This summer, Jessamy Klapper began blogging the Arabic books entering Columbia’s library system. “Ghilafaat” has only grown since then, adding books and an Instagram component. Klapper answered a few questions about the project for ArabLit:
Jessamy Klapper: I started the Tumblr page for Ghilafaat in July, although I began experimenting with approaches to the same idea starting in April. My job is one of the first stops on the assembly line for Arabic books entering Columbia’s library system. I find or create library records for the new titles and then pass them along to be labeled and shelved. There is a lot of intriguing material, at least at first glance! But because this is such a huge research library, a lot of our collections go to an offsite facility. Even the main stacks on campus are very tightly packed and not conducive to browsing.
When I was an undergraduate at Middlebury, I would use the library for study and research, but I would also visit favorite sections of the stacks – I liked the letter C in English language poetry, for example: Cisneros, Clifton, Collins – and poke around for something I liked. It occurred to me that, here at Columbia, some of the titles I found most intriguing during cataloging were unlikely to be found unless someone already knew they existed and searched for them.
At first, I would write down call numbers on post-it notes and add books to my list at Columbia. Then I started taking pictures on my personal Instagram account, and it was around then that I realized this could be interesting for other people, as well, whether they were members of the Columbia or NYU community and have access to our collections, or are simply interested in Arabic literary production. Or other things – like cover art.
The visual component is very important, of course, because it’s meant to mimic the experience of stumbling upon a book in a bookstore. That’s why I’ll sometimes try to include back covers and first pages, especially for creative works.
AL: Why book covers? What sort of book covers are you drawn to?
JK: The second part of it, of course, is aesthetic. I love cover art, I do judge books by their covers, and since my job relies on a very superficial interaction with books, cover art is the main way one title can stand out from the pack. If I tried to read all the books I liked on the job, I’m pretty sure I’d be fired!
Plus, I think it’s worthwhile to praise and attract attention to those publishers who put thought and craft into presentation – not to mention the individual artists who do the designs (I haven’t been very good at snagging this information consistently, but it’s one of my goals). When I was studying in Egypt, the cover art of Helmi al-Tonsi made a huge impression on me.
Most of the books we receive from our biggest vendors are bound, so the original cover art isn’t visible. In fact, this is one of the reasons I have a hard time photographing certain books. It can be awkward holding the outer cover back in order to get a good picture of the original.
I’m drawn to a mix of things – I like very simple, clean-cut, almost minimalist covers, and I like bright colors, mixed-media, collage and very ‘artsy’ covers. Striking portraits and photography call to me, and I have even considered doing a special series on autobiographies that feature a portrait of the author looking serious in a suit, or on author thumbnails. I’ve also highlighted at least one cover I found creepy or weird (there are more in the drafts) or difficult to parse.
JK: As for books with ugly or boring covers — I may be highlighting a few in the coming week or so! A lot of the Iraqi books I’m cataloging right now have very cheap, plain bindings and covers. I imagine the reasons for that are fairly obvious — it’s not just a matter of thought or craft, but resources. The highest quality covers I’ve seen come from publishers in Lebanon, Tunisia, and the European publishers printing Persian literature, though that’s a gross generalization, not a rule. One book, a history of Baghdad from its establishment to the present-day, has a plain white cover only slightly thicker than the pages themselves. Of course, even in that case, I can really only judge the book by its title, and any information I glean during the few minutes it takes to look up a library record and check that it matches the book in hand.
AL: How many Arabic books does Columbia acquire a year? From how many different publishers, do you think? Do you get to make the pitch for any books you want included?
JK: To get statistics on the Arabic collections as a whole, I had to ask Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies Librarian, Peter Magierski. We don’t have a report on how many books were acquired in Arabic in a given year, but we do have a record of how many books were cataloged. Between January 2012 and January 2013, we added 3,571 records to CLIO, but there was no cataloger for Arabic books for almost half the year, so that is probably a low figure. The year before shows something closer to 4,500 Arabic records added.
We also don’t (currently) have a breakdown of which or how many publishers we buy from, since everything is purchased through vendors, and each of these vendors have relationships with an extremely wide range of publishers. Many of the vendors also cover multiple countries. The two biggest vendors are Leila Books in Egypt, and Suleiman, which covers the Levant. Both also cover the Arabian Peninsula. After that is Dar Mahjar, which covers Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, Hogarth or MeaBooks, which is a major vendor for African books generally. I usually see Hogarth books from Sudan, Mauritania, and sometimes Senegal. Al-Muthanna is our vendor for books from Iraq, and Andromeda covers Palestinian books, whether they’re from Gaza and the West Bank or within Israel. On top of that, the Library of Congress in Cairo sends us titles, and we occasionally get books published in Arabic from other locations, like Iran and Pakistan.
I’m glad you asked this question, though, because I would like to figure out statistics on publishers. It would be wonderful if we could even have a map showing the flow of books to Columbia’s libraries! Maybe this can be developed in the future. In the meantime, there is more information on Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies collection here.
As it turns out, I can recommend books for our collection – thank you for asking! I haven’t done it yet, but I’m sure I will in the future. By the way, the MES librarian Peter Magierski also reads your blog, and I’m pretty sure he follows your recommendations.
AL: You say, “This is not a book review blog, and I would not have time to read all the books highlighted here…” But might you do mini-reviews of some of the books? Or solicit reviews?
JK: Very soon, I’ll be setting up a submission page with guidelines for Ghilafaat, but in the meantime, anyone interested in submitting a review can simply contact me via email or really any social media platform. I’ll even accept reviews written in Arabic, provided that the author is okay with me translating them. One of the things I would like to do as I continue developing the space is make it more consistently bilingual, so that it is almost equally accessible to Arabic readers.
I’m also looking for help writing about some of the Persian-language books I’d like to highlight, so if anyone is interested they should definitely get in touch!
As I continue working on the blog, I do plan to read at least some of the books and write my own mini-reviews. Unfortunately, with the first book I attempted to read specifically for the blog, I got so aggravated with one of the characters that I had to put it aside. I have yet to truly hit my stride as a reader of Arabic. There is a bit of a mismatch between my patience, my ability, and my literary tastes, which I am working to overcome. Ghilafaat also serves as motivation.
AL: So sometimes there will be a picture first (on the Instagram account), then you’ll mull it over, and write a post?
JK: Yes, although I might not always create a full-length post on the blog about a book I highlight on Instagram. I tend to set aside anywhere from 10 to 20 books a day to highlight (though I’m trying to restrain myself), and there is already a backlog of almost 70 drafts in the blog, which doesn’t include the most recent photos on Instagram. So Instagram is also a way of featuring books I wouldn’t get to showcase at all if I limited myself to the blog. If someone on Instagram expresses a strong interest in a particular book, I’ll bump it to the front of the line. They can also volunteer to review the book themselves!
Ghilafaat is really in its infancy right now — just a year ago I was working in a completely different field (refugee resettlement) and had not even thought of working in a library, despite my lifelong love of books. Everything is very new. I hope Ghilafaat will have a long life, and I’m both curious and excited to see how it will grow along the way.
Jessamy Klapper is an Arabic Bibliographic Assistant at Columbia University Libraries. She previously worked for the International Rescue Committee, the International Institute of New Jersey, and Middlebury College, where she was an Arabic teaching assistant.