Keywords: I. J. Gelb, Shafter, Stephen Reimer, Assyriology, library, literature
Ignace Jay Gelb must be counted among the most influential ancient historians of the 20th century. In a career covering a half a century, Gelb fairly revolutionized the analytical study of Babylonian cuneiform literature, leaving behind a legacy including the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary of his home institution, the University of Chicago; substantive treatments of 3rd millennium BC Akkadian and of Babylonian social and economic history; and the most influential publication available to us describing early writing systems. Following his death in December of 1985, the Gelb family asked Giorgio Buccellati of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (NELC) at UCLA, and Robert Whiting, Jay's closest assistant during his last years at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, to produce a catalog of Gelb's collection of books, articles, unfinished manuscripts and working papers. An electronic Gelb Memorial Library (GML) catalogue was the result of this collaboration.
As it seemed the division of the library would have diminished its value, the family decided to approach, through Buccellati, other potential buyers, including wholesalers in the US, Europe and Japan. At that point, Mr. Stephen Reimer of Shafter, California, was in the early phase of instituting a Research Foundation in his hometown. He expressed an interest in the possible purchase of the Gelb Library through this Foundation, with the understanding that only a few selected titles would physically be moved to Shafter, while the bulk would remain at UCLA as the nucleus of a Seminar Library in Assyriology. The advantages of this proposal for a UCLA program in Assyriology were obvious, so Buccellati readily assisted in seeing the sale through to a successful conclusion.
The library in Kinsey Hall (now Humanities Building) of the UCLA campus, home of the NELC department, was inaugurated in March 1987, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the American Oriental Society held at UCLA. The library became an immediate meeting place and work space for a group of Assyriological colleagues and students. Distinguished colleagues came and taught Sumerian seminars in the Gelb Memorial Library, including Thorkild Jacobsen, Piotr Michalowski, Jerrold Cooper, Stephen Lieberman, Olivier Rouault and Lucio Milano. An intense research program developed, housed in the Library and revolving especially around the digitization of the 24th century BC texts from Ebla. Many lectures by visiting scholars were also held in the Library. All of this created an atmosphere of collegiality and camaraderie in the department, and provided fresh impetus for the study of Assyriology at UCLA.
Although funds for increasing the collections were unavailable, its function as a seminar library was unparalleled on the west coast of the United States. A near disaster did occur with the Northridge earthquake of 1994, when practically all the books were dislodged from the shelves. In fact, most of the wooden shelves on the western side of the room were yanked out of the walls and splintered badly.
In 1996, Robert K. Englund was named successor to Buccellati at UCLA. Recognizing the significance of the Gelb collection for the Assyriological program at UCLA, he invested much of his effort in further cataloguing and preserving the collection. Various student assistants, and the post-doc Barbara Cifola, have revised and completed the electronic catalogue of the library and made it available to the UCLA community and the general public under the Wiki pages of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. Given the difficulties in funding the monograph and journal purchases necessary to keep such a seminar library current, a middle strategy has been implemented to make the GML a continuing, powerful tool in Assyriological research in Southern California. In the first place, through various research grants, and with the support of the NELC department and the UCLA Division of Humanities, the library purchases the major reference publications necessary for work in the field, including grammars, dictionaries, and standard literature not always available through the UC libraries. Second and more importantly, the very extensive entries of the Gelb offprint files are being kept as complete as possible through photocopying of journals and such publications as anniversary and congress volumes. Staff members of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative have entered the full holdings of the combined Gelb, Englund and CDLI collections, as of February 2007 numbering ca. 13,600 entries.
With over 3000 monographs and an offprint collection of 10,000 articles, the Gelb Library represents easily the most significant collection of Assyriological publications west of the the University of Chicago. Its numbers contain 160 books published in the 19th century that document the earliest phase of scholarly work on Babylonian cuneiform, including works of Henry Austin Layard, Joachim Ménant, Jules Oppert, Friedrich Delitzsch, and George Smith, the first scholar to recognize the Akkadian version of the Biblical flood story in the cuneiform record of the British Museum. It goes without saying that these, and a very large number of the 20th century volumes in the collection are out of print and therefore irreplaceable.
Seen as a whole, the Gelb library offers the student of ancient Babylonia a solid foundation to understand all the facets of Assyriological scholarship. It includes a high proportion of original editions of cuneiform tablets up to the time of Gelb's death in 1985, as well as the major interpretive historical and intellectual works on all matters of early culture and the development of writing in Mesopotamia and in neighboring regions of the Near East. The collection fulfills one of NELC's primary goals in making accessible, to its own faculty and students, but also to such related fields as history, anthropology, linguistics, and mathematics of the UCLA campus community, the extraordinary resources of Assyriological research; it is, moreover, the major bibliographical reference work of the research staff of the CDLI and is available to the public in the internet pages of that international project.
In January of 2010, Stephen Reimer donated the Gelb Library to UCLA, and the collection will remain in the seminar rooms of the Department of Near Eastern Literature and Cultures.