No ordinary librarian

No ordinary librarian UCLA librarian David Hirsch. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Polyglot bibliographer David Hirsch has traveled throughout six of the world's seven continents to build UCLA Library collections in Middle East, Jewish, Central Asian, South Asian and Armenian Studies.

“Basically, the world is my oyster: there's almost no place you can go where you don't find either Arabs, Iranians, Armenians or Jews.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 9, 2017 — If your idea of a university librarian is someone who spends their days among books and manuscripts in a dimly lit, difficult-to-locate alcove of a large library, think again. Imagine someone who completes a BA, MA and MLS and, over the course of a successful career, becomes proficient in six diverse languages (and can get by in several more). Add a penchant for travel and a talent for forging connections and finding materials (and diaspora communities) all over the world, and you have bibliographer David Hirsch.

Hirsch, who joined UCLA in 1989, is the librarian for Jewish, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, South Asian and Armenian Studies at UCLA Library. It’s unusual for one person to have responsibility for so many different regions in a large university library. By their very nature, area studies collections span multiple disciplines, so his challenge is not so much multitasking as it is multidimensional, multilingual collecting — a task at which Hirsch excels. 

Augmenting collections from the most unusual places

Hirsch’s linguistic abilities (he can both present in and translate Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Italian, not to mention get by in Polish, Armenian, Persian, Indonesian and Uzbek) and broad portfolio lend themselves to unusual quests for materials. He has traveled throughout six of the world’s seven continents in search of books, manuscripts, reports, documents and daily ephemera such as posters, flyers, comic books, self-published magazines and even textbooks in multiple languages.


Left: Arab community magazine from China. Right:Persian magazine from Malaysia.

“I particularly like posters and I've gotten them from different places – you can never tell who’s going to show up and offer you some,” he says, noting that an Armenian acquaintance in Lebanon once gifted him with a bunch of Palestinian posters.

Hirsch’s standard on-the-road equipment? A backpack with many foldable, collapsible tote bags — the kind you can fold up into a packet, then open and fill with books and other materials that you acquire at meetings with international peers, publishers, research centers and nongovernmental organizations (most of which have to be tracked down on site).

“It's not always as fun as it looks,” he says. “I get to travel a lot, but being on planes and going through airports can be exhausting. And when I get somewhere, I travel around in regular taxis or walk and take buses and trains and trams.”

His sojourns in search of materials include gathering Judaica and Arab-language materials in South America, Arab-language materials in Singapore, Yezidi materials (in Arabic and Kurdish) in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish materials in Sweden and Paris, Iranian materials in Malaysia, Middle Eastern diaspora materials in Australia, Arabic materials in Sénégal and Mali — the list goes on. Not to mention the network of UCLA scholars, staff and graduate students who return from trips abroad with materials provided by his contacts.

Prominent Syrian Argentines. From left to right (top to bottom): Carlos Menem, Juliana Awada, Oscar Aguad, Jorge Antonio, Amado Juri, Marcelo Srur, Juan José Saer, Leonardo Favio and Eduardo Falú. (Photo collage: <a href="">Incolam</a>/ Wikimedia Commons, 2016; cropped. <a href="">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>. “Sometimes I plan to go to a country for a week,” he relates. “And I then I arrive and think, “What am I going to do here for a week? I only have two contacts. But usually by the end of the second day, everyone says, ‘What, you mean you aren't meeting with so-and-so? You need to meet with this one, you need to meet with that one.’

“So by the end of the second day, the whole week is filled,” he remarks. “You also have to be very careful who you tell who you are meeting with, or you hear, ‘You're meeting with them? I can't talk to you.’ So [when asked], I generally say I have ‘other commitments.’”

Hirsch has gathered a vast array of reference works, memoirs, novels, poetry, social histories, newspapers, newsletters, academic journals and community publications from diaspora communities around the world for the collections for which he is responsible — such as Jewish communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Commenting on those travels, he says, “I ended up meeting a lot of Armenians and also Arabs in those countries — there are big Arab communities in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. There is a Druze community in Venezuela. Panama also has a big Syrian community and Honduras has lots of Palestinians.” As for Armenians, he says, “They are all over!”

While in China in September 2016, he collected Arabic, Armenian and Judaica materials. He explains, “In China, the Arabs mostly settled in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. There's probably at least a dozen different Arabic magazines published in China today — there's a Sudanese community, a Moroccan community, Syrians and lots of Yemenis.” Hirsch also met a group of Armenians in Guangzhou, where they ate at a Turkish restaurant and spoke together in a mixture of Armenian and Turkish. And he traveled around Harbin with both a young student from the Republic of Armenia who was studying in China and a young Chinese man who had completed his Ph.D. in Armenian Studies at UCLA.

Given the breadth of his cultural knowledge and bibliographic experience, it’s no surprise that Hirsch has won many prestigious awards. Of late, those honors have included the Dorothy Schroeder Award (2013) of the Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California, Librarian of the Year Award (2013) of the Librarians Association of the University of California-Los Angeles (LAUC-LA) and, most recently, the David H. Partington Award (2016) of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA). 

