Discovering the breadth of digital Middle Eastern resources

Discovering the breadth of digital Middle Eastern resourcesTop: Cairo University. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons, 2013; cropped). CC BY-SA 3.0. Bottom: Main entrance gate of Istanbul University. (Photo: T88288 via Wikimedia Commons, 2016; cropped). CC BY-SA 4.0.

Forums organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies earlier this year introduced graduate students to a wealth of online resources and produced several research guides.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, September 21, 2020 — It is nothing new for specialists of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) studies to encounter difficulties while conducting research on the ground. The task can be challenging due a wide range of factors, from political violence to officially-sanctioned restrictions on research.

Now the coronavirus pandemic and associated travel limitations have created additional significant obstacles for researchers. Graduate students, for example, typically travel to the MENA region for the summer and/or academic year to conduct doctoral research and/or participate in language programs.

To respond to these challenges, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) organized three public forums this past spring and summer to familiarize graduate students with existing digital collections of Middle Eastern materials. An additional forum was dedicated to discussions among UCLA faculty and students about online sources and research approaches in the humanities and social sciences, led respectively by Professors Luke Yarbrough and James Gelvin (who originated the idea of the forums).

“The Covid-19 crisis has created an unprecedented situation for faculty and graduate students alike,” said CNES Director Ali Behdad, Professor and John Charles Hillis Chair in Literature.

“Since we are all now reliant on internet-based communications technologies to communicate and teach, and are (mostly) unable to travel abroad to conduct research, we wanted to use this moment to hone our students’ skills to conduct research online.”

The volume and scope of digitized archival materials from the Middle East is impressive, but discovering these resources on one’s own can be challenging. The CNES forums accordingly brought together researchers and librarians responsible for Middle Eastern library holdings at major U.S. universities (including one Middle East branch) to share their knowledge of their collections, as well as a vast array of digital resources accessible online. A resource guide with extensive listings of online resources was prepared for each forum (see below).

Some 112 graduate students attended the four sessions, including over 70 from UCLA. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the recordings and resource guides from individual forums have since been widely shared with faculty and students nationwide via the Middle East Studies Association.

In addition to becoming acquainted with several universities’ digital Middle Eastern collections, students were able to ask seasoned librarians — from the University of Texas at Austin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York University Abu Dhabi, Yale University, UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara — for suggestions on sources and strategies for conducting research on specific topics.

For example, speakers walked attendees through the online sources they discussed, showing them how to use multiple spellings and keywords. True to their callings, the librarians also invited students to contact them in the future when they needed help, acknowledging that many universities do not have librarians specializing in the Middle East who speak the languages of and are trained in the material sources of the region.

“Specialist librarians are highly informed about Middle Eastern digital holdings and keep track of rapidly changing access to digital collections, some of which are granting temporary access to researchers during the pandemic,” added Behdad. “We are so grateful to the librarians, researchers and faculty who shared their expertise with graduate students at these forums.”

CNES Forums: Remote Research Possibilities for Graduate Researchers

Forum 1: Video & Resource Guide
Dale J. Correa, University of Texas at Austin
Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
May 18, 2020

Forum 2: Video & Resource Guide
Virginia Danielson, NYU Abu Dhabi
Roberta L. Dougherty, Yale University
May 20, 2020

Forum 3: No Video, Resource Guide
UCLA faculty and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences
June 8 & 9, 2020

Forum 4: Video & Resource Guide
Iman Dagher, UCLA Library
Mohamed Hamed, UC Berkeley Library
Heather Hughes, UC Santa Barbara Library
July 22, 2020

UCLA Library Resources
MENA Area Studies Research Guides
Instructional Media Library (feature films, documentaries and newsreels from MENA region)
Center for Primary Research and Training
The Minasian Collection of Persian and Arabic Manuscripts


Videos and resource guides from Forums 1, 2 and 4 can also be found on this webpage.

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Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020