“This library, as one hears from others, is extraordinary,” said Leonard Chiarelli, associate librarian at the Marriott Library.
Chiarelli is in charge of the Aziz S. Atiya Middle East Library, one of the most respected centers for research in Middle East studies.
Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chiarelli earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Pace University in Manhattan. While an undergraduate, he resolved to come to the U to study at the suggestion of Philip Hitti, whom he had met during a lecture in Manhattan. Chiarelli wanted to study the Mediterranean region during the Medieval period, which was controlled by Arabs at the time. Hitti told Chiarelli that no one in the east knew about that specific subject and referred him to Aziz S. Atiya, who was at the U at the time.
Formerly a professor in Egypt and a participant in the founding of the University of Alexandria, Atiya was invited to the U by Raymond Olpin to become the founding director of the Middle East Center. With Atiya’s aid, the U joined the ranks of Yale, Princeton and UCLA, at the time the only other schools with Middle Eastern study centers.
Starting with his personal collection at the core of the library, Atiya returned to Egypt to purchase more books.
“He had a huge collection of his own,” Chiarelli said. “From 1960 to 1980, [Atiya] bought materials constantly.”
He would return from his trips with books, manuscripts and eventually what would become one of the largest collections of Arabic papyri, dating from 800 A.D. to 1400 A.D., in the United States.
“They’re legal documents, bills of sale; they’re a number of things,” he said. “They show a cross-section of society. When people read them they can get a better view.”
After spending some time at the U learning Arabic, Chiarelli began working with Atiya to earn his graduate degree, a master’s in history and later a Ph.D. in history. Both of these focused on Muslim Sicily during the Medieval period.
“After I finished that, [Atiya] and his wife had asked me to work in the Middle East Library because I became extremely familiar with the library and the collection,” Chiarelli said. “I was an enthusiast.”
He then shifted from working part-time to full-time. Chiarelli also contributed to Aziz and Lola Atiya’s major project, The Coptic Encyclopedia, adding two articles and researching extensively for the project.
After Atiya died and the previous head of the library retired, Chiarelli was appointed as the Middle East librarian in 2000.
One of his responsibilities is to help with research and access of the collection’s resources.
“It’s a pleasure for me to do research and help people research,” he said. “I help [students] with whatever they need, at whatever level. It’s a delight to help the freshmen; for them it’s all new. It’s gratifying for me to help them, to put things in perspective.”
The Middle East Collection works with several different departments on campus, and the library’s reputation has drawn researchers from across the U.S. and overseas.
“The library is broad enough that you could always keep busy doing some research,” Chiarelli said. “Sometimes we get requests from England and Germany and Sweden to look up things.”
Muthana Maktouf, staff member in the collection, recently moved as a refugee to the U.S. from Baghdad following the war in Iraq.
“My skills, my background, my education and my experience made me a successful candidate to be offered a position here,” Maktouf said.
He is working in the library part-time while he prepares to take the GRE and TOEFL exams. Part of Maktouf’s work includes offering tours and sharing resources with guests.
“We get visitors from Egypt, Iraq, other countries and different people, not only from the Middle East,” he said. “We give tours and introduce them to our resources. It is our way of marketing because it is a very important library, not only in America, but worldwide.”
Maktouf said he has enjoyed working with Chiarelli since 2010.
“I feel he is very nice and capable of his work,” he said. “We have achieved a lot of projects with different perspectives and programs.”
Ann Chamberlin, who is also a part-time librarian assistant, has known Chiarellli for many years.
“[Chiarelli is] so enthusiastic and giving and open,” Chamberlin said. “I love to go to work just to talk to him. He’s so interesting. He was a great influence in helping me work out my own relationship to the Middle East.”
Having earned a degree in Middle Eastern studies, helping students with research is a large part of Chamberlin’s work in the library, along with her own research for her own books. Additionally, in recent years, Chamberlin has been responsible for cataloging and preserving a large collection of books given to the U by Michel Mazzaoui following his retirement and death.
“We work to make sure the collection has new titles that are important and make sure they are accessible to students when students or faculty come to use our resources,” she said.
Chamberlin has also been working on collecting children’s books in Middle Eastern languages that are taught at the U.
“When students are learning Arabic or Persian, they want to practice in an entertaining way,” she said. “We like to have children’s books in Arabic, so I’ve worked with [Chiarelli] to try and purchase more of these books so students could come and have an entertaining story that is written very simply.”
Chiarelli is always looking to increase the footprint of the Middle East Library on campus.
“Even students on campus don’t know about the collection,” he said. “Students are interested. They just have to know what’s here and what kind of help is available.”