Research without Archives? The Making and Remaking of Area Studies Knowledge of the Middle East in a Time of Chronic War

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The Middle East is home to ancient historical documents of great value to archivists and historians. Systemic violence, warfare, and political instability in the region since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have taken a terrible toll on documents and archives as well as human life. The destruction of libraries that house primary source materials affects the creation of knowledge in Middle Eastern studies in important ways that remain to be understood. In this article, I review the extent of the damage to libraries and archives in the region since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then ask: What happens to Middle Eastern studies when archives are destroyed and researchers must change their topics and methods of research? Can we create knowledge about a region when its archival resources and human informants are so endangered? If access to archival materials is essential to the very essence of Middle Eastern studies, then what is happening to that field and why should that matter to archivists? I recount anecdotal evidence of researchers changing the topics and themes of their research in response to a situation of limited access to archives and to the region, and then present outcomes of a survey I designed to understand more systematically how these problems are affecting the shape of research and knowledge about the Middle East. Finally, I present an aspirational call to the cultural heritage preservation community – researchers, archivists, and librarians – to digitize archival resources in the Middle East.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-95
StatePublished - May 7 2018


  • fieldwork
  • Archives
  • unrest
  • knowledge
  • Middle East
  • perservation
  • interdisciplinary
  • open repositories
  • sharing data


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