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Exploring the History of AUB

“Archives not only preserve the history, tradition, and essence of an institution such as ours; they also allow that institution constantly to rethink itself in order to preserve the past and, through the lessons of history, to improve the present and the future,” remarked AUB President John Waterbury earlier this year. MainGate steps into the University Archives and Special Collections to discover a wealth of historical treasures.

For most historians, time spent in the archives tends to be laborious, but at the same time the experience is always remembered as unforgettably blissful. The excitement becomes visibly apparent when you listen to them relate that experience—how, after days, weeks, or months of digging through Ottoman court logs, let’s say, or property records from seventeenth century France, they finally uncover the primary sources to validate their research theory. To them, archives constitute an inexhaustible fount of living history made up of letters, registries, and other documents that provide evidence of how governments ruled, peoples lived, and institutions were born. To non-historians with a taste for intellectual adventure, meanwhile, exploring a library’s archives can become a fascinating journey into the past—with no reward other than the pure pleasure of tracking a personal path through the buried storehouse of human experience.
Take the 137-year living history of AUB, for example, the details of which exist in the Jafet Memorial Library’s University Archives and Special Collections. Brimming with historical correspondence, reports, photography, and publications, the University Archives provide entry into the rich past of the University, from its inception in 1866 to the present, for the professional scholar, the devoted student, or the curious layperson.
To most people the word “archives” conjures up visions of crowded stacks filled with dusty files, brittle yellowing documents, and musty boxes and crates. In actuality, AUB’s archives, according to the archives librarian, are filled with rows of stacks holding boxes, bundles, bags, crates, and cabinets for files, posters, and audio-visual materials. “One is easily fooled by this deceptively antiseptic stock. In fact, the archives are an Ali Baba cave teeming with life, a treasure trove hiding many gems.”

In the Department of Archives and Special Collections, a staff of five is on hand to assist you in your search. At the helm, ready to unlock the lid to the treasure chest is Archives Librarian Asma Fathallah, who, after working in cataloging, bibliography, and reference for 13 years, established the department in 1991.
Fathallah is aided by Nadine Knesevitch, assistant to the librarian; Samar el-Mikati Kaissi, in charge of archives; Dalia Najiya, in charge of photos; Abeer Medawar, in charge of posters; and department secretary Kamilia Kassis. El-Mikati Kaissi, reflecting the passion of those who work with rare and historic materials, says, “Every day is a challenge, producing new stories, new events…Although the events are old, they always surface as new stories.”
By post, by e-mail, and in person, researchers from all over the world consult the AUB archives. Students, faculty members, visiting scholars, and local historians and media personalities also use the archives regularly. Researchers come, says Fathallah, from “other universities, research centers and special libraries, cultural centers, professional and scientific societies, television and media production firms, architectural and construction companies, government agencies, and embassies.” Among those who have recently credited the University Archives in their work are: Lebanese historian and former AUB professor Shafik Jeha, whose Darwin and the Crisis of 1882 in the Medical Department, which was originally published in Arabic, is now being prepared for publication in English; Anne-Laure Dupont, French author of Gurgi Zaydan, écrivain réformiste et témoins de la renaissance arabe; and the American, Norbert Hirschhorn MD, whose Letter from Lebanon, published in the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin in 2000, revealed the friendship between the famous poet and Abby Wood Bliss, wife of AUB’s founding father and first president, Daniel Bliss.
Significant photography exhibitions such as “Women Pioneers, a Photo Exhibit of Lebanese Women,” mounted at the Lebanese American University, as well as an international photo exhibition held in Barcelona, Spain, have borrowed from AUB’s photo collection. Columbia University, The Boston Globe, and local newspapers and TV stations are also among the department’s clients; and recent requests for posters and photographs have come from Loyola University, the Gale Encyclopedia of the Middle East, and the American Board of Foreign Missions in Turkey.
Before 1991, the archival materials and special collections were located in different places throughout Jafet Memorial Library. Ironically, the destruction of College Hall that year prompted the construction of new, state-of-the-art premises to house them all in one site. During the reconstruction of College Hall, space was allotted for the new department in the basement of the library. Fathallah had long been working to bring the widely dispersed materials together, and in 1996 the archives collection was finally given a permanent home with ample space for offices, reading areas, storage, preservation, and advanced technology for the maintenance of rare and fragile materials.
Over the decades the archives collection has been growing and taking shape. Early letters from Daniel Bliss to the college sponsors back home, handwritten minutes of weekly faculty meetings, and photographs of the founding fathers accumulated and were saved as the new Syrian Protestant College, (SPC, which later became AUB) developed and grew. Since then, every significant scrap of paper, article, document, and book related to the college and AUB has been carefully collected, listed, catalogued, and stored, along with rare manuscripts and books in Arabic, English, French, and a variety of other languages. The AUB centenary celebrations in 1966 prompted an upsurge in the collection of materials from all over the University, including all the historical documents on file in the Office of the President (who was then Norman Burns).
Today, the continued growth of the archival holdings is assured through the University Archives Program, which mandates the acquisition of all university archival materials from academic and administrative units, faculty members, student organizations, and alumni, and on a voluntary basis from organizations supporting AUB. The list of items requested runs alphabetically from A to Y, from addresses to yearbooks, under such categories as awards, bylaws, circulars, diaries, handbooks, minutes and reports (“the backbone of the archives,” says Fathallah), memorabilia, policies, press clippings, rules and regulations, scrapbooks, and many more. Menus, advertising flyers, and even an academic robe have found their way into the archives.
The two general areas of the department, archives and special collections, are not distinct; they frequently overlap. For instance, a rare manuscript, if written by a member of AUB’s faculty, may be considered an archive of the University rather than a special collection item. The archives, organized in seven major categories—generalities, administration, faculties, students, alumni, AUBites, and AUB-related bodies—open a unique window on the University’s long and rich history. The special collections presently number six: theses; closed area books containing rare, sensitive, controversial, and copiously illustrated works; manuscripts; photographs; posters; and maps.