Hirsch has long been a member of MELA, serving as its president twice, and is today an active member of both MELA and the Cambridge (UK)–based Islamic Manuscripts Association. In addition to studying the languages of the Middle East in the region, he has also worked (while on leave from UCLA) for the Zayed Central Library of UAE University and the Abu Dhabi National Library, a division of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

UCLA’s enviable Middle Eastern collection

Hirsch’s contribution to building the UCLA collection in Middle East Studies — now one of the finest in the United States — has made him revered among UCLA scholars, graduate students and research centers such as the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Center for Middle East Development and the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. The depth and breadth of the collection is a chief reason why UCLA is able to attract and retain so many experts on the region, together with graduate students who want to study here.

Kurdish bookshop in Istanbul. His efforts have enhanced the collection with printed everyday matter prized by anthropologists, such as posters, flyers, comic books and textbooks. In addition to the more traditional fare of books and manuscripts, he also searches out publications by nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, such as women’s groups. Hirsch also provides an astounding array of highly useful online research guides for the regions for which he is responsible.

One program that has produced a great deal of novel content for the collection is the UCLA International Digital Ephemera Project. (IDEP) “As part of the project,” he says, “we have a collection called ‘Tahrir Documents.’ Several graduate students from UCLA and other institutions collected about 700 items found in or on the ground in Tahrir Square during the revolution in Egypt that were subsequently digitized and in many cases translated. They are now freely available on the Web and available for researchers.”

The IEDP also uses software to conduct “crawls” of websites in the Middle East — examples include websites (featuring many different perspectives) devoted to the Syrian civil war, an online gay magazine in Jordan and various LGBT materials.

The Middle East collection has greatly benefited from two trips Hirsch has made to Iraq in the past five years (most recently, to the Shi’ia holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kufa in February 2017), a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in December 2016 and a sojourn in Turkey in December 2015. The latter included a visit to Gaziantep, a center of Syrian refugee publications in that country.

“I’ve maintained contact with some of the people in Gaziantep so that we have a nearly complete set of one of the Syrian newspapers published in Turkey in Arabic. And I collected over 30 different magazines and newspapers published by Syrians there,” says Hirsch.


Syrian newspaper (in Arabic) published in Gaziantep, Turkey.

During his visit to Iraqi Kurdistan last December, Hirsch was able to collect in multiple fields. Funded by the IDEP, the trip allowed him to visit Sulaymaniyaha (where the project has an MOU with the American University), as well as Duhok and the Yezidi holy city of Lalish.

Yezidi magazine, Lalish, from Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan.

“One archive I visited in Sulaymaniyah, the Zheen Institution, has huge collections of manuscripts and archives of old Iraqi newspapers and other materials,” he remarked. “I'm hoping to find a way to collaborate with them to digitize their materials and also make them accessible.” 

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. Left: Hirsch and Rafiq Salih (right), director of the Zheen Institution,
with a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat. Right: Collecting Kurdish women's publications.

With e-materials, he explains, it’s not just a matter of scanning, but of making the digital files findable. And that means creating metadata in the files themselves. Noting that there aren’t a lot of e-books in the Middle East, Hirsch reflects, “I think for the foreseeable future, we’ll be dealing with print publications.”


Tomb of Şêx Adî in the Yezidi city of Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Photo: نزار حسن‬‎ / Wikimedia Commons
via Panoramio, 2009; cropped. CC BY 3.0.


The December trip proved amazingly fruitful. In addition to returning to UCLA with copies of almost an entire run of a Kurdish satirical periodical; 200 Kurdish books (a gift of the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah); a fascinating variety of Turkish youth publications; materials from Kurdish women’s organizations, on public health and AIDS awareness in Kurdistan, and from Christian Arabs; and a substantial number of copies of the Yezidi journal Lalish.

In fact, the centerpiece of his trip was a visit to the city of Lalish itself, the location of the most holy temple in the Yezidi faith: the tomb of Şêx Adî. (Also the home of the Center for Yazidi Studies, which provided Hirsch with the journal copies, as well as other materials). “If you go to Lalish, you have to take your shoes off in the whole town, not just inside the temple,” recounts Hirsch. “So you walk around either in your socks or barefoot throughout the city.”

Al-Kifl, Iraq. Hirsch with an Islamic cleric at the shared Muslim/ Jewish shrine of Prophet Dhu al-Kifl/ Prophet Ezekiel. The Yezidis, the Kurds and the Syrians in Gaziantep are very pleased that UCLA is collecting their materials. “Everything that we get is listed in our catalogue and they are always impressed that we keep such careful records,” he remarks.

As for UCLA, Hirsch’s efforts have led to a growing collection of Kurdish materials and, according to him, perhaps the best collection of Yezidi materials in the United States today. Not to mention the depth and breadth of its other holdings in the Middle East, which include a growing number of international Bahai materials.

Hirsch remains focused on future acquisitions, with possible plans to travel to Turkey in the spring.

Except where otherwise noted, all images and photos provided by David Hirsch.

Published on March 9, 2017; updated on March 14 and March 16, 2017.

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Published: Thursday, March 9, 2017