WORKING WITH SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY’S KHALIL I. SEMAAN COLLECTION By Michael Shenouda
Upon deciding to begin graduate studies at Syracuse University, I initially hoped to join both the Religion Department and the School of Information Studies’ Information Management Program. That way I could obtain a degree in computer technology (to earn my bread and butter) and simultaneously satisfy my intense curiosity about the various religions of the world. I have been interested in religion since early childhood, not only in my own religion, the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Christianity, but in others. Also, having lived in Egypt for the first eighteen years of my life, my Arabic was still strong.
Since I needed to take the GRE to enroll in the Religion Department, and my application was already late, I decided to join only the graduate program in Information Management, putting off any prospect of formally studying religion. I then contacted Professor Rania Habib (Languages, Literature, and Linguistics Department) about any job openings as an Arabic teacher. Professor Habib said that she could not promise anything but would keep my resume on file. A semester later she contacted me about a possible job in the E. S. Bird Library’s cataloging department involving a collection of Arabic language books that had been donated by Dr. Khalil I. Semaan, Professor Emeritus of Arabic at Binghamton University.
I did not know what to expect—what the job entailed, what kind of books they were, what skills were necessary. All I knew was that I would have to read and transliterate Arabic. At the library, I met with Marty Hanson (social sciences and area studies bibliographer) and Charles Tremper (head of the cataloging department), who gave me a crash course in using WorldCat First Search, a global catalog of library collections, to search for catalog records.
However, the most delightful surprise came when I started examining the books them- selves! This was not a trivial collection, but a crucial set for any modern library, especially for a library of the caliber of Syracuse University’s. The collection contains books of Arabic literature (prose and verse, modern and old), social studies, history, politics, and, to my delight, of Islamic studies. The collection about Islam is so substantial that it is doubtful that any local mosque in Central New York could approach it. I felt like I was in the Islamic Educational Mecca of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, surrounded by so many books on Islamic Jurisprudence, the Quran and its ex- egesis (tafaseer), and the hadeeth (oral tradition in Islam). Given my interest in these areas, I was like a child in a candy store.
But the delight was not just mine. Marty also found one book that she had studied in Eng- lish, Risalat Ibn Fadlan fi wasf al-rihlah ila bilad al-Turuk wa-al-Khazar wa-al-Rus wa-al-Saqalibah sanat (a tenth-century treatise describing the journey of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan to the land of the Turks, Khazars, Russians and Slavs in the year 309/921). Ibn Fadlan’s manuscript about his experiences served as the basis for Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead, later made into the movie The 13th Warrior (1999).
Syracuse University Library is indeed fortunate to have received Dr. Semaan’s personal book collection, which I have learned represents the largest donation of books related to the Middle East in the University’s history. I have been proud to contribute my skills toward making these books available for students and scholars to learn from and enjoy!
Michael Shenouda is a Graduate Assistant in the Information Management Program at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.