Fathahllah’s enthusiasm is contagious in describing the rare books and in talking about clues to the history of AUB. All the tools of the search (finding aids) are at her fingertips. Her dedication and ability to locate the obscure fact or reference make an archives search a fascinating adventure. She vibrantly talks about the 66 student publications issued between 1898 and 1944. “The handwritten and illustrated magazines,” she says, “make one pale at the enthusiasm, effort, and determination of those who wrote them for circulation among the students, long before our era of word processors.”

Try exploring the archives yourself. Fascinating photographs of people at SPC/AUB show President and Mrs. Howard Bliss riding along in the first automobile in Beirut in 1907; the first two aviators of the region, Ottoman pilots Fethi Bey and Sadik Bey, who dropped a souvenir flag on the hospital grounds in 1914; President of the Republic Camille Chamoun and Mrs. Chamoun at the Lee Observatory on the occasion of the moon eclipse in 1957; Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing a huge crowd both in and outside the Assembly Hall in 1960; and Brazilian football player Pelé teaching AUB students football skills and strategies during a 1975 visit to campus. Hold in your hand the 1896 copy of faculty member George E. Post’s groundbreaking work, The Flora of Syria, Palestine, and Sinai. Inside are handwritten notes by Post himself, including additions, pencil sketches, and correspondence.



The large poster collection visually relates the history of campus activities: political events, lectures, drama productions, concerts, and exhibitions. Posters support the Palestinian cause or promote transcendental meditation, a Stanley Kubrick film festival, or kick boxing. A broad non-AUB poster collection includes those advertising net servers or issued in remembrance of the 1999 Israeli massacre in Qana.
The Blatchford and Moore photography collections portray early images of the region and the growth of the University from the earliest beginnings of the main campus buildings. The Blatchford Collection, donated to the University in 1924 by Mrs. Howard Bliss and named after her father, is a rich accumulation of 801 photographs of Lebanon and the region that capture landscapes, historical monuments and archaeological sites, village and city life, agriculture, and scenes of daily life. Mostly in misty sepia, the photographs are a veritable time machine, showing a young Druze girl hardly taller than her conical headdress (the tantour), farm workers beating olives from the trees, and village bread baking. The many and varied subjects provide a valuable visual source of reference for historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Everyone on campus has seen at least one of the photographs documenting the life of the early School of Medicine and the brave establishment of the college buildings on the barren slopes of Ras Beirut—Daniel Bliss starkly outlined at the north corner of Bliss Hall under construction, fez-topped students at work in a medical laboratory, the groundbreaking for West Hall, and many more. The photographs of the Moore Collection were taken by medical doctor Franklin T. Moore, who served the SPC between 1891 and 1915. The present collection was made possible by the painstaking work of Dr. Raif Nassif, AUB professor emeritus, and Dr. Marwan El-Sabban of the Photography Department and the Faculty of Medecine. Dr. Nassif discovered the early glass plate negatives produced by Moore, and Dr. El-Sabban prepared them for modern printing.
The department is constantly updating and assessing its collection, developing more finding aids, and enhancing the environment. In March 2003, Nabil Saidi (AUB ‘70), who for more than 20 years has been an expert on Oriental manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London, examined and appraised the archive manuscripts. He highlighted the value of a number of the rare works, among them: important documents, mostly in Arabic, but with a few in Syriac, Karshuni, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Hebrew; valuable manuscripts, including works of the Mamluk period; and a rich collection of Qur’ans, Bibles, a Torah scroll, Islamic prayer books, and theological works from the Abbasid dynasty.

