Opening access to complex texts: Cataloging the Ottoman-Turkish collection

  • Three women gather around open book. A blond woman wearing dark blue dress stands next to a shorter woman wearing white shirt and black sweater and beige hijab. Woman, wearing black sweater and white shirt and maroon hijab, at far right points to open page in the book.
July 12, 2023

Yale Library has in its collection 567 Ottoman-Turkish objects, which until now have been somewhat hidden from view. The Ottoman-Turkish language is an amalgam of Arabic, Persian, and modern Turkish. Its translation requires specialized skills, which has long presented library staff members with a roadblock to making them discoverable in the library’s searchable database.

Following their 2019 symposium about these manuscripts, held at Sterling Memorial Library, Özgen Felek, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Roberta Dougherty, librarian for Middle East Studies and curator for the Near East Collection, proposed a solution. They suggested enlisting the help of graduate students to translate and catalog the texts. Felek had already introduced several of these valuable manuscripts to students in her course “Reading and Research in Ottoman History and Literature.”

The cataloging effort began in fall 2022. Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, a graduate student in the Department of History, stepped in to help identify and describe the first 25 manuscripts Felek had selected as the most logical starting point for the project.

Dating from the mid-15th to early 20th centuries, the materials in the Ottoman-Turkish collection include works of history, poetry, literature, Islamic law, medical texts, dictionaries, and hand-annotated account books.

The work of deciphering and cataloging these complex texts continues. In addition to guidance from Felek and Dougherty, Ünal receives support from Agnieszka Rec, an early materials cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is the repository for the collection. Yasemin Sönmez, a Turkish calligrapher and independent scholar, and other graduate students also assist. Thanks to their efforts so far, nearly 78 of these important manuscripts have already been cataloged.

Read more about the Ottoman-Turkish manuscript project in YaleNews.

—Deborah Cannarella

Image (left to right): Agnieszka Rec, Ayşe Çiçek Ünal, and Özgen Felek. Photo by Allie Barton