Last summer, the International Visitor’s Council in Philadelphia asked the Library Company to host a group from Uzbekistan visiting the US for a State Department-sponsored program on library conservation. On July 23, I welcomed a delegation that included Ms. Nargiza Zaitova, Head of the Department of Rare Collections and Manuscripts of the National Library of Uzbekistan in Tashkent; Ms. Zulhumor Hadjaniyazova, Head of the Department of Rare Collections for the Information and Library Center in Khorezm Province; Ms. Gulnorahon Ismailova, Director of the Information and Library Center in Andijan Province; and Ms. Venera Lentovskaya, Deputy Director of the Information and Library Center in Namangan Province.
Two interpreters carrying portable simultaneous translation equipment were able to render John Van Horne’s introductory remarks to the group into Uzbek in real time. For the rest of the tour, we muddled through with sequential translation by these talented and resourceful linguists.
Our guests were full of admiration for the history and operations of the Library Company (even if we couldn’t wow them with our great antiquity as we do many American visitors), and especially inspired by a stop in the bindery. Having seen the condition of archives in various developing countries, I could only imagine some of the environmental hazards they were up against in Tashkent and Khiva. After leaving the bindery we headed into the stacks for the pièce de résistance of any Library Company tour.
In my first year on the job, I had tagged along as John gave any number of tours of the treasures of our Americana collection, so I headed confidently to the fifth floor. My guests listened politely to my discussion of our colonial imprints—then someone asked if we had any Korans. Hoping very much that we did, I led the group uncertainly to the Northeast corner of the building where, I had only recently learned, we kept early imported imprints. I scoured the spines on the shelves anxiously and hoped that it wouldn’t be apparent to all that I had no idea what I was doing. With some relief, I spotted a run of fat glossy bibles in the second stack row I tried. I knew enough to know that our non-Americana holdings were still organized by subject, so I felt certain that if we had a Koran it would be nearby.
Turning to the facing shelf, my heart leapt at the sight of “l’Alcoran de Mahomet” on a pair of duodecimo volumes. I lifted one of the little books off the shelf, so much daintier than the quarto bibles covered in heavy calf across the aisle. Bound in milky vellum, the little volume was a French translation of the Koran by “le Sieur du Ryer” published in Amsterdam in 1672. Unlike the volume’s mate on the shelf—a Koran in Latin and Arabic from 1698—our French Koran read left to right, enabling me to find the vivid red-and-black title page on the first try.
My Uzbek visitors were delighted. It was clearly meaningful for them to find editions of the holy book of their faith on the shelves of a distinguished American rare book library. I was moved to have helped make this connection between our respective book cultures and, by proxy, between our nations and histories.
When my visitors took their leave after almost two hours with us, they graciously pressed on me some representative gifts and a brochure about Uzbekistan’s national libraries. It wasn’t until casually flipping through the brochure back at my desk that I understood the full charge of the connection we had made. Among the mind-blowing pictures of ancient illuminated manuscripts, I found the title page of a small French-language Koran, printed in matching red-and-black typeface. Though closer inspection shows that the volumes are not from the same edition, the family relationship between these precious little books—one in Tashkent and one in Philadelphia—feels like a real bond.
My colleagues had longed to know how our little “Alcoran” had come into the collection and I had no satisfying information to offer them. As it happens, despite a bookplate designating the volume as part of the Loganian Library, the trail is probably cold. Only three of the Library Company’s 12 Korans had belonged to James Logan in his lifetime. According to Chief of Reference Connie King, after our acquisition of the Loganian Library in 1792 we continued to assign newly acquired rare imprints to that collection. She surmises that we probably purchased M. du Ryer’s effort sometime early in the nineteenth century.
Spanning the period from 1627 to 1806, our Korans include 1 in the proper Arabic (for the faithful, translating the Koran is a no-no), 2 in Arabic and Latin, 1 in Latin, 4 in French, 1 in German, and 3 in English. Two of the English volumes are retranslations based on Andre du Ryer’s efforts (we learn the translator's given name from the Uzbek copy)—including the first American edition from Springfield, MA, in 1806—and one (London, 1734) is an original translation.
The wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire induced any number of Europeans to want to take a closer look at this text, and the fruit of their scholarly curiosity is now a cherished part of the national and international book heritage housed on our shelves. The IVC representative who had arranged the visit noted in her initial correspondence that Uzbekistan has historically been the repository for knowledge in Central Asia, and the brochure left by our visitors makes clear the depth and breadth of history preserved in their institutions. In this way, they are our Central Asian mirror image. I hope that this visit is just the beginning of increasingly meaningful connections between our institutions and others like them around the world.