The Middle East Microform Project: Past, Present, and Future

The Middle East Microform Project (MEMP) recently entered its fifteenth year of preserving and circulating Middle East materials, an achievement worth commemorating in print. On this occasion, the cooperative program has undertaken an exercise to examine its history and consider various strategies for the future. Origins Founded in 1987 by members of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA), the MEMP project was launched with a mission to furnish scholars with “Middle East research materials in microformat which would otherwise be unavailable to them,” including materials that are “inaccessible, in poor condition, or beyond the economic means of an individual institution.” The geographic scope of the cooperative collection project was defined as the Arab Middle East; Israel for Israeli and Palestinian imprints; Turkey; Iran; Central Asia; and related areas not covered in other programs. Membership was open to any organization or institution with an interest in supporting the mission. The program was provided office space in the Center for Research Libraries, which was authorized to administer the program as well. Bylaws were drafted and an Executive Committee was elected to provide governance. As of the first meeting in November 1987, there were 12 institutional members of the project:
  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Harvard University
  • Hoover Institution (Stanford)
  • Indiana University
  • New York Public Library
  • Ohio State University
  • University of Massachusetts
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas
  • University of Washington
  • Washington University
By November 1988, MEMP membership had grown to 20. In 2004 it stands at 24 members. The first meetings were particularly significant for the events set in motion that have continued to guide the committee and program to this day. The original goals of the project included collecting newspapers from Arab countries, with the aim of obtaining a wide selection from each country. In addition, the committee agreed to pursue manuscripts, ephemeral collections, and government documents, generally favoring original microfilm over the purchase of existing sets. Perhaps most notable was the early decision to establish a list of extant Middle Eastern materials in microfilm. Fawzi Khoury and the University of Washington compiled the list, which was released in preliminary form in 1989 as The National Union Catalog of Middle Eastern Microforms. In the following years, the compendium was published, with support from the University of Washington, as The Middle East in Microform. The Union List focused on serials and archival sets, but not monographs. Initially the Center lacked adequate technical support for Arabic and non-Roman script cataloging. As MEMP places a priority on primary source materials in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, a backlog of uncataloged MEMP material accumulated. To alleviate this bottleneck, the MEMP membership developed a cooperative cataloging program in which project materials were sent to volunteer members for bibliographic description. Once returned, the Center edited the information to conform to local and national standards then loaded it along with national bibliographic utilities into its catalog. MEMP continues to participate in cooperative cataloging as new materials are received.

Continuing Activity

Today, MEMP continues on the successful course set by its founders nearly 20 years ago. In addition to the array of newspapers from Algeria, Sudan, Turkey, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries, MEMP films and circulates a variety of ephemeral materials, including significant Arabic pamphlets from the Library of Congress collection. The collection, dating to the 1940s and 50s, also contains press extracts and digests from various press services and U.S. and U.K. embassies. MEMP continues to publicize and enhance access to its microfilm collection and publishes for its members an annual holdings list of project materials. Additional information on MEMP membership, meetings, recent projects, and more is available on the program’s MEMP Web site. The Web site includes an online proposal submission form that enables members, scholars, and other interested individuals to suggest new projects.

Strategies and Directions

Along with its kindred microform projects at the Center (CAMP, LAMP, etc.), MEMP remains a model of cooperative collection development and inter-institutional action not replicated among many fields of U.S. scholarship nor among most academic research institutions in the rest of the world. Even so, to maintain and develop its standing in the field of Middle Eastern studies, MEMP is committed to a methodical examination of its successes and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, to help identify new strategies and directions for future activity. As an aid, the following section of the discussion paper will look at existing policies, raise questions, and suggest potential avenues of pursuit for MEMP in the ever-changing landscape of information management. MEMP as Coordinator MEMP is in a key position among libraries specializing in Middle Eastern studies. As one of few cooperative activities in this field, it has the potential to assume an even greater role in enabling concerted preservation action among its members, and between its members and outside organizations, associations, and research institutions. While MELA may be the most appropriate venue for cooperation among its members and Middle East libraries in the acquisition of materials and the development of bibliographic control, MEMP’s mission and infrastructure make it well suited to foster coordinated preservation activities among Middle East collections. To this aim, MEMP is undertaking the following activities:
  • A preservation survey of its members and outside institutions to ascertain what they are doing (or not doing) in the way of preservation and access.
  • Developing with the Library of Congress and other organizations a systematic approach to the selection of materials for preservation. This is part of conducting a wider discussion of national collection strengths and weaknesses.
  • Expanding its membership through recruitment drives to major institutions in North America and abroad.

MEMP as Disseminator

Just as MEMP would benefit from increased coordination among institutions, it would similarly profit from increased communication and dissemination of information. In an effort to further promote its resources as well as broader issues of preservation and access, MEMP is:
  • Increasing communication and publicity about the project, its activities, and resources;
  • Heightening contact and representation within MELA and the broader Middle Eastern Studies Association in the U.S., as well as with institutions in Canada (ICAMES) and other regions.
  • Reaching out to institutions in the Middle East to seek new contacts, share information about MEMP, explore possibilities for projects, and campaign for membership and other forms of participation.

Project Development

Historically, most of MEMP's collections have been drawn from resources held in U.S. institutions. Recently MEMP began to explore cooperative projects with outside institutions, such as the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. There is a great body of original and critically valuable material available in other regions of the world. In addition, conditions outside Europe and the U.S., both in terms of climate and storage facilities, are not particularly conducive to preservation. However, production of microfilm in the Middle East is often well below national quality standards required for U.S. collecting. Thus, MEMP is discussing strategies to:
  • Develop further cooperative projects with institutions outside of North American and Europe to focus on particular strong collections that can augment U.S. collections – e.g. historical runs of serials and newspapers not available in the U.S., manuscripts, archives, and other material.
  • Encourage the development of collection inventories to identify valuable resources and foment collaborative funding opportunities.
  • Promote preservation training and capacity building in the Middle East to conserve important resources and aid in the acquisition of unique material not held in the U.S.
  • Explore the expansion of its current collection parameters to include new categories of material such as Ottoman-language, Central Asian, Arab-American publications, and new formats
Naturally, such deliberations raise issues of what type of project MEMP should be, and the role of a cooperative microform project in an increasingly digital age. However, while the appropriate media for preserving and accessing resources may change, the committee is resolute in its adherence to the general principles set for the program over 15 years ago. Highlights from the MEMP Collection Ahali Group Newspapers (1932-1963) ~ The Ahali group newspapers represented the ideas, philosophy, and political activities of first, the Ahali group, and later the National Democratic Party of Iraq. The political publications of the group commenced in 1932 and continued intermittently, under varied names, until 1963. The Chadirji Research Centre produced a set of 27 microfilm reels with a 1,646-page index to the collection. The set contains collections of al-Ahali, Sawt al-Ahali, al-Mabdaa, al-Bayan, Sada al-Ahali, al-Mauatin, and al-Akhaa al-Watani. Aljadid (1993-2002) ~ A monthly "record of Arab culture and arts" produced by the Nagam Cultural Project. al-Hatif (Baghdad, Iraq) ~ A general interest newspaper published in Baghdad from 1935, al-Hatif is important as a source for the history of the Shiites in Iraq in the middle third of the 20th century. Chaquèri Collection of Iranian Left-Wing Materials (1960-85) ~ A collection of 1,100 pamphlets, serials, and political ephemera by or relating to activist groups opposing the regime of Muhammad Riza Shah Pahlavi.