The Library of Congress reaches around the world to build its collection
Washington - The Library of Congress is looking for a few thousand good Persian books.
What's already one of the largest collections of Iranian-related and Persian-language materials in the world - 60,000 books in Persian alone, part of the world's largest library - has been growing steadily in recent years. That's in part because of one of the few exchange programs between the United States and Iran, which have no diplomatic relations: The National Library of Iran sends the Library of Congress a list of books and scholarly papers - as many as 4,000 titles, every few months - while the Library of Congress does the same with its surplus, and the librarians on each side pick the ones they want. The arrangement began in 2004, following the librarian of Congress's visit to Iran.
But Hirad Dinavari, reference librarian for the Library of Congress's Iranian World section, said the titles that come to Washington through the official exchange program are only a start. After all, he said, the Library of Congress' mission is more comprehensive. So it goes shopping for more.
It has a large market in which to shop. "There is quite a bit of publishing. Iran's publishing industry has really boomed," Dinavari said.
Of the 54,000-plus books that the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said were published in Iran last year, he said, more than 20,000 were translations, which the library doesn't collect. "We tend to collect things that are native to that culture, in the vernacular language and published for the first time by people in that country," he said. Nor will it acquire Persian-language textbooks or books on medicine or agriculture, unless the subject is "something unique to that country."
"So of the rest, 7,000 to 10,000 are academic and worthy of collecting," he said, mostly in the social sciences and humanities. And with the help of a vendor in Tehran - and with the knowledge of the U.S. and Iranian governments - the library buys 6,000 to 8,000 of those books each year.
But that's not all.
Dinavari said he realized a few years ago that the library was missing out on many of the scholarly books published by the Iranian diaspora. "A lot of our educated and best and brightest have left," he said. "They're in Europe; they're in America and Canada." And they're writing about their homeland.
Some books come in automatically. Since the 1800s, authors who want copyright protection in the United States have been required to send copies of their works to the Library of Congress to register them. That requirement built most of the library's collections of materials published in the United States.
But Dinavari said some small publishers fail to deposit copies of their works at the copyright office, and so the library is sometimes obliged to track down what it needs. A vendor in Los Angeles sends the library Persian books and other materials published in North America, as well as titles in Kurdish, Pashto, Assyrian, Aramaic and Azerbaijani, and books on topics related to Iran.
In Europe, Dinavari said, the Iranian, Afghan, Kurdish and Assyrian communities are "more active in publishing versus the folks here," in part because so many regime critics settled there, and in part because of European government programs that support writers.
"We have a vendor in Sweden ... who is getting for us Persian, Kurdish, Afghan - the whole gamut of the diaspora that's there. He got us quite a bit of the Assyrian material," Dinavari said.
Another vendor specializes in materials from the central Asian republics, which for Dinavari means especially from Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
For Afghan material, a Library of Congress office in Islamabad, Pakistan, works with vendors in Kandahar and Kabul. Dinavari lamented the quality of the paper used by Afghan publishers, but said, "The publishing in Afghanistan has boomed."
"The Islamabad office also looks for the small amount of Persian material that is still being published in the subcontinent, in India and Pakistan, which are mostly academic, poetry, anthologies and things like that," he said.
Add to that the Pashto publications from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and "a significant amount of Baluchi."
Historians also will find a treasure trove of Iranian newspapers at the Library of Congress - including banned newspapers. "Of the 120 major [banned newspapers], we have been able to locate 60 of them, the full run, anything from six months to a year," Dinavari said.
"We're not getting all of it. I wish we could get all of it," he added.
The library also has built a collection of Iranian and Afghan music. On Dinavari's first shopping trip to an Afghan market in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, "I think they sold us some 500 CDs right there. We got all the CDs we could." The Iranian music, purchased in Los Angeles, includes broadcasts of the popular Golha radio shows from the 1950s, '60s and '70s with classical poetry and music; but Dinavari credits Jane Lewisohn, an American and a longtime resident in Iran, with collecting a superior Golha archive for the British Library.
Then there are films. "I went ahead and recommended a good sampling of the award-winning films from the Iranian cinema after the revolution that have become world-famous now, on DVD, and all the films we could buy, 200 of them, from the shah's time that are banned now in Iran," he said.
A project begun about two years ago with Stanford University has been archiving a sampling of 600 Iranian blogs, a tiny percentage of what has been published, Dinavari said. Some follow the daily lives of ordinary Iranians; some focus on topics of particular interest to the writers, such as poetry; and some reflect Iran's political unrest.
Also included in the collections are a number of oral history projects, including one from the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and another from an Iranian archivist based in Germany on Iranian opposition groups.
All of the material is available to anyone, at no charge. Although the Library of Congress provides services to federal agencies and members of Congress, most users are researchers not connected to government.
The outreach effort to collect material is substantial, Dinavari said, but necessary: "That's what you have to do, especially with the changes in the last 10 years, the amount of publishing that is happening in all these places. ... It is crucial not to miss out."
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