Romani Studies: A summary of the Special Topics Discussion Group program at ALA

By Kathleen Hunter Rutter and Sebastian Hierl

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2001, Vol. 25, no. 1

Association of College & Research Libraries
© American Library Association

The 2001 annual meeting of the WESS Special Topics Discussion Group focused on Romani studies. Strong interest in this topic had been expressed both at the last annual meeting and on WESSList, and despite the remote location of the meeting in the financial district of San Francisco, attendance was high. In total, eighteen members made the trip to the Hyatt Regency on Sunday, June 17th.

General interest in the Roma or Gypsies has surged in recent years, perhaps because of the increased awareness of the discrimination openly practiced against this people internationally and now being documented regularly in the press and by human rights organizations. In the western world Gypsies have been portrayed since the 15th century as a mysterious, secretive people with a heavy criminal element involved in various illegal operations, including begging, trespassing, poaching and kidnapping of children. In the 19th century a new stereotype evolved to accompany the earlier one, where the romantic life on the road (accompanied by seductive women and flashing gold earrings) was emulated by a number of writers, artists and aristocrats who took to hiking, camping and studying Gypsy folktales. The Gypsy Lore Society was founded in 1888 with an international membership and continues to this day, with some interruption in the twentieth century, but has redirected its interests more to anthropological and linguistics studies rather than the folkloric.

The aim of the Special Topics Discussion Group, chaired by Sebastian Hierl, was to give interested colleagues an updated background of the Roma, covering a variety of topics of particular interest to researchers. After a brief introduction of the speakers, Sebastian Hierl, Kathleen Hunter Rutter, Leena Siegelbaum and Kati Radics, the program began.

Kathy Rutter provided a handout listing libraries, archives, human rights institutes and museums with significant holdings in Romani studies including collections of monographs and periodicals, film, photographs, legal documents, pamphlets and other ephemera such as sheet music, fortunetellers’ handbills, postcards and actual caravans. The University of Liverpool provides an excellent international list of institutions at Kathy highlighted a few of the major collections, including U.S. libraries and archives such as the Boston Athenaeum, Cleveland Public Library, the Victor Weybright Archives (Gypsy Lore Society), Newberry Library, New York Public Library, the Romany Archives (University of Texas, Austin), and the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. She added to the Liverpool list the University of Greenwich (England), which offers courses on Romany Studies; Library of Congress; and Harvard University’s Widener and Tozzer Libraries all of which do not have specific Gypsy collections but do have significant and sometimes unique holdings.

The discussion continued with Sebastian Hierl’s demonstration of the WESS Romani Studies online resources guide, originally created by Sam Dunlap and taken over and updated by Sebastian as a result of this meeting. The page is currently located at colmgmt/Romani Studies Links.htm, but will move to a new location, soon to be announced. As many of the institutions previously discussed have a web presence, they were briefly touched upon during the presentation. In addition, the page contains links to many reference and full test resources, listservs, booksellers, human rights organizations, linguistics aids, exhibits, and a particularly thorough selection of bibliographies. Any suggestions or additions should be sent to Sebastian Hierl at his new address, Romani Study Links is a great starting point for both ready reference types of questions and as a prelude to in-depth research.

Leena Siegelbaum delivered an overview of the history and social structure of the Roma entitled “Gypsies of Eastern Europe: sources by and about.” Many hypotheses about the origin and migrations of the Gypsies have come forth over the years, but linguistic evidence has led to the suggestion that Roma left their homeland, believed to be in northern India, as the result of either military need or social ostracism and traveled westward. Early records document their presence in Eastern and Western Europe in early modern times leading up to the twentieth century. When the horrific treatment of European Gypsies in the Holocaust, as well as their subsequent mistreatment including their ineligibility to claim war reparations, was revealed, more awareness of their presence in Europe and elsewhere resulted. Some of the more outrageous attempts to prevent the Roma from attending regular schools, from living in certain neighborhoods, or from seeking asylum in Western Europe and Canada, have lately captured media attention. Leena described some of the social customs which are confusing to gadje (non-Gypsies) such as an elaborate taboo system called marime or mahime which involves the fear of pollution from contact with women in childbirth or with human waste or mixing genders in public schools. Roma communities tend to have their own legal systems, violations of which are tried by members of the family group at what is called a kris. Leena also provided a handout with population estimates for Roma in Eastern Europe totaling 3,750,000-6,650,000, and discussed the difficulty at arriving at accurate census information for a group of people often reluctant to identify themselves to census takers.

Kati Radics presented “Romani and its Varieties,” an explanation of the various dialects spoken by the different types of Roma and their geographic distribution. Kati distributed handouts, the first compared the approximate number of Gypsies in 18 European nations and Turkey with the percentage of those people who actually speak some form of Romani. It is interesting that the percentage in every country listed ranged between 70 and 95% except in Hungary (50%) and Spain, which was 0.01%. This disparity may reflect the more settled nature of the Spanish Gypsy communities, as well as the migrations of Gypsies from Eastern Europe into Italy, France and Germany. One of the ways Gypsy migrations have been tracked is through linguistic keys reflecting the various areas the Roman have passed through, notably India, the Caucasus and Greece. Kati then discussed the main Romani dialects in Europe, among them Sinti-Manouche, Kalo, Kalderash, and Lovari. The concluding handout was a list of Romani speakers in almost all European countries, with the lowest percentages of speakers (1% and less) being in Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

We had intended to extend our question and answer period into the lunch hour, but due to scheduling conflicts we were unable to continue, and many comments and questions were left unheard. This year’s meeting indicated considerable interest on the part of WESS members in more sessions on Romani studies. At this meeting, attendees were able to learn about new resources in and about Romani culture in Europe, including an introduction to the history and dialects of this people. The online guide of web resources will provide researchers with a helpful starting point for the study of Romani culture. As the topic for this session was of a general nature, it might be helpful, in the near future, to dedicate another Special Topics meeting to specific aspects of research on Gypsies in certain Western European countries, such as Spain, France and Ireland.

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