Workshop Report: “All you can do with Catalogs”

by Guy Burak, Paola Molino, Dagmar Riedel, and Martina Siebert, with the collaboration of Anne MacKinney.

The Explorative Workshop „All you can do with Catalogs: Accessing, Organizing, Disseminating Local and Global Knowledge (15th-19th Centuries)“ took place on 6-7 October 2016 at Forum Transregionale Studien and Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. It was convened by Paola Molino (LMU Munich/Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung) together with Guy Burak (New York University), Dagmar Riedel (Columbia University), Martina Siebert (Berlin State Library – East Asia Department / Independent scholar). 

It all began with a serendipitous crossing of the paths of four scholars working on the transmission of knowledge and the history of science in European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies. We all share an abiding interest in the composition of finding aids between 1400 and 1800, when the transformation of feudal societies into territorial states prompted the ruling elites to invest into the construction of imperial libraries and archives, whose design projected transregional connections and supranational ambitions to the world at large. Although new cataloging principles emerged for the collections housed within these new physical spaces, their compilers did not explicitly break with the already recognized knowledge traditions, attempting rather to harmonize the established authoritative epistemes into new classificatory regimes.

The finding aids of early modern societies are fascinating objects in their own right: As artifacts they are primarily paper tools and, yet, their written contents can also be understood as a graphic representation of ideas. Therefore, we made finding aids the workshop’s focus, and invited colleagues – from historians to practicing librarians and catalogers – to reflect on catalogs within their own disciplines. On the one hand, we asked how catalogs were employed as instruments for transforming collection’s idiosyncrasies in a possible or impossible library’s order. On the other hand, we inquired how cataloging ventures were expressions of a ruler’s sophistication through the effective control of precious, rare assets. In the daily business of doing research cataloges are usually experienced as humble tools and inevitable intermediaries that operate as transparent, and thus seemingly neutral interfaces between readers and written texts. We proposed to invert this logic and look at them as if they had suddenly changed into unexplored territories.

Paola Molino

The workshop comprised five sessions. We were joined by fifteen established scholars and around two dozen registered guests. In addition, we included four lightning talks on the development of research projects dealing with the history of catalogs and information management by Sebastian Felten, Celeste Gianni, Anne MacKinney, and Julian zur Lage. On the first day the workshop was held in the Simón Bolívar Lecture Hall, generously made available by the Berlin Staatsbibliothek. For the second day we convened the workshop in the rooms of the Forum Transregionale Studien. Since the hands-on examination of a manuscript or printed catalog’s materiality is an indispensable part of research on their intellectual history, we are grateful to the Staatsbibliothek for allowing us to draw on its rich collections for a show-and-tell of some of their important Latin, Arabic, and Japanese catalogs.

The workshop started with a session on the epistemology of catalogs which was chaired by Nur Sobers Khan, a historian of Turco-Persian societies after 1500. Paola Molino, Islam Dayeh, and Martina Siebert investigated how the construction of libraries and the design of their research facilities developed in conjunction with the organization of finding aids. Particular attention was given to the technical terminology of classification schemes with regard to the various purposes of bibliographical information, and to the appreciation of finding aids as intellectual achievements in their own right. In the discussion, we explored the possibility of a methodology for the study of finding aids as sources for a transregional history of knowledge. What is the impact of ideology on classification schemes?  To which degree are cataloging ventures driven by the universal human experience of loss and the complementary desire to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage?

First workshop day at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

The second session was dedicated to the political and scholarly strategies of information control. It was chaired by the early modern historian Arndt Brendecke and combined philosophical reflection on the power of catalogs with case studies from sixteenth-century Spain and seventeenth-century Britain. Christian Jacob discussed lists and catalogs from a meta-perspective, exploring their morphology and their uses. He stressed that every form of knowledge needs a set of practices and a space, namely a materiality that allows for its representation. He furthermore posited that the power of catalogs cannot be understood without examining their relationship to geographical maps. Seth Kimmel pushed this thesis further by investigating how bibliography and cartography were intertwined in the cataloging project of Hernando Colón (1488–1539), a cartographer, explorer, and bibliophile who had established a private universal library in Seville. In contrast, Cevolini focused on a mechanical indexing device for the storage of written notes and excerpts, known as the “ark of studies” and designed by Thomas Harrison (1595–1649). Cevolini interpreted the “ark” as an external memory device which illustrated how new cognitive habits were accompanied by new organizational strategies. Both Kimmel and Cevolini confronted the vastness of knowledge under shifting notions of ‘universality’ and in concrete political circumstances.

