Deep in the Stacks: Mehmet Kentel and Akın Özarslantürk

Our second interview for Deep in the Stacks is with Mehmet Kentel, Head Librarian, and Akın Özarslantürk, Branch Librarian at the Anadolu Medeniyetleri Araştırma Merkezi (ANAMED), or Research Center for Anatolian Civilization (RCAC).

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Akın (l) and Mehmet (r)

How did you get interested in library work?

Mehmet: I think I can call myself as an ‘accidental librarian’, even though my primary identification would still be related to my ongoing work as a historian-to-be. I was a fellow at the Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) during 2014-15 academic year. Towards the end of it, and inspired by the work being done at the center, I started thinking seriously on a professional/administrative position within the larger domain of academia, that is not necessarily entailed teaching. Jobs like curating exhibitions, working at research centers, libraries, etc. started to be increasingly relevant and exciting. Akın’s example as a librarian, who is not only extremely helpful, but also engaged with every step of a researcher’s work, was also inspiring. And at this very time, by total coincidence, Özge Ertem, the then-Head Librarian of the ANAMED Library, resigned from her post to continue her postdoctoral studies at Harvard University. Özge is also a historian of the Ottoman Empire, and I saw in her persona that these two professional identities may actually get along quite nicely. So I applied for the position, and I am lucky that they thought I would make a good match.

Akın: Similarly, I never planned to be a librarian even while I was studying librarianship. After I graduated I couldn’t find a better option so I decided to be a librarian.

Tell us a bit about the patrons that your library serves, how would you describe the community?

Mehmet: We have several groups of patrons, with varying needs and degrees of attachment to the institution. Of course, the Library is first and foremost the library of the ANAMED and its fellows. ANAMED hosts around 30-35 fellows for an academic year, some staying for full 9 months, some for shorter periods. These fellows come from various parts of the world and have a wide range of academic interests (from Neolithic archaeology to contemporary heritage issues) as well as standings (from PhD candidates to emeritus professors). Our main mission is to support and facilitate the research of these fellows. But ANAMED Library is also a branch of the Koç University Suna Kıraç Library, and hence we also serve Koç University professors and students. ANAMED has especially close ties with the Art History and Archaeology Department and the History Department. Their students and professors are among our most constant patrons. Lastly, we also serve a large community of researchers based in Istanbul, even though they are not affiliated with ANAMED or Koç University. We have a special membership program that admits researchers (scholars and graduate students) in relevant fields as members, for free. This last group do not have borrowing rights. And of course, we try to pitch in for the research conducted by the ANAMED staff, for exhibitions or for other projects.

Akın: ANAMED Library’s user community, which consists of graduate students and faculty, has experience of using the library resources, much different than undergraduates. They usually ask for help about accessing specific resources that is important for their thesis or research and how to use the library equipment.

What do you think is unique to the collection or resources at your library?

Mehmet: We have a relatively small collection, around 22000 print materials. But this collection is composed of very important contributions coming from seminal names in their fields. Our special collections include the collections of the eminent Byzantinists Steven Runciman, Eunice Dauterman-Henry Maguire and Jacques Lefort; of the famous Islamic Art Historian Esin Atıl; of the renowned Hititologist Hatice Gonnet-Bağana and Muhibbe Darga; of the important numismatist Ömer Diler; and of the iconic photographer and ethnographer Josephine Powell. Overall, I can say that our strength in print materials is the most evident in the works related to Byzantine history. But what makes ANAMED Library unique among other research centers located in Istanbul is its access to a great array of electronic resources. Since we are a branch of Koç University Library, we provide access to all electronic journals, books and databases that are available at the main library.

Have you identified any areas of the collection that you hope to digitize? Which ones?

