Welcome to “4 Corners of the World,” a blog dedicated to international collections and studies at the Library of Congress. This blog is a collaborative social media initiative by the Library’s four area studies divisions — African and Middle Eastern, Asian, European and Hispanic. Posts on this blog will highlight important research resources as well as rare treasures in the Library’s international collections. The focus will be on news about recent collection acquisitions, digital initiatives, and free public programs and their recorded webcasts, such as lectures, concerts, book talks, film screenings, and symposia.
The development of the Library’s international collections, like the rest of its collections, is deeply rooted in the Jeffersonian concept of universality, a belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature. That principle was recognized when Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection was sold to Congress to replace the Library that had been destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814. The following two centuries witnessed the continuous growth of the Library’s international collections as America’s role on the world stage evolved. Today, with millions of items in hundreds of languages and scripts housed in the Library’s international collections, we the four area studies divisions are most likely — and happy to be — your first and main point of contact at the Library for your research in the fields of international studies.
The term “four corners” is used in many languages to represent social and cultural diversities around the globe. The four corners are represented by the Library’s four area studies divisions. Coincidentally, today the four divisions occupy the four corners of the Library’s elegant domed Thomas Jefferson Building.
Throughout the Library’s 216-year history, the four area studies divisions have gone through a number of reorganization and name changes before coming to exist as we know them today. Here is a brief introduction about each of the four divisions.
African and Middle Eastern Division
The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) was created in 1978 as part of a general Library of Congress reorganization. For AMED it combined three sections — African, Hebraic, and Near East, which cover 78 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia.
Although proposed earlier, it was not until 1960, with increased national academic and government interest in sub-Saharan Africa, that the African Section was established. It had been administered initially by the General Reference and Bibliography Division. The section focuses on virtually all topics relating to sub-Saharan Africa. The Hebraic Section began operation in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitic and Oriental Literature, and concentrates on Jewish culture, Israel, the Hebrew language, Biblical studies, and the ancient Near East. Its founding may be traced to Jacob Schiff’s gift in 1912 of about 10,000 Hebraica books and pamphlets from the collection of a well-known bibliographer and bookseller.
In 1945, the Near East Section was created as part of the Orientalia Division to serve as a focal point of the Library’s programs for this pivotal area. It covers North Africa, the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Islam. Volumes on Africa and the Middle East were part of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, which was one of the first major purchases made by the Library of Congress in 1815. The subject and linguistic range of that collection would greatly influence future Library acquisitions policies. Although sporadic receipts of publications from and about the region were noted in annual reports of the Librarian of Congress, there was limited systematic acquisition effort about this part of the world until World War II.
From an 1869 presentation of 933 volumes to the United States by the Emperor of China, the collections of the Asian Division have grown to represent one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian language materials in the world. The collections of the Division include most subject fields, covering an area ranging from the South Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to China, Japan, and Korea. Complementing these collections are important materials on Asia in other areas of the Library. These include legal materials, films, manuscripts, maps, music, and photographs maintained in other Divisions. In addition, extensive Western language materials on Asia are housed in the General Collection and are available by request in either the Asian Reading Room or the Main Reading Room.
In 1906 the Library purchased the 80,000 volume collection of Russian bibliophile Genadii Yudin, making the Library of Congress a leading center for Slavic research in the United States. Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam created a Slavic Section in 1907 to cope with this acquisition. The Slavic Section evolved into a Slavic Division soon after World War I, providing cataloging and reference services.
As a result of the reorganization of the Library in 1944, in which the cataloging and reference functions were separated, the Slavic Division was abolished. It was reestablished in 1951.
During the 1950s, as new countries were added to its area of responsibility, the Slavic Division evolved into the Slavic and East European Division. The name was changed to the European Division in 1978, when it was expanded to include all of Europe except Iberia and Great Britain.
The legacy of the Hispanic Division dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s original library which contained works in Spanish and Portuguese. The acquisition of materials related to Spain, Portugal, and Latin America grew by leaps and bounds in the early 20th century, thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. In 1927, Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of America, established an endowment fund at the Library of Congress for the acquisition and curation of works related to Hispanic studies. It was the first of several important donations for Hispanic studies at the Library. The year 1939 saw the establishment of the Library’s first Area Studies reading room. Designed in the style of Iberian Renaissance architecture and decorated with stunning murals painted by Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari, the reading room has offered aesthetic inspiration to patrons and visitors for many years.
The Hispanic Foundation, (today, the Hispanic Division), named in honor of the Hispanic Society, was established to provide research guidance to patrons interested in the Library’s growing Luso-Hispanic collections. The Handbook of Latin American Studies, compiled and edited in the Division since the mid-1930s, is an indispensable guide to publications related to the region. And an archive of literary readings recoded at the Library, AHLOT, provides access to the words and voices of hundreds of renowned and rising writers. Today, the Division continues to provide research assistance to patrons near and far seeking to learn more about the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of the world.
To read more about each of the area studies divisions and collections, we recommend the following excellent resources.