Event details

Fantasia of the Library: Cataloguing and Classifying in Late Ottoman Libraries

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Public Research Seminar


Celeste Gianni (Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London)

Thursday, 31 May 2018, 6-8 pm



This lecture re-evaluates the late Ottoman period (the 18th and 19th centuries) that has been often labelled as “decadent” in political, social and cultural terms in opposition to the Nahda (Renaissance) period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It looks at the classification schemes and the organisation of knowledge in four library catalogues produced in three cities (Jerusalem, Medina and Aleppo), which were all part of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire during the late Ottoman period. By examining the strategies for organising and classifying knowledge in these libraries, this seminar will highlight the sophisticated understanding of the fluid nature of knowledge by the compilers of such catalogues during this understudied and yet vibrant historical period. In fact, organising a library poses the same challenges as organising human knowledge within a set of fixed rules and schemes. The contradictions, exceptions, infinite variants, and mutable elements that characterise the nature of human knowledge are all the same elements that characterise the nature of the library. In the last century, postmodern philosophical and literary theories have greatly influenced the field of librarianship and the deconstruction of the positivist paradigm of a universal and scientific system for classifying knowledge. For example, Jorge Luis Borges describes the library as “the universe”, explaining that “It is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is …”, while Foucault talks of the library as a “visionary experience”, explaining that “Fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library, with its columns of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight enclosure, but within confines that also liberate impossible worlds …”. During this lecture, the theories at the base of these statements will help the understanding of the library classification systems produced in the Ottoman Middle East.




Dr Celeste Gianni obtained her PhD at SOAS, Department of Near and Middle East, with a thesis entitled: “Poetics of the Catalogue: Library Catalogues in the Arab Provinces During the Late Ottoman Period” (2018). She has worked as curator of the library at Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, since 2012, and is interested in codicology of Islamic manuscripts, Islamic book culture, and book history, as well as critical theory and thought in the fields of Arabic literature and librarianship. Her publications include History of Libraries in the Islamic World: A Visual Guide (Fano: Gimiano Editore, 2016); “Kitab salat al-sawa'i: protagonisti, vicende, ed ipotesi attorno al primo libro arabo stampato con caratteri mobili” in Culture del testo e del documento (Manziana: Vecchiarelli, June 2012); and a translation from Arabic to Italian of the book Alʿāb al-Jamāʿāt Khārijīyah wa-Dākhilīyah li-Barnāmij al-Shabāb al-Tarfīhīyah (Giochi di società, all’aperto e in casa: programmi ricreativi per giovani) in Nuovi Quaderni di Area UISP (ed. UISP, 2011).