For one of my classes, we looked over several collection policies to compare and contrast the different approaches to development. One of the collections that stood out to me was the Middle East & Islamic Studies Collection at Cornell. It is was written in a way that there are no ambiguities for what to call the “Middle East.”

Historians, political scientists, and others have defined world regions in terms such as race & ethnicity, culture, language & linguistics, religion, historical unity, climatic similarity, and / or geographic compactness. One of the first questions encountered by anyone who wants to study the region is what the “Middle East” is, specifically what countries it involves. There is, however, a lack of consensus on one single definition of a region that after all stretches over three different continents; and people even refer to it variously by such terms as “Near East,” “Mideast” or “Middle East.” In modern times, the designation “Middle East,” was applied by Westerners who viewed the area as midway between Europe and East Asia, which they call the Far East. There is at least agreement over the view that the Middle East is more than a mere geographical concept and that there are compelling historical, cultural, religious, political, social, and economic reasons for considering it as an entity apart.

It is not, for example, the land of the Arabs (millions of Turkic, Indo-European, and Negroid peoples live in the region). It is not even, as many presuppose, the land of Islam (in terms of population and territorial size, the largest Islamic countries are outside of the traditional boundaries of the Middle East. Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan all have larger Muslim populations than any country in what we call the Middle East). Historically (most of Iberia was under Islamic control for the better part of 700 years, and most of the Balkans for almost as long) neither Spain, Portugal or Romania a Middle Eastern country.

The policy goes on to specifically organize the area geographically into “core” and “periphery” groupings. The periphery group is then broken down in to several smaller areas, with Cyprus being the outlier.

The Core - Bahrain; Egypt; Iran; Iraq; Israel; Jordan; Kuwait; Lebanon; Oman; Palestine; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; Syria; Turkey ; United Arab Emirates (federation comprised of seven sheikdoms: Ajman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qawain); Yemen

The Periphery

  • The Caucuses: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia;

  • Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

  • Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania)

  • Maghreb: Algeria, Libya, Morocco & the Western Sahara, Tunisia

  • Sahel & Sudan: Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan

  • South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan

  • Cyprus

This is a great delineation. In my current job, items from this region are sometimes difficult to catalog. Of course, after you put the country name and any relevant content information, the record becomes find-able to some degree. What makes it difficult is when people ask reference questions like, “Can you find resources about contraceptive usage in the Middle East vs. Asia?”, or “I need to find out about abortion rates in post-soviet countries vs. when they were a part of the Soviet Union.

At first, these questions seem easy, but when I start working, I run into issues with how people thought about the region when they catalog incoming materials. I may catalog a resource about a country based on a region, I might have a different interpretation of which regions to use or that the region even exists. I don’t use the term “Maghreb” and I bet other people (outside of academia) aren’t using that term on a regular basis either. I wouldn’t normally tag something “Maghreb,” but this descriptor may be useful to someone looking for resources from that area because it’s more specific than “North Africa.” Additionally, I wouldn’t normally catalog new articles about Afghanistan or Armenia “post-soviet.” I would just add “Middle East” and call it a day. In the second reference question that asked me to compare the former soviet states, it would have made my life a lot easier if I had added the post-soviet tag to some of those articles.

To make things worse, the tag “Middle East” could be used incorrectly or inappropriately because it’s so broad. I’ve seen articles in our catalog about India tagged as “Middle East.” I scoffed as I went in to change the tag, but then I started to think. India has a lot in common with Pakistan. Let’s not even talk about culture or demographics. I’m talking about by some rubirics, both are considered “South Asia.” It gets even more confusing when I try to define “South Asia” and where to draw the line between it and the “Middle East.” There’s an overlap, but where do these regions begin? Don’t even get me started on Russia.

These seem easy, right? You might have an idea in your head about some of these issues. You might have a great way to remember which countries go where. That’s the problem! You have an idea, but the person sitting next to you thinks completely differently about what countries go into the “Middle East.”

In our catalog, we find that regional terms like “Middle East” are a mixed bag. In some cases, they’re useful. We can sometimes pull up relevant information for patrons who need to compare the region to other regions. In other situations, that term does us no favors. As Cornell’s policy stated, there’s something more to the term than just geography. In our library, that more is complicated. While you may have an idea what more is, someone else has an idea too.

Cornell’s got their definition. That delineation is great for their collection. If we’re talking about practicalities, big regional terms like that aren’t very useful for our work and we think we should just get rid of them. When we do research, if we rely too much on our understanding of the term, we might be missing out on some great resources that fell between the cracks. A cataloger (like me) might just back away from the “India is in the Middle East” problem and make things complicated for someone in the future. At the end of the day, for us, “Middle East” is as helpful as “Africa.”