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Religion Collections in Libraries and Archives: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia

Library of Congress: African and Middle Eastern Division

Introductory Information

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Background Note

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) was created in 1978 as part of a general Library of Congress reorganization. AMED currently consists of three sections - African, Hebraic and Near East - and covers more than 77 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. Each section plays a vital role in the Library's acquisitions program; offers expert reference and bibliographic services to the Congress and researchers in this country and abroad; develops projects, special events and publications; and cooperates with other institutions and scholarly and professional associations in the US and abroad.

As a major world resource center for Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, AMED has the custody of more than one million physical collection materials in the non-Roman-alphabet languages of the region such as Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Yiddish. Included in these collections are books, periodicals, newspapers, microforms, grey literature, and rarities such as cuneiform tablets, manuscripts, incunabula (works printed before 1501), and other early African and Middle Eastern publications. Among the most prized items are also several sizable pamphlet collections on African Studies.

Collection Highlights

Learn more about the African Collections, resources, and specialists

African indigenous religious traditions are rooted in robust, dynamic and highly diverse oral cultures that continue to permeate the daily lived experience of African people from all walks of life in the 21st century. They are fundamentally pluralistic and non-exclusive, and as such strongly shape the reception of Christian and Islamic traditions from foreign missionaries.

While diverse, indigenous traditions share an orientation to the spirits that animate nature and everyday experience. All denizens of the natural environment – rivers, trees, stones, mountains, animals and humans – are fellow travelers in one vast field of interaction. Indigenous traditions do not generally make sharp distinctions between the sacred and the mundane, and spiritual practices that one might call “prayer” are primarily directed towards ancestors and spiritual forces that operate within one’s immediate environment.

In researching African religions, one must bear in mind the critical importance of African voices and perspectives on African lived experience. Research undertaken by African scholars is particularly important, and oral literature published in African languages can offer entry points into authentic data not available elsewhere. More generally, indigenous traditions are best researched not as static traditions, but as dynamic social and cultural practice.

The Library offers relevant collections of unparalleled breadth and depth due to the acquisitions work of its Nairobi Overseas Office since 1966. Most of the works about the religious practices of individual sub-Saharan African ethnic groups and their religion are classified under DT, which includes African history, as well as under G classification, or anthropology and social customs. Generally, keyword searches that combine terms like “religion” with names of cultural groups, regions, festivals, etc. are a productive approach.

Learn more about the Hebraic Collections, resources, and specialists

Books and Monographs
There are more than 250,000 volumes in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, and other Hebrew script languages. A substantial portion of these are of interest to people doing research on religious topics. Inclusive publication dates of this collection are 16th century to the present.

The section's holdings are especially strong in the areas of the Bible, rabbinics, liturgy, and responsa (collections of decisions in Jewish law by individuals or multiple authors). An extensive collection of prayer books and Passover Haggadot has been assembled as well. Most of these can be found in the online catalog, but a portion of the collection has not been cataloged and therefore to assist researchers Finding Aids have been created for both collections.

Hebrew Prayer Books

Books in the collection have been printed in Israel, Europe, the United States, and many other countries worldwide. Also available are some 1,000 Memorial Books (local histories of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust), which document the history of the community and its religious life. Most of this collection is in the Hebraic Section, while those books in Western languages can be found in the general collections. The guide to the Hebrew volumes in this collection can be found here:

The card catalog is current to 1980. It is divided into author/subject and vernacular title sections. It includes National Union catalogs of Hebraica and Yiddica. The LC database is incomplete for holdings of the Hebraic Section--some titles remain unclassified, and some classified material is not in the LC database. Many will be surprised to learn that the Section’s card catalog is still an important tool in doing research in Hebraica at the Library of Congress.

Periodicals and newspapers
The section receives a variety of Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers reflecting all shades of opinion, from the religious to the secular, from the far right to the extreme left. Older newspapers and periodicals are in microform. This international collection attempts to span the religious spectrum of Judaism. Examples of current newspapers include Ha-Arets, Yated Ne'eman, Algemeyner Zhurnal, and the Forverts.

