Marlis Saleh became the Library’s new bibliographer for Middle East Studies on March 1. In this role, she develops, manages, and promotes Library services and collections in all formats covering the Middle East from the rise of Islam (6th century C.E.) to the present.
Marlis will be working closely with Library and University departments and programs to support the teaching and research needs of faculty and students. Her work will include building collections, collaborating with faculty and staff to develop and manage digital projects, and producing grant proposals that support and enhance collection access.
Marlis succeeds Bruce Craig, who served in that position for more than 35 years before retiring in December 2010. Prior to accepting this new position, Marlis served as Bruce’s assistant, beginning in 1996. She holds a Ph.D. in Islamic History from the University of Chicago, an M.L.I.S. from Dominican University, an M.A. from Yale, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley.
Marlis is also Editor of the Mamlūk Studies Review, an annual refereed journal devoted to the study of the Mamlūk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria (648–922 A.H./1250–1517 C.E.). She will be continuing the Library’s work on the Mamlūk Bibliography.
Rachel Rosenberg interviewed Marlis to find out how she collects Middle Eastern resources, how she plans to work with faculty and students, and what she sees as the exciting challenges and trends in her field.
Q: Marlis, what originally got you interested in Middle East Studies, and what did you focus on in graduate school?
A: My grandmother got me interested in the archaeology of ancient Egypt. When I went to college I studied the ancient Near East but also began working on Arabic and Islamic studies. I completed my B.A. with a double major in both of these fields, but when I went on to graduate school I decided to focus on Islamic studies. My Ph.D. dissertation was “Government Relations with the Coptic Community in Egypt during the Fāṭimid Period (358–567 A.H./969–1171 C.E.).”
Q: I’ve been told that you’ve made a number of trips to the Middle East to collect materials for the Library in the past. Where have you been and which of your trips was most memorable?
A: I’ve traveled to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen to collect materials. All my trips have been memorable, but I would probably have to single out the trip to Yemen, a fascinating country off the usual Middle East beaten track. The “gingerbread” architecture in the capital and the cliff villages were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While in Yemen I visited the Yemen Center for Studies and Research and was invited to fill two large boxes from their storeroom of various Yemeni publications and arranged to receive a listing of all the Center’s own publications, which are not widely distributed. I also attended the San’a International book Fair and established contact with a number of small local vendors of scholarly publications.
Q: And do you know what your first trip will be as the Library’s bibliographer for Middle East Studies?
A: For many years I have been hoping to travel to Iran, to meet our vendors and become familiar with the local publishing scene there, but circumstances have never been favorable. I hope at some point to be able to make this trip. More likely in the short term, I would like to attend the international book fair in Abu Dhabi, which is becoming a showcase for publishers from all over the Arab world.
Q: The Middle East collection at the University of Chicago Library is recognized by scholars throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East as one of the premier research collections in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. Can you tell us more about how your work will sustain and increase the presence of Middle East studies at University of Chicago?
A: I plan to continue to maintain and enhance this outstanding collection. I will also look beyond our collection and keep abreast of the increasing materials from many outside sources that are available online, which provide even more resources to support scholarship and teaching in Middle East studies here at the University. For instance, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers is collaborating to produce an online Local Archives and Libraries Directory, which will be invaluable to faculty and students planning onsite research in the Middle East, and many institutions, such as al-Azhar, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Princeton University, and King Saud University, have announced plans to make manuscripts and other primary sources in their collections available online.
Q: What are the key challenges or trends in Middle East Studies collecting that you face as you develop collection policy and acquire materials?
A: Publication in and about the Middle East has exploded in recent years and the challenge is to be aware of what is coming out and to sift through these masses of material to home in on publications of scholarly value. Likewise, as in other fields, the amount of information in the field available online is burgeoning and again, the challenge is to critically evaluate and select what is useful.
Q: How will you work with faculty and students in your new role and engage them in use of the collections?
A: I plan to meet in the coming months with all of the faculty members primarily focused on the Middle East collection to discuss how well the library is meeting their needs and how we might serve them better. I have begun discussions with one faculty member who would like to institute formal instruction tailored for students at different levels (for Ph.D. students, master’s students, and undergraduates) in the methodology of conducting research in Middle East studies, and we plan to include instruction in using the library. I have also met with the Middle Eastern Studies Students Association (MESSA) to raise the issue of introductory library use training as part of new student orientation and encourage them to think of me as a resource in helping them use the library effectively for their research.
I would also like to enhance our new Middle Eastern Studies Library Guide to make it even more useful to faculty and students. I plan soon to begin sending out an e-newsletter to faculty and students featuring department news, new acquisitions, notable new online resources, and so on.
Q: As editor of the Mamlūk Studies Review, are there any particular topics or approaches you’re looking for in submissions?
A: The exciting thing about Mamlūk Studies Review is that we cover all aspects of the Mamlūk period—history, literature, art, economics, archaeology and material culture, religion, politics, etc. This nurtures communication between experts in these widely varying fields and allows unexpected connections to be made.
Do you have a question or request related to the Middle East collections? Contact Marlis Saleh.
Photograph of Marlis Saleh by Rachel Rosenberg; photograph of Yemen by Marlis Saleh