Armenian heritage on show at America’s largest library

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday April 20, 2012

Armenian exhibit is in the Library's ornate main building. The Armenian Reporter

Washington - With works ranging from a gospel handwritten in 1321 in Armenia to modern books published in Soviet and independent republics, "To Know Wisdom and Instruction: The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress" opened at America's largest library on April 19.

The exhibit offers highlights of the more than two decades of acquisition efforts by the Library's Armenian expert Dr. Levon Avdoyan and is timed with the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing began in 1512 in Venice, Italy. Only about 80 items are part of the exhibit offering just a glimpse into a 45,000-piece Armenian collection at the Library.

In addition to religious works, including the first complete printed Armenian language Bible (Amsterdam, 1666), items on view include less known examples of Armenian literature such as 19th-century works on fire-fighting (Venice, 1832), cotton production (Paris, 1859) and palmistry (Constantinople, 1894), as well as the first modern Armenian novel, "Wounds of Armenia" by Khachatur Abovyan (Tiflis, 1858).

The historic milestone is also marked in Armenia, where Yerevan has been designated as the Book Capital of the World by UNESCO.

The exhibit is on view from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through September 26 at the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Building of the Library of Congress. The exhibit is also online at

The Armenian Reporter interviewed Dr. Avdoyan in 2007 about the growing Armenian collections and other Armenian events at the Library of Congress. Portions of that interview are reproduced below with a few updates.

The Armenian collection 

Reporter: In terms of the concentration of Armenian knowledge worldwide, how unique is the collection at this Library?

Avdoyan: It is and has always been unique for one important reason. We are the largest library in the world. [The last count is over 150 million items.] The second largest is the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, which I think has 40 or 41 million items. So, when you have Armenian-language materials and combine them with materials that are in the 20 other reading rooms - you have a resource, which you do not have anywhere else.

In manuscripts, you have Henry Morgenthau's papers. And now you have [late filmmaker] Rouben Mamoulian's papers. In geography and maps, we have one of the largest, if not the largest geographical collections in the world. You have some of at-the-time confidential Caucasus border maps that were used at the Council of Versailles to end World War I. And you actually have maps with lines drawn [by hand to indicate borders] of the mandates.

In prints and photographs, you have the Sultan Abdul Hamid II photographic albums. They were prepared to give to the United States with beautiful photographs of the Ottoman Turkey [in late 19th century]. The photographs were taken by a company ran by three Armenian brothers. We have those photographs along with posters of the Near East Relief [calling for funds to help victims of anti-Armenian massacres in Turkey]. 

Reporter: Do previously classified or confidential U.S. government documents that are made public typically come here?

Avdoyan: No, we are in essence the repository of published government documents. The [U.S.] National Archives is the repository for unpublished documents. Having said that, we do have presidential papers though [the early 20th century], including those of President Woodrow Wilson. We have Morgenthau's [papers] because he deposited them with us. We have other papers that have been given to the library.

But this is not the place where unpublished government documents would automatically go.

We do have missionary papers, for example those of William Goodell who [in mid-19th century] was for decades a missionary in the Kharpert region [of western Armenia]. His granddaughter Mary Barnum wrote several letters to him in the Hamidian period [of the late 19th century].

Reporter: What would you highlight from the main Armenian collection at the library?

Avdoyan: What pleases me about this job is that I don't even know everything we have. What we have done thanks to Dr. James Billington [the Librarian of Congress] is to make this a truly global library - and more than 60 percent of our holdings are not in English. 

In the last three to four years alone I was able to purchase through a dealer some unique and rare [Armenian-language] publications from the 18th and 19th centuries, including a lot of Armeno-Turkish books, which we are restoring, and one very interesting book published in Paris in 1856 on cotton production in New Orleans. Some would ask me, Why are you getting these? 

But no one has investigated for instance the role of Armenians in the cotton trade between France and New Orleans and, by extension, [how that affected] the role of France in the American Civil War.

Or an 1836 Armenian pamphlet from Venice with a wonderful photogravure of what a firefighter should wear to escape injury while fighting fires. I don't know of anything else we have like that and that is in Armenian.