Most of the Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals and newspapers can be found in LC’s online catalog, but a number of Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals and newspapers can be located only via the Section's card catalog. Older (prior to 1925) newspapers in Hebrew and Yiddish can be found on the Israeli site for Historical Jewish Press.External

Archives, ephemera, manuscripts, correspondences, and/or oral histories
The Hebraic section has about 231 manuscripts in Hebrew and 17 in Samaritan. The section's most noteworthy treasure is The Washington Haggadah, a 15th-century illuminated manuscript signed by Joel ben Simeon. Other singular manuscript items include a Hebrew translation of the Qur'an, and an 18th-century Italian decorated Scroll of Esther. Among the more than 2,000 rarities in the special collections of the section are incunables, several ketubot (Jewish marriage documents), micrographies, miniature books, and amulets. Inclusive dates of this collection are from the 13th through the 20th centuries.

The Hebrew ephemera collection has a number of broadsides dealing with religious matters: warnings against watching TV; against girls going into the Israeli Army; against eating in or patronizing various butcher shops and food establishments. The link to the finding aid is: (PDF 507 KB)

One may find oral histories of Holocaust survivors and immigrants to Israel detailing religious persecution as well as microforms from the New York Times Oral History Program, which contains microfilmed oral histories from Israel.
Most of these manuscripts and oral histories are listed in the Section's card catalog.

This collection includes several thousand titles in various collections. They are international in scope and span the religious spectrum from left to right. A few representative titles are: The Collective Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts from the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem; The Kaufmann Collection, which includes Genizah fragments; the Hebrew Manuscript Catalogs from the Jewish Theological Seminary; and The Guenzburg Manuscript Collection in the Russian State Library, Moscow.
Records for collections are online (but not item-level cataloging); others are in the Section's catalog and/or contained in collection guides.

Learn more about the Middle Eastern Studies Collections, resources, and specialists

The Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern division contains extensive collections covering all the main religions of the region. The vast majority of the Section’s resources are in the vernacular languages. Translations into western languages are available in the General Collections.

A major component of the Near East Section’s religious collection focuses on Islam, the major religion in that region. Sources on the topic will be available in the original languages and are quite varied and comprehensive. The Section has a vast collection in the area of the Qur'anic studies including tafsir or commentaries, interpretation, rituals, teachings and studies of the Qur'an in both books and articles in many languages. The Qur’an itself is available in manuscript and facsimile form, many editions are in the Arabic script in which it was originally written, as well as in translation in all the available languages, many of which can be found in the general collections. The Near East collection also includes the Hadith or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic and in various translations. Also available are works on Islamic jurisprudence and practice, Islamic mysticism, Islamic philosophy, works on the various sects of Islam and their traditions, political Islamic doctrine--both historical and modern--and the groups associated with them, in addition to many other areas. All major schools of thought are represented with modern and classical interpretations. These include the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali schools for Sunnis, Ja’fari and Isma’ili schools for Shiites, as well as the Ibadi , Ahmadi, and Zahiri schools. All canonical works for these groups are available in the original Arabic and in translation (where available).

There are also major works on Islam and the role of the Sultan as the spiritual leader or Caliph in Ottoman Turkish (Turkish written in Ottoman script), as well as Qur’ans’ and meditations written in modern Turkish.

Eastern Christianity is also well represented and the collection contains extensive materials from the various Eastern Churches in the vernacular, including Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Maronite, Syriac and Ethiopic/Tewahedo.  These include major scholarly works, complemented by a comprehensive collection of liturgical texts and service books. Also included are translations from the Greek and Latin Church fathers, commentaries on them, and original compositions from each church’s patristic period to the present.

Religious Groups
Studies and works by and about sects and religions such as the Alawis, Druze, and Baha’is are also available with various related religious texts and commentaries. The section also collects sources on the ancient Mesopotamian religions which include a substantial corpus on Zoroastrianism, both in Pahlavi Persian, as well western languages. Mithraism and Manicheism are also represented.