Treasures of Islam: The McGill Islamic Studies Library

By Caitlin Bailey

The Islamic Studies library at McGill is housed in Morrice Hall, formerly the Presbyterian College. One of the more prominent features of the space is the Octagonal Room at the rear, which still contains the original oak shelving and stained glass windows of the College. I visited the library to speak with the current head librarian, Mrs. Anaïs Salamon, who took her current position in 2010 after the departure of the former head.

Mrs. Salamon began by noting that the Islamic Studies library was founded in 1952, when the Institute of Islamic Studies separated from the Religious Studies Department with funding from Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a specialist in comparative religion. Dr. Smith was primarily interested with Islam in South Asia and hoped to facilitate further inter-religious interactions through a separate department. In fact, the Institute of Islamic Studies and its adjoining independent library were the first in North America. Mrs. Salamon pointed out that its foundation predates significantly larger departments at Harvard and the University of Chicago.

As the Head librarian, Mrs. Salamon manages a diverse collection, including reference materials in ten languages and a small body of rare books and materials. Mrs. Salamon emphasized the broadness of the McGill collection and noted that it is particular due to its coverage of the entirety of the Islamic cultural world. The library holds materials not only from the Arabic countries, but also from Southeast Asia, Turkey and Afghanistan (to name a few).  During our interview, she mentioned that many of the copies held by McGill are also the only examples in North America.

The bulk of the library’s collection remains non-digitized, due to the reluctance of many publishing firms in the Islamic world to use digital formats. Mrs. Salamon explained that this is changing somewhat, but that unless materials (such as journals and periodicals) are published in North America, the library usually has to buy them in print. This leads to what she called the main problem of the library; the chronic lack of space. Currently, there are no off-site storage areas, making the de-accessioning of materials necessary.

The future goals of the library, according to Mrs. Salamon, include the location of storage space for its holdings, which she predicts will continue to grow. Additionally, she would like to extend service hours to 24 hours a day. Under current staffing divisions, the library cannot remain open past 10pm. She would also like to continue with, and broaden, the library’s “Islamic Film Nights”, which currently run several times a semester and feature some of the most notable films from the modern Islamic world. To conclude our interview, when asked about the most interesting item in the collection, Mrs. Salamon cited the library’s copy of an Albanian translation of the Qur’an, which she further explained might be the only one in North America.

Truly a unique space, the Islamic Studies library offers not only a beautiful study environment, but also the richness of Islamic culture and thought.

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