And then there are the more traditional works like the Chronicle of the Eusebius of Caesarea, published in 1797, which is still more complete than any Greek remnant of the original that had survived. So we have been very rich in expanding the collections.

Reporter: Does the Armenian collection include publications in languages other than Armenian?

Avdoyan: Those publications, be they in English, French, or Russian would be part of the Main Reading Room and general collections, as opposed to the Armenian-language ones, which are part of the Middle Eastern Reading Room.

Our Russian-language collections on Armenia are very extensive and are extremely important, starting with the [Russian] takeover [of eastern Armenia] in the 1820s, of course.

Reporter: And what if a book is written in the Armenian alphabet but in Turkish? Where would it go?

Avdoyan: It would be part of the Turkish collection. But we do have a special designation for Armeno-Turkish items. As a matter of fact that I must have bought close to 200 of these in the past three years. I think there are about 3,000 [Armeno-Turkish books] in total and we are doing a great job in [acquiring and preserving them].

People don't know this but Armeno-Turkish was published into the 1930s and 40s in some areas. And the rationale for this was of course that Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire knew Turkish, but did not know the Ottoman script and so they wrote in Turkish with Armenian letters. (Just as Greco-Turkish was Ottoman Turkish written in Greek letters.)

And in addition to Istanbul, Smyrna [Izmir] and Jerusalem, books in Armeno-Turkish were published in Europe as well.

When I first came here the Armeno-Turkish publications were pretty much restricted to religious subjects - bibles and commentaries. Since then we found quite a few secular books, some of them on topics I did not think were covered at the time. 

There are histories of Napoleon in Armeno-Turkish. There is an 1856 Armeno-Turkish translation of an Edgar Allan Poe book published in Venice - which was the first foreign-language translation of that book from English.

Reporter: Who is directly benefiting from these collections? 

Avdoyan: We are open to everyone above college age. We have college and graduate students who do research in our collections. We have congressional staff members. We have interns from the Armenian lobby groups calling or coming in. We get the general interest public. We get international scholars who get in touch via Internet. 

Frankly, I wish we had more use, but the Library of Congress is in a location [right next to the U.S. Capitol] that is not easy to get to. I would love to be able to offer fellowships to students and scholars to come to the Library to study our collections. We have brought two Armenian scholars, including one from Israel, on the John W. Kluge fellowship.

And we get scholars from European countries that have renowned collections, but that have smaller budgets and as a result are not able to acquire as much as we do.

My pride in this job comes from the knowledge that I have connected a researcher with something that is extremely important for his or her research. That makes everything worthwhile. Because, after all, this is what we are here for, to serve as a reference, and not just collect materials which will gather dust. We want people to use them.

Secondly, I have modeled my life after a saying by the Roman playwright Terence: "Nothing human is foreign to me." Except I have rephrased that into "Nothing Armenian is foreign to me." What I have tried to do with the help of my colleagues is to gather all aspects of Armenian culture in this place.

Reporter: Can anyone just come in to look at original documents like the manuscripts or maps?

Avdoyan: He or she would have to speak to the individual area specialist and chances of [access] being denied are minimal. This is everyone's library and all you need for access is a reader's card and that takes just ten to twenty minutes to get.

That person would come to me and I would make a determination of whether that person needs that actual original or if a microfilm of it would do. If the actual document has to be brought, we have a special table and instructions on how these would have to be handled. And most people who need the actual documents know how to handle them. 

We have a very skilled conservator, Tamara Ohanyan, in our conservation department, who has restored several old Armenian manuscripts and books. During her first volunteer year here she was able to restore a 17th-century gospel which was like a ball from fire and water damage and was unusable. She spent six months restoring it and it is totally usable now. She also restored two 1725 printed Hamalirs (prayer scrolls) again exquisitely.

Nowadays the chances of us procuring those sorts of documents are less than they used to be. I have been very close to buying an extremely important work only to learn that the provenance was not clear and we would simply not bid on or buy something that is illegal to get.

