at amazon.com.

The exhibition is in a prominent area of the Library of Congress that already is attracting tourists and passers-by. Avdoyan noted that all kinds of people are visiting, and hopefully are being educated. One woman asked, for example, whether Armenia was a country. Of course, many groups of Armenians are also planning visits, and Avdoyan is providing guided tours to those who make arrangements in advance.

The exhibition and catalog, like all others produced by the Library of Congress, were sponsored by outside grants. In this case, Armenian-American foundations were the sponsors, including the Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fund, the Dadian Fund of the Library of Congress, Roger Strauch and Julie Kulhanjian Strauch, the Vartkess and Rita Balian Family Foundation and the Sami and Annie Totah Family Foundation.

An evening pre-opening reception on April 18 with Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as keynote speaker attracted approximately 160 people, while another 160 people, coincidentally, attended the next day’s lectures. Dr. Kevork Bardakjian (Marie Manoogian Chair of Armenian Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) delivered the 16th annual Vardanants Day Lecture on the Armenian alphabet and literary identity, on April 19, followed by curator Avdoyan’s discussion of the continuity and change of Armenian identity in “the digital age.” A free concert by Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan (tickets are required through ticketmaster.com) will help celebrate the exhibition and the Armenian cultural heritage on May 19 at 2 p.m.

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The idea of the exhibit originated with Avdoyan, who submitted it internally through an application process. The library welcomed the idea. Avdoyan pointed out that “not every country has had an exhibit at the Library of Congress. This is unusual and is an honor for the Armenians.” Furthermore, this exhibit is the first in a new series by the library in its yearlong Celebration of the Book.

Following the acceptance of the project by the library, Avdoyan lay the matrix for the exhibition and selected items that would illustrate the theme of the Armenian literary tradition, both from the Near East Section’s collection of Armenian-language items and other curatorial divisions such as the Geography and Maps Division and the Music Division.

Avdoyan began working at the Library in 1977, and as the reference specialist for Classics, Ancient History, and Byzantine and Mediaeval Studies in 1982. After 10 years, he became the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist, a position he continues to hold today. He actually is the first to hold this position in the Library, though there were Armenian cataloguers before him, and during his tenure, the collection grew from over 7,000 to 45,000 items (comprising 16,300 unique titles) in the Armenian-language. These items are accessible to readers in the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room, while non-Armenian language items pertaining to Armenians are held in different divisions of the library.

Avdoyan pointed out during this interview that the library’s Armenian collection is of fairly recent origin. It only possessed some 200 items before a committee of Armenian Americans chaired by Arthur Dadian and including noted scholar Sirarpie Der Nersessian was created in 1948 to assist the Armenian language collections at the Library of Congress. Libraries in other countries have much older collections, yet the Library of Congress has now turned into a major resource for Armenian studies. This exhibition serves to call the attention of scholars worldwide to this resource, in addition to informing a broader public. Avdoyan is very proud that the Library “is a very democratic institution. Anyone over the age of 16 can use it, whether American or not, and without the need for documentation, letters or recommendation, or similar items. One photo ID and 10 minutes later you have a user card.”

Avdoyan’s job as area specialist, he explained, includes “anything associated with the preservation, acquisition or service of the Armenian collections, general reference and anything involving special events.” For example, he created the Vardanants Lecture Series in 1994, and represents the Library at important conferences. He gives briefings about the collection, and seminars on Armenia for the government. He also recommends items in non-Armenian languages for other Library of Congress reading rooms. He helps provide reference information to visitors and responds to long-distance requests for help.

Avdoyan purchases books for the library from Armenia, Europe and the Middle East through various vendors around the world, and also engages in exchange programs. He said, “We do work very closely with partner libraries in Armenia, especially in book exchanges. We now have 14 exchange partners.” The American embassy in Armenia will transport books exchanged from Armenia to the United States.  Avdoyan feels that though Armenian-language printing declined initially after Armenian independence, it has increased again (though it is not as prolific as in the Soviet period). The cost of new Armenian-language books has gone up, while their print runs have generally decreased.

Avdoyan is constantly trying to fill in the gaps in the library’s collections. He said, “We always welcome gifts. Last fall we received two manuscripts, fabrics and silver objects from American-Armenians whose ancestors brought these items after the Armenian Genocide. Three are in the present exhibit.” The library preserves and maintains such rare items. Although there is a limited budget for purchase of older items, Avdoyan feels it has been ample for what he has found.

The Library of Congress is not a lending library, so Armenian items will always be accessible to visitors. However, as the collection increases in size, more items will be placed in off-site storage because of space shortages in the library. It generally takes one day for an item to be brought to the reading room from storage, so readers have to order such items ahead of time. Avdoyan is allowed to decide which items are suitable for transferal to storage.

Digitalization may eventually be a partial solution, but at the moment, it must be largely paid for by outside funds. Avdoyan said that arranging for it to take place is a matter of workflow in the Library of Congress. Furthermore, the technology itself is still immature and being perfected. There is not, for instance, an acceptably reliable optical character recognition software for the Armenian language, according to Avdoyan.

from other institutions as well as all sorts of other cooperative programs. The Library of Congress has also already bought every microfilm item commercially available on Armenian topics.

Avdoyan became interested in Armenian studies and history from an early age. His grandparents on both sides of the family were from Kharpert and Bitlis. He spoke Armenian while a very young child in his birthplace of Providence, but he and his sister stopped speaking after their family moved to Florida. He said, “I’ve always been interested in history. Even in grade school, I loved history, especially ancient history.”

Avdoyan went to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. as an undergraduate to study history, and a visit to Dr. Nina Garsoïan of Columbia University to inquire about how to learn Armenian led to an invitation to study there. His doctoral dissertation, later published as a book in 1993, was a translation and analysis of the medieval Armenian work, The History of Taron. He spent many years learning languages such as Classical and Modern Armenian and Greek, French, Georgian, German, Italian, Latin and Russian.
Avdoyan became Columbia Prof. Morton Smith’s research assistant for several years, which provided an opportunity to learn research methodology in ancient history. He said that the switch to working in a library was not that hard. One of his first positions in the Library of Congress was as a library examiner in its Copyright Office.  When he became a reference specialist, he said, “I came in knowing the sources and research methodology for my subjects of expertise. It was not all that hard to transfer that knowledge. It took about a year to learn general reference in the main reading room. That was one of the best general learning experiences that I have ever had. You learn so much while fielding questions about everything.”

Avdoyan has published a number of opinion pieces on Armenian Studies in the past, and today is troubled by a general shift in education in the US. He says, “I feel we have in many ways lost our way.” He would like to see greater support for and strengthening of existing chairs and programs in the field, and is concerned about the poor job market for the new doctorates being produced.

“I must say, however, that I spent many years bemoaning the fact that I was not teaching in academia, until I realized what a truly rewarding career I had at the Library of Congress. Not only was I allowed to build an important research collection, but I have also been on doctoral committees, in essence guided others in the preparation of their dissertations, and have aided others in their research. With a little creativity and initiative, and the enlightenment of our community, I would hope that our gifted young scholars could do the same rather than being forced to leave the field. It really has been an honor to serve in this capacity.”

The fate of his own position at the Library of Congress is uncertain after he retires, as it is unclear what the financial and logistic situation will be then. He is not sure how long he will continue, as there is no formal retirement age, but after the exhibition concludes, Avdoyan plans to rest and think about new library projects and his own future. He would like to get back to his personal Armenological research eventually.

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