Mehmet: Two of our collections are already and partially digitized. One of them is Josephine Powell’s slide collection, comprised of the pictures Powell took during her travels in Turkey, especially relevant to the researchers of rural and nomadic life in Anatolia. Hatice Gonnet-Bağana’s excavation notes and pictures are also digitized and accessible to researchers. I believe it will be an indispensable source for the researchers interested in Hittites and the history of Hittitology. All of these are accessible via Koç University Library Digital Collections. Koç University Suna Kıraç Library also digitizes its rare manuscripts collection, and any rare item we have in our collection are sent there to be digitized. In the future, we aim to attract collections with large numbers of primary materials, which would necessarily be digitized.

Akın: We must also state that the library collection is too young. I think the digitization should be the next step after deepening the specific areas of the print collection.

Collection management is often a creative act. How you see yourself shaping the collection?

Mehmet: The most attractive responsibility of the position as I was applying was collection development, and into my seventh month as the Head Librarian of the ANAMED, I still find it as my most exciting and fulfilling duty. It is indeed creative, in the most literal sense of the word, as it involves bringing together various works that do not necessarily belong to the same field, period, methodology, etc; but you try to relate them to each other, creating a dialogue. It is of course a very contingent act, too, as our choices to add to the collection is dependent on the preferences of the fellows, budgetary decisions of the library management, the new scholarly trajectories ANAMED decides to pursue, and even the currency exchange rates we have to consider.

Akın: The head librarian is in charge of the collection management. I, as a branch librarian, used to follow the publishers and book reviews and make an effort to determine deficient resources in the collection.

Mehmet: Actually following book reviews is probably the best part of the job. It allows me to follow trends in fields very different than my own, and to appreciate different disciplines and their methodologies, giving a much more holistic perspective to the past.

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RCAC library and books

What are you priorities and dreams for the collection? Are there digital resources that you are excited about collecting?

Mehmet: I myself am an Ottomanist, and my natural inclination is to enrich our collections on the Ottoman history. This fits in nicely with the shared evaluation of the ANAMED Library by Koç University Library and ANAMED managements, as all of us acknowledge that the weakest part of our collection is Ottoman history, especially compared to the large ratio of Ottomanists among our most regular patrons. But this priority should not come at the expense of other collections, especially our collection on Byzantine history, which makes us one of the leading research centers in this field. So my dream is to acquire a special collection on Ottoman history, rich with primary and secondary sources, which would fill an important gap within our collection without sacrificing other fields. And in the meantime, we continue to expand our resources with the most recent publications in all of the relevant fields, thanks to the suggestions by ANAMED fellows and staff, Koç faculty, and library members.

One of ANAMED’s scholarly directions under its new Director, Chris Roosevelt, is digital humanities. The center aims to become a focal point for digital research in Turkey, not only supporting scholars working on digital projects but also conducting its own projects, including digital mapping and digital archive initiatives. The ANAMED Library should necessarily follow suit, increasing our digital resources, as well as reference resources on digital humanities, to reach higher levels of competency in digital resource technologies.

And in terms of more ‘conventional’ digital resources, I aim to provide access to a rich historical newspapers collection, and a fuller access to Hathi.

Akın: I agree, especially regarding the special collections. I think the ANAMED Library should have more special collections, because these will draw researchers looking for unique materials.

Librarians working on the Middle East often find themselves addressing questions over cultural heritage. What do you see as some of the most pressing cultural heritage concerns in Turkey?

Mehmet: I think one does not have to be a librarian to find issues of cultural heritage very close to home. As a researcher who works on Ottoman archives, the wellbeing of the centuries-old documents, as historical sources but also as artifacts of cultural heritage, has already been very pertinent to me. The lack of transparency and accountability worries me and many Ottomanists like me concerning the future of our field and the past of our geography. As an urban historian, issues of urban renewal, debates around transformation of historic districts as well as ‘rebuilding’ of long-gone historic sites, are of course very relevant. Issues of transparency and accountability are lacking in this aspect of cultural heritage, too, this time accompanied by huge material interests. And of course, in Turkey and in our wider geography, violence against people usually come with violence against their ecology and their built environment, which puts cultural heritage at a huge risk.