For instance, I cannot buy manuscripts from Turkey, because there is a law, just like in other countries, Armenia included, against taking manuscripts out of Turkey. On the other hand, they do not yet have a patrimony law on published materials, so I could buy any published materials in Turkey. That could change - in Armenia now there is a patrimony law on [older] published materials as well.

Reporter: And how is the acquisition process conducted for Armenian publications?

Avdoyan: The way we collect materials is that we have a contract with a book dealer for materials published in Armenia for the past five years.

We have a series of exchanges with Armenia, where we have a number of partners that would send us books of interest to us, and we would send them books that interest them.

We then have a series of overseas offices, for instance in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, etc. One that is really important for us is Cairo -we have a staff member there who works with me to collect Armenian materials from around the Middle East (not including Armenia).

Finally, we have a budget for retrospective purchases - these are books older than five years. And indeed this how we acquired the Voskan bible published in 1666 in Amsterdam, the first complete bible published in Armenian.

And we have gifts. The Library of Congress is always going to be here. And I am strong in my belief that the Armenian presence here is important for the future. So, we certainly welcome more gifts.

Reporter: Is there also an effort to expand into multimedia, audio, and video Armenian-language resources? 

Avdoyan: Yes. Dr. Billington is very interested in procuring restored versions of films published in the Soviet era - especially those of Sergei Parajanov. We do have some of the older versions, obviously. And I work very closely with the motion pictures and geography and maps [departments at the Library].

I would like to note that digitalization of our materials is done by outside funds. To digitize our collections, I would need a private grant to have it done. And I would like to see several such projects done, such as the Armenian maps, for example.

I have noticed that a growing number of people expect to find materials on line. So, what I would like to underscore is that Armenian studies is not the same as Western studies. Important materials are not digitized. There are still the issue of standards and reliable OCR [optical character recognition] that allows you to scan texts.

At this point the best materials are still physical copies. And people could view them either by coming here or by going to their public libraries and requesting duplicates of the original via interlibrary loan.

Some materials are already on line, however. If you were to go into prints and photographs online catalogue you would see well over 200 Armenian [items] already available in digital form. If you went into what is called the "California Gold" [series] you would find about 100 Armenian songs recorded in the 1930s among the immigrant population of California. They went around just to record the songs of ethnic groups just as they would sing them in a village - not polished or highly instrumented.

Reporter: And how about the video record since Armenia's independence? 

Avdoyan: I don't have much of that at all. We have these series on minorities, such as on Assyrians and Jews of Armenia. [There may be] some of the tapes from some of the news [media] groups produced here. But I have not [specifically] collected them. There would certainly be a home for them here if let's say someone had a video archive and wanted to donate it.


Levon Avdoyan 
Since 1992, Dr. Avdoyan has worked as Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist in the Library of Congress in Washington. From 1982 to 1992 he was reference specialist for the Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Division. Over his 25-year career at the Library, Dr. Avdoyan has received numerous achievement and meritorious service awards.

The Library's Armenian collection began with 200 items - books, periodicals, documents, manuscripts, and maps - in 1949. When Dr. Avdoyan took over as Armenian specialist in 1992, the collection numbered over 7,000 items and through his 15-year tenure it has grown to nearly 30,000.

Prior to joining the Library, Dr. Avdoyan worked at the U.S. Copyright Office as Library Examiner between 1978 and 1982, and as research assistant to Columbia University history professor Morton Smith.

Born in Providence, Dr. Avdoyan grew up in Florida and did his undergraduate studies at the University of the South in Tennessee; he subsequently earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia University. In the early 1970s, Dr. Avdoyan conducted research in archives of the Soviet Union (including in Leningrad, Moscow, Tbilisi, and Yerevan), Greece, France and Italy (the Mkhitarist Monastery in Venice). His doctoral thesis was on the "History of Taron," a historical romance set in 7th-century Armenia.

Mr. Avdoyan's working languages include Armenian (Classical, Modern Western and Eastern), French, Classical Georgian, German, Classical and Modern Greek, Italian, Latin and Russian.

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