|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||10. Nr.||August 2002|
Agata Skowron-Nalborczyk (Warsaw)
Not so long ago an Orientalist researching oriental languages, their grammar or literature, had to limit him or herself to the materials available at the nearest libraries and academic institutions or had to wait months to obtain texts from abroad. The only way to get any information about distant resources was to pay a personal visit to foreign libraries or to get in touch with them by mail.
The most popular way of conducting research on oriental languages and cultures was the following: an Orientalist worked in his or her office, reading old texts and manuscripts, sometimes from very poor quality copies. He or she met other Orientalists at congresses and conferences, wrote them letters, but the contacts were rather occasional. When he or she wanted to find someone interested in the same scholarly matter, it was necessary to inquire among friends or to look for this person's address in books and journals. At the very least one had to know the name of the institution, where the wanted person worked.
The life and work of Orientalists is much easier nowadays: universities and oriental institutes publish web pages with names, full addresses (postal as well as electronic), phone and fax numbers, etc. These web pages contain even more information such as the fields of interest of the faculty members along with their publications and bibliographies. During the very first visit at a web page you can establish the specialty of a particular colleague as well as the subjects of his or her recent publications. It is much easier to write a letter to a scholar you have never met when you know with whom you are dealing.
Mailing lists dealing with particular subjects such as the Arabic language, Islam, Middle Eastern religions and Linguistics are also very helpful by enabling one to find other colleagues working on similar problems. This is of great importance, especially for Orientalists, who form a rather small group and work all over the world. I must admit that it is really not so easy to find anybody working on the Arabic grammatical treatises from the 11th century AD or on the texts written by Abd al-Qahir al-Gurgani.
Scholarly journals devoted to Oriental studies are not numerous. It is often difficult to find them in "normal" academic libraries. Sometimes even specialized libraries of Oriental institutes do not have all volumes of some rare journals. Some years ago it was really difficult to obtain information about a specific journal, not to mention its separate volumes, from distant libraries. It also required a lot of patience.
The situation is much more comfortable and simple nowadays, when it is possible to learn whether a particular journal is being published in the on-line catalogues or to send an e-mail to a library and receive an almost instant response. With such information in hand you may more quickly obtain an offprint of the article you need (or a photocopy) or a book through your own library.
There were, of course, catalogues on CD ROMs earlier, but they were available only in a local library, where one also had the problem of the availability of computers.
Some publishers have started publishing the contents of their journals on the Internet (even sending them via e-mail to subscribers). This practice is very helpful for those who want to be up-to-date with respect to publications in their fields of interest. For example, such major publishers as Taylor and Francis or Oxford Press (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals; they offer even an e-mail context alert SARA - Scholarly Articles Research Alerting - http://www.tandf.co.uk/sara/) offer services of this kind on the Internet. They also make it possible to buy a journal or a book or even a copy of a needed article via the Internet. The same service is available from Oxford University Press: (http://www3.oup.co.uk/jnls/) which offers its journals on-line as PDF files.
There is also another useful way to locate a needed journal or article and to get it very fast. The German journals database JASON at the Bielefeld University (http://www.uni-bielefeld.de) enables one to obtain a required article much easier and faster. JASON collects information about more than 140, 000 journals from many university libraries (mainly German ones). Through their service one can run a search through the on-line catalogue for the wanted title, issue, volume, etc., or check whether the acquired information about the volume and year agree or disagree.
JASON database (http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/databases/jason/) also offers a very important service, namely, when you locate the needed journal you can order the specified article, and a scanned copy will be sent as a TIFF-image (very well packed) to your e-mail address or as a PDF-file for downloading on a password protected Web page. This service is free if your university or institute library takes part in the JASON project. Otherwise it costs 3-4 euro per copy. Another service of this kind - SUBITO (http://www.subito-doc.de/) - is a bit more expensive (4-6 euro per copy).
There also exists a very good database for scientific articles: JADE (http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/databases/jade/), which is correlated with JASON. It enables one to search through the contents of the journals collected in the JASON database, although only users from ".de" domains are allowed to use it. Some months ago I managed to connect to the JADE database, and I found a lot of interesting articles on Arabic language and Arabic linguistics in the contents of non-Oriental Linguistic journals such as Anthropological Linguistics, Word, Language. I had that luck only once, and I do not know how I managed to do that. The next day when I tried to establish the connection between my computer and that database again, I learned I was not allowed to do so.
It was not easy to find the specified issues of Anthropological Linguistics in Warsaw, so I sent an e-mail to the Department of Scientific Information at the Polish National Library. The same day I received the information about where they could be located. (I found out from the journal cover that Anthropological Linguistics had its own Web page - http://www.indiana.edu/~anthling/ ).