ANAMED supports research in cultural heritage, and we at the library try to raise awareness on these issues by expanding our collection to this end.

What do you think are some challenges in librarianship that are unique to Turkey? Alternatively what are its advantages?

Akın: Libraries don’t receive the value as much as they deserve in Turkey. This situation sometimes forces the librarians to be innovative with funding and providing services . The advantage of this challenge is that the librarians have an extra mission and motivation on telling people how the libraries are important and valuable

Mehmet: While I am sure librarians who work at the public libraries would have a very different take on this, as a librarian of a research library, I think the biggest challenge is the overwhelming gap between research conducted in Turkish and in foreign languages. These two fields speak to each other in a very minimum level and in very scattered forms. This makes the job of the librarian quite difficult in evaluating the quality and accessibility of scholarly output. The barrier created by the Ottoman Turkish (or the language reform) also influences the quality of research.  Intellectual production in the Ottoman Empire until 1920’s is still largely inaccessible to researchers who cannot read Ottoman Turkish. It is alright if one is a historian of the Ottoman Empire. But what if a Byzantinist wants to look for Ottoman Turkish production in the nineteenth century, on, say, Byzantine Istanbul? Shall I add such rare materials to the collection, or wait for transcriptions? I of course do not go into the details of difficulties that affect the entire country and all professions, such as constantly increasing prices and fluctuating currency rates.

How do you see your institution as benefiting from international collaboration? Could it potentially address any of the challenges you mentioned previously?

Mehmet: As the ANAMED Library, we benefit from the international connections and channels of collaboration both of ANAMED and Koç University Library. We have exchange agreements with various international institutions. Such collaboration helps us in reaching to the best quality work produced in other countries, especially in languages other than Turkish and English.

We currently have a very important project of collaboration that is local in its scope but international in its nature: Supported by the Istanbul Development Agency, we are creating a union catalogue called BiblioPera, a joint website and a platform, for the libraries and research centers of ANAMED, SALT Research, French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA), Istanbul Research Institute (IAE), Orient Institute Istanbul, German Archaeological Institute (DAI), and the Netherlands Institute in Turkey. While all of these institutions are located in Beyoğlu, many of them are tied to foreign governments or foundations, which gives the collaboration an international aspect. By August 2016, researchers will be able to access the catalogues of all of these institutions with one click. We want this infrastructure as a basis for further collaboration, not only among these institutions, but also other research libraries located in Istanbul.

What do you think are some of the most exciting developments in libraries and librarianship right now, in Turkey or elsewhere?

Mehmet: Certainly digitization and advancement of digital technologies in humanities, not only for its own stake, but also for allowing further collaboration among librarians and researchers in an unprecedented scope. My novice observation is that these tools force researchers and librarians to work more closely, and turn libraries into scholarly environments where knowledge is not only consumed, but also actively produced.

Akın: This is especially true for the rising generation of Turkish librarians, who are very curious and talented in terms of IT services. As a consequence, many quality works showed up on the digitization and open access scene. The works on these two areas in Turkey recently are especially very exciting

Do you want to mention or talk about anything else that we have not mentioned?

Mehmet: My partner in the ANAMED Library, and in this interview, Akın Özarslantürk, has recently resigned from his position to move to Istanbul Technical University Library. Akın has been working at the Koc University Library for four and a half years, and at the ANAMED Library since 2012, and has been a crucial factor in turning the Library into one of the most popular destinations for the scholarly community residing and researching in Istanbul. He has been the solid rock of the Library as head librarians and support staff have come and gone. His incredible skills in communication and library services made him one of the most popular librarians in Istanbul. I am sure there are readers of the Hazine blog who benefited largely from Akın’s skills. In their presence, I would like to thank him and wish him the best once again.

I also would like to thanks Hazine editors, especially you, Heather, for giving us the opportunity to talk about the ANAMED Library, and also for being so patient with us.

Finally, what is the best reference question you have received?

Mehmet: These days, “where is Akın bey?”.

Akın: “Do you have dental floss with you?”

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