Reference Work in Modern Greek and Albanian at the Library of Congress

ESS Newsletter

2023, Vol 3


Reference Work in Modern Greek and Albanian at the Library of Congress: Two Years in One Thousand and Thirty Words
Nevila Pahumi

I joined the Library of Congress as the reference librarian for Modern Greek and Albanian, now part of the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division, in 2021. 

Suffice it to say that during my long graduate studies, in which I learned to read Bosnian and Serbo-Croatian, Modern Greek, and Turkish, I never thought that I would be doing this kind of work. I earned my Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2016. My doctoral thesis looked at the emergence of women in the public sphere via the intersections of American Protestantism and local activism in the present-day Greek and Albanian borderlands between 1890-1930—hence my combined language expertise. Between 2016-2018, I directed Albanian Studies at the School for Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London, and subsequently, taught advanced placement European history to (sometimes) eager fourteen-and-fifteen year-olds on Zoom at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have had previous stints at library work, but nothing prepared for me the pleasant surprise that there would be a job in reference services for Greek and Albanian at the largest library in the world! 

The Modern Greek & Albanian Collections at the Library of Congress are in the custody of the International Collections of the Library Collections and Services Group. They are among the strongest of their kind in North America, and arguably also, outside the respective countries they represent: Albania, Cyprus, Greece, and Kosovo. The Library of Congress began collecting materials systematically in these languages at various points after World War II. The collections vary in depth and quality, and are capable of supporting research at corresponding levels. 

Reference services for Greek and Albanian are varied. They can concern something as intimate as tracing a family history for personal gratification to facilitating academic research for publications meant to reach future (and hopefully) wider audiences. There is no such thing as a “typical” patron. In my time at the Library of Congress, customers have varied from the public at large, to journalists, scholars, and the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington.  A handful of times, patrons have asked us to help them look up an address. The Library of Congress is unique in that it holds a rich collection of international phone directories and address books. 

Another aspect of reference work is the creation of research products. These finding aids, or LibGuides, are meant to be tools which researchers use to identify unique resources located in different library units. In this regard, my work has built upon the knowledge passed on by veteran librarian, conversations with colleagues in the European and Hispanic Reading Rooms, and it continues to evolve as I get to know the collections better.  Examples of guides include telephone and address guides for Greece, Albania, and Cyprus. More recently published ones also include collection overviews for Greece and Albania. In progress is a collections overview for Cyprus. Collections overviews help researchers identify the range of sources available to work with, and they enrich collection activity by helping specialists take stock of what is at the Library and, thereby, fill gaps. It can be quite gratifying to learn that visitors use them to plan their visits to the Library, sometimes from abroad.  

Another aspect of collection development is in acquiring and selecting incoming materials. The Library   collects a wide range of materials in different formats with the exception of ones relating to technical agriculture and clinical medicine.  Incoming materials make their way to us as donations, exchanges, and direct purchasing from vendors.  To find materials, I am learning that the Internet is a great friend. While perusing a catalog for Albanian materials, I was recently quite thrilled to find out through a news post on YouTube about a new edition of Alice in Wonderland based on a translation from 1944 into Elbasan Albanian, a variant of the Tosk dialect.  The journalist who was reporting the book launch of Eliza në Botën e Çudinavet commented that what made this edition unique was that it captured the richness of the Albanian language. 

Having been schooled in the standard version of Albanian, I absolutely relished this small discovery. Equally so, I have found it thrilling to finally leaf through the glossy monographs on Cypriot art, textiles and fashions that I recently purchased for the collections. There is something quite touching about receiving items from places that seem so distant, and yet are so close to you in emotional terms. In the last year, we have expanded the print and digital collections for both the Greek and Albanian-language particularly through serials for Cyprus and Kosovo, both of which are relatively smaller in numbers than the much larger Greek or Albanian ones.  

A final aspect of our work is outreach. When we are not working directly with patrons at the reference desk, it is in our interest to be visible in any way that we can. So far, I have represented the collections at events within the Library such as the European Reading Room open house to the public last July as well as the ALA Fair held at the Library last June. As opportunities present themselves, I have also liaised with cultural institutions representing Modern Greek studies within Washington D.C. I am on the board of the Society for Albanian Studies, and in charge of its Book Prize Committee. I recently joined the ALA to feel a bit closer to the larger library community, in addition to being a member of the area studies associations that promote Greek and Albanian studies, respectively: the Modern Greek Studies Association and the Association for East European, Eurasian, and Slavic Studies. In so doing, I aim to get to know better the people and resources that are the driving vehicles of information in these fields, so that I can better work with the patrons who come to us. These organizations have been fundamental to the work that I do, and I have absolute faith that they will continue to inform my work in collection building for many years to come. 

Nevila Pahumi, Ph.D.
Reference Librarian for Modern Greek and Albanian
European Reading Room
Library of Congress