Second workshop day at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin

The second day opened with a session on the cataloging of manuscripts in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian. Its chair was Guy Burak, a legal historian of the Ottoman Empire. The presentations by Christoph Rauch, Emile Schrijver, and Francis Richard combined an examination of the historical development of cataloging standards with observations about the impact of digitization on the access to books in the twenty-first century. Rauch used the history of the Staatsbibliothek’s Arabic manuscript collection to highlight the importance of scholarly expertise for the cataloging of texts in Semitic languages and the challenges this represented in nineteenth-century Germany facing the sudden rise of available texts. Schrijver explored the challenges posed by Hebrew bibliography, which reflects the precarious life of the Jewish diaspora in Western Europe. Because of the hearty embrace of digitization for the preservation of Jewish Schriftkultur, Schrijver examined how digital surrogates are changing the roles of both libraries and catalogs. Since readers increasingly rely on global online catalogs in order to access books as digital surrogates, what will happen to the relationship between a library’s spatial organization and the systematics of its catalogs? Richard took as his starting point the cataloging practices in Muslim societies since the tenth and eleventh centuries. Although there is much evidence for vibrant library traditions in Turkey, Iran, and India, very few catalogs of historical library collections have been passed down to us. Richard observed that the librarian’s personal responsibility for a collection under his care might have worked as a disincentive for the compilation of publicly available finding aids, since a catalogue can also be used to control the work of the librarian. At the same time, he was skeptical about the current practice of ‘digitize first, catalog later’, arguing that digital surrogates of uncatalogued books are effectively inaccessible, as no catalogue can be searched for unidentified items. The discussion was dominated by questions about digital screens as today’s omnipresent interface between readers, catalogs, and books. Does the access to the contents of books through digital surrogates imply changing ideas of who owns the material artifacts and consequently who pays for their cataloging? Moreover, without good internet access these books remain out of reach.

The fourth session approached catalogs from the micro perspective of individual entries. It was chaired by Ronny Vollandt, a specialist of Jewish and Arabic manuscript cultures. Nilanjar Sarkar’s case study concerned a manuscript copy of the Fatāwā-yi jahāndārī (“Imperial legal opinions”) in the still indispensable Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office (1903) by Hermann Ethé (1844–1917). Although Ethé was a very accomplished scholar of Persian literature, he did not recognize that the Fatāwā is a work of advice literature which originated in Delhi around 1350, and hence wrongly identified this work of belles-lettres as an anthology of historical legal opinions. Sarkar examined to which degree Ethé‘s cataloging error reflected British colonial attitudes to the knowledge traditions of pre-colonial India. Guy Burak and Dagmar Riedel used the entry on the Dalāʾil al-khayrāt (“Signs of good deeds”) in the Kashf al-ẓunūn by the Ottoman polymath Katib Çelebi (1609–1657) to demonstrate that scholars inside and outside Muslim societies approached this alphabetical title catalogue as a work of pragmatic literature which everyone could adapt and correct in accordance with their own particular needs. In different manuscript copies and printed versions of the Kashf, the entries on the Dalāʾil, a widely used prayer-book by the North African Sufi Ibn Jazūlī (1404–1465), vary considerably. In the discussion we returned to the point, made by Christian Jacob during the second session, that catalogs are never neutral collections of facts as their production cannot be independent from the ideological commitments of their compilers. But we also explored the importance of errors and misreadings for the transregional diffusion of knowledge.

Second workshop day II

The global historian Sebastian Conrad chaired the workshop’s fifth and final session on catalogs of books related to East Asian societies. Michael Facius, Florence Hsia, and Joachim Kurtz discussed synchronicity in knowledge management, and challenged the evidence of transregional influence and interdependence in order to probe the nature of knowledge circulation. Facius analyzed how the library of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) served as an important node in the knowledge networks of early modern Japan. He examined the relationship between the catalogs of the Shogunate Library and the Nagasaki commissariat’s control of the import of books in Chinese and other foreign languages. Hsia used the historical development of sinological archives in early modern Europe to pursue the sociological dimensions of list-making. She examined in particular the challenges posed by the task of cataloging Chinese texts within the Jesuit tradition of bio-bibliographies, and Thomas Hyde’s (1636-1703) efforts to identify the Chinese books held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Joachim Kurtz took the torrent of publications translated into Chinese between 1895 and 1911 as an indicator and a factor in the drastic remaking of China’s intellectual landscape in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. These catalogs were compiled by publishers as well as scholars and reformists, and range from thinly veiled advertisements to analytical reviews of new branches of learning. Taken together, they provide ample evidence for changing intellectual emphases, new epistemic ideals, and consequential taxonomic shifts that hastened the demise of China’s imperial order with the end of the Qing dynasty.

The starting point of our workshop was a gesture of inversion, since catalogs are usually consulted for reference purposes rather than studied in their own right. The workshop’s focus on the comparative analysis of catalogs from a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies allowed us to explore similarities and differences in their compilation while being mindful of the dynamics between catalogers and readers. The intellectual generosity of all participants ensured stimulating debates that revealed the potential of not yet explored sources and that yielded numerous new ideas for future research. Venturing beyond the comfort zone of one’s own discipline is always a challenge and we are deeply grateful to the Forum Transregionale Studien for giving us the unique opportunity to take this risk.


see also: Wissensmanagement transregional – Interview with Paola Molino (2016), TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.


Citation: Guy Burak, Paola Molino, Dagmar Riedel, and Martina Siebert, with the collaboration of Anne MacKinneyWorkshop Report: “All you can do with Catalogs”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.03.2017

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  1. 13. März 2017

    […] Bericht zum Workshop ist nun als Beitrag im TraFo Blog erschienen:; das ausführliche Programm finden Sie hier: […]

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