Such a possibility of acquiring information about books and journals and even copies of needed articles is very important, especially for the Orientalists from post-Communist countries, where libraries have poor holdings as far as foreign books are concerned. Books and subscriptions to journals from Western Europe, the USA, Canada or even from the Middle Eastern countries were too expensive due to the weakness of the local currency.
Sometimes even prepaid journals and books did not reach libraries - maybe because of the censorship? For example, we lack two volumes of the journal Arabica, to which the library of the Department for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Warsaw University subscribes. These are for the years 1981 and 1982 - the time when Communist authorities enforced martial law in Poland in December 1981. These volumes never reached the library, although they were prepaid and shipped to us.
An Orientalist, like any other scientist working on a living language, should be in regular, continuous contact with the language and should follow the cultural, social and political events of the studied communities or countries, for example, by reading current issues of the newspapers that they publish.
For a specialist on Iran or Arabia it is sometimes difficult to get the current issue of daily newspapers from these countries. If you live in a capital, you can obtain one or two-week-old newspapers from the embassies of Iran or Arab countries, or if you live in a city with a lot of immigrants from these countries, you can buy newspapers in their languages from streets vendors. When immigrants form only a small group, however, importing newspapers in Middle Eastern languages is not worthwhile - as is the case in Poland. In this case only the Internet provides the opportunity to read the current issues of such newspapers. There is a small problem with the newspapers in Arabic script - see "Al-Hayat" (http://www.alhayat.com/), "Al-Ahram" (http://www.ahram.org.eg/), Islamic Republic News Agency (http://www.irna.com/pe/index.shtml). The reader should have a system with Arabic fonts (for example, Arabic or Persian MS Windows, Arabic system for Macintosh; this system offers the possibility to write in Arabic script and has Arabic fonts - it works also with MS Windows 2000). Some of the newspapers are published as images and available for everyone - examples are: "Al-Ayyam" (http://www.al-ayyam.com/), "Al-Quds" (http://www.alquds.com/).
If an Orientalist works on one of the living religions, such as Islam, he or she cannot limit him or herself to books and journals. Religious and intellectual life are developing all the time, and it is now possible to follow these developments, their recent trends, problems and discussions day by day on the Internet. See: "Arab.Net" (http://www.arab.net/), "arabia.com" (http://www.arabia.com/).
If one is interested in a particular oriental country, it is not possible to go there every time some information is needed. Now the Internet provides fast access to the necessary information. For example, in working on Christian-Muslim relations, I needed to confirm whether it is true that Christians in Egypt are not allowed to teach the Arabic language and whether their representatives are not elected to the Egyptian parliament. I found some addresses on the Internet, sent an e-mail with a questionnaire and received answers. See: Die Christlich-Islamische Gesellschaft (http://www.chrislages.de), "Answering Islam" (http://answering-islam.org/).
There is also another advantage to an Orientalist in using the Internet. The Internet offers a great deal of useful information about the newest software designed for editing texts in oriental scripts or about software serving to solve specific problems such as the conversion from/to Muslim and Christian calendars (http://www.al-islam.com). One can also find a specific fragment within the Holy Qur'an with its English, German, or Turkish translation on the Internet. It is sometimes difficult to translate an excerpt from the Qur'an without its context, so when you find its place in the text you can use the existing translation in your mother tongue. There are large books with the Qur'an concordances, but the text there is written in very small print and is difficult to read.
The Muslim presence in Europe is one of my research fields. Muslim groups, which are spread all over the world, stay in touch with one another via the Internet, and by means of the Internet I am able to follow their activities, problems and difficulties and the way they try to solve them - "Foundation for Democracy in Iran" (http://www.iran.org), "Islamische Zeitung" (http://www.islamische-zeitung.de/), (http://members.aol.com/dmlbonn/index.html), "Muslima Aktiv" (http://www.muslima-aktiv.de).
For example, according to Islamic law, a Muslim girl may marry only a Muslim man, because children have to be brought up in the religion of their father. Sometimes it is difficult to find a good candidate in the nearest neighborhood, in the small Muslim community - so there are special web pages serving as matrimonial agencies for young Muslims.
I am sure that researchers in other fields use the Internet in a similar way to that suggested above for the Orientalists. However, the particular character of Oriental studies such as the geographical distance to the researched subject, the limited access to and availability of written material (books, journals, manuscripts, etc.) and the small number of researchers make the use of the Internet very important. The Internet offers access to needed information easier and faster as well as at times being the only means of obtaining it.
Of course, not all Orientalists will use the benefits of the Internet. Sometimes they prefer to restrict themselves to working on an old text and do not need continuous contact with other scholars. In my opinion, however, the group that appreciates the use of the Internet will grow, and there will be more and more Orientalists for whom the Internet will become an essential tool, a resource and a meeting place. They will not be able to work without the Internet. Or even to live without the Internet...
table of contents: No. 10
Last check of all mentioned URLs 2002-08-22. The editors.