Finding aids, such as specialist catalogs, guides, lists, inventories, directories, and indexes, facilitate the search. Today, the department is moving forward with a challenging program that incorporates information technology in order to reach the largest possible number of researchers. Already available on-line are the Moore and Blatchford photography collections, the 1928 AUB Yearbook, “Political Posters from the 1960s through the 1980s,” and “Art Posters in Lebanon.” The most recent digitization project soon to be made accessible on the web features the nine volumes of the Students Union Gazette, published by students between 1913 and 1932. The department also plans in the future to make various items available on-line in Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a new electronic system specifically designed for archival materials.
For the protection of rare books, manuscripts, and other collections, the department has installed state-of-the-art environmental controls to insure preservation and maintenance of the archives. The monitoring of temperature, light, and air quality meets international standards. Temperature is maintained between 18 and 20 degrees centigrade; humidity between 50 and 55 degrees, and light is reduced to the minimum. Water mist fire controls safeguard all of Jafet Memorial Library, but the manuscript collection of the department is protected by a unique and expensive one-time-use device from FM 200 Fire Suppression Systems that uses gas emission to extinguish fires, rather than the water that would be so potentially damaging to rare manuscripts and other documents.

 

Among the gems of the archival treasures is the Beirut Codex, a Syriac manuscript of the New Testament copied on vellum some time between the seventh and twelfth centuries in one of the monasteries of the Near East by “Monk John.” The manuscript, presented to the first president, Daniel Bliss, by College Hall Master Builder Abdul Masih of Mardin in 1871, was discovered in 1876 by faculty member Isaac H. Hall, who spent several years deciphering, collating, and copying it before the manuscript was sent to Philadelphia for restoration and binding in 1883. The copy, among two or three extant in the world today, is a thick volume bound in beautifully decorated leather boards.
Another treasure is the 1735 Description de l’Egypte, compiled by a former French consul, M. de Maillet and by L’abbe Le Masrier. This monumental historical work, which includes several tomes from a later date, measures 68 by 99 centimeters. The library’s holdings, which consist of volumes dating from 1735 to 1829, as well as a 1994 German version, are filled with drawings and lore about Egypt—its geography, natural history, scientific expeditions, customs, religion, government, commerce, and antiquities. Drawings of rare insects, seashells, and detailed maps ornament almost every page.
The 1887 Edward Muybridge collection of rare lithographs, Animal Locomotion, is another valuable item. It offers a glimpse of photography’s transition from stills to animation, a major step in pursuit of “the graphic representation of motion…too fast for the human eye to see.” In addition to the lithographs, three volumes published in 1979 under the title, Complete Human and Animal Locomotion, describe Muybridge’s contribution to photography and include 781 plates from the original lithographs—a vast variety of sequential shots of men, women, children, horses, and elephants in motion.Special thanks go to Asma Fathallah, Archives Librarian, and the entire staff of the Department of Archives and Special Collections for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article.

 

Are you sheltering some treasure of AUB lore in your home or office? Would a search of your attic or basement reveal an AUB treasure? Help preserve the historical record and safeguard the heritage of the American University of Beirut by sending material to the AUB Department of Archives and Special Collections.
E-mail:
specialcollections@aub.edu.lb