Digital resources for Ottoman and Turkish history

* Originally published at Dissertation Reviews in February 2014

An overview of three digitized collections of interest to historians of the late Ottoman Empire and republican Turkey: Parliamentary Minutes (available at the website of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey), Hakkı Tarık Us collection, Ankara University’s digitized collection.

I could have titled this article “Historical Research in the Digital Era,” in a hardly disguised reference to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Indeed, I feel that I prepared my PhD dissertation during a transitional era: I have a lot of material that I had to photocopy (and thus carry from one country to the other in hard copies) or photograph myself (well this is a digital form, but it is something quite different from having digitized archives already available on the Internet); but as I was nearing the end of my rather long doctoral studies, I discovered that a lot of the material that I had used had been digitized in the meantime. First, I was furious: I had to do all this work, and NOW everything is digitized? Then I realized that I could actually use these resources in order to complete -and put to better use- the material that I had already gathered. And, of course, it was clear that I was going to need these resources for new projects, once I had finished my dissertation.

I work on late Ottoman and modern Turkish history, and I am particularly interested in politics and the history of political ideas. This means that I use a lot of printed material, such as pamphlets and newspapers. In my PhD dissertation I examine the transfer of sovereignty from sultan to nation as a consequence of the 1908 revolution, and the subsequent effort to create an Ottoman nation. Thus, I used as my main source the Minutes of the Ottoman Parliament; in addition, I consulted various newspapers published in Ottoman Turkish during this period.

Parliamentary Minutes at the TBMM (Grand National Assembly of Turkey) Website

Parliamentary Minutes of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic are now available on-line in pdf form. You just need to go to the website of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi – TBMM). Then you go to “Tutanaklar” (“Minutes” in modern Turkish) and choose “1908den Günümüze Tutanaklar” (“Minutes from 1908 to today”). From this point on, the features of the website are more or less self-explaining, as is usually the case in websites of this kind – provided of course that you know Turkish, as this page does not exist in any other language; but then again, the Minutes themselves are in Turkish, so they are not of use to anyone who does not read Turkish. You can either browse the Minutes by date, or search for specific terms, names, etc.

Now, browsing the Minutes in this digital form presents important advantages, but also some problems. It’s really helpful that you can do a search for a term or by deputy names, which means that you can easily find all the discussions on, say, the Press law, or all the instances when Hüseyin Cahit, deputy for Istanbul, spoke. And once you have downloaded the pdf document of this or that session of Parliament, you can of course search for a term in the document. However, for reasons that escape me, the Minutes of all sessions have not been digitized in the same manner: only some of them have been passed through optical character recognition (OCR); in those that have not (which means that they are images and not text), it is not possible to run a search (or copy passages that you might want to quote). There also seems to be a problem with the search features of the website itself: when searching through the Minutes of the Ottoman Parliament for a term or name, it gives you the possibility to specify the assembly year; and then it gives you results for all assembly years (and not even in chronological order).

Some other problems one encounters in the TBMM website -concerning Ottoman-era Minutes- have to do with the way in which the Minutes were transcribed in the first place, that is, in their paper edition. The Minutes of the Ottoman Parliament of the Second Constitutional Era were transcribed in the modern Turkish alphabet and published by the TBMM publishing house in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, the transcription was not homogenized, which means that certain words are written in two or more different ways. The problem is even bigger with names, as the names of some deputies had actually been written in different forms (for instance, Yorgi Boşo efendi and Yorgo Boşo efendi are of course the same person, but one has to do her/his search with both forms of the name – and I have spotted more problems, even with the names of Muslim deputies).

One has to bear in mind these problems, but, on the whole, it is very, very helpful to have the Parliamentary Minutes at your fingertips! As with all sources, you just have to have a sound knowledge of the era you’re working on, so as to avoid misinterpretations. And my personal advice is that, if you want to use the Parliamentary Minutes extensively (that is, as one of your main sources), you might want to take a look through the paper edition as well, so as to be sure not to miss anything.

Digitized Periodicals of the Hakkı Tarık Us Collection

In a joint project of Istanbul’s Beyazıt State Library and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the Hakkı Tarık Us collection of periodicals, held at the Beyazıt State Library, has been digitized and is available on-line. This is a very important collection for late Ottoman and early republican history (actually some of the publications it contains go all the way to the 1950’s). According to the description on the project’s website, the Hakkı Tarık Us collection consists of “valuable books, journals, newspapers, yearbooks, almanacs, and salnames.” I haven’t browsed the whole collection, which is very very rich, and I’m not sure that all of the material it contains has been digitized. Browsing through the collection, I have come across different kinds of periodical publications: newspapers, magazines, and even almanacs of professional associations, but I have mainly utilized newspapers published during the Young Turk era. The only thing you need to know before you dive into this very interesting collection is that you’ll have to install on your computer Djvu, a free-ware program that stores and views scanned documents. The website of the Hakkı Tarık Us collection has a link that allows you to download this program, which is actually quite easy to use (and, your programmer friends will tell you, gives you much “lighter” files than other similar programs).

Ankara University’s Digitized Collection

Another website where you can find Ottoman- and republican-era newspapers is the website of Ankara University’s digitized publications collection. This website actually contains a lot more than newspapers. From what I understand, it is part of Ankara University’s commitment to open archives, and you can find some of the university’s journals (not all of them have been systematically digitized, but digitized issues of the Law School Journal, for instance, go back to the 1940’s), various newsletters, a collection of books (which is not rich, but contains some titles that might be of interest to historians, such as Atatürk’s speeches), and other printed material. Once more, I’ve only looked for newspapers in this collection. Compared to the Hakkı Tarık Us collection, this is not a very rich newspaper collection: all in all, it comprises 18 newspapers, and for some of them there are only a few issues available. Another downside is that some older newspapers (from the late 19th and early 20th centuries) are not digitized in a very practical format: they are available as a sequence of pdf documents, each one of which is one page – they are in chronological order, but you have to actually open the document to see what issue it is from. Still, this is a useful resource to have in mind, if you’re looking for something specific from the late 19th century to the 1950’s.

Digitized resources present the additional advantage that there are no formalities of any kind, and you can work anywhere, including the comfort of your own home. In addition, you don’t have to worry about whether the staff will be helpful and friendly or not, or figure out what to do during lunch hours. Of course, at the same time, this is the downside of digitized resources: as all those who have worked or are working towards a PhD know, it is very hard not to procrastinate when working at home.

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