More Than Books: NAASR Brings Community Together in Quest for Armenian Studies


NAASR board members with Maggie Mangassarian-Goschin of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum and NAASR’s Southern California committee, from left, Raffi Yeghiayan, Yervant Chekijian, Mangassarian-Goschin, Roxanne Etmekjian, Bertha Mugurdichian, Shushan Teager, Van Aroian and Nancy Kolligian

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Many people know the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), based in this suburb of Boston, as a bookstore specializing in English language works on Armenians and Armenian studies, but it actually conducts a much broader range of work in support of Armenian studies.

Founded by Armenian-American academics and concerned community leaders in 1955, it raised funds for the first two endowed chairs in Armenian studies in the US, at Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) during its first decade of life. It continued to support the expansion of Armenian studies programs in other universities over the following decades. Unlike other Armenian centers in the US, it is not a purely academic center affiliated with a university, nor does it have a staff of academics, but it does provide advice and direction to researchers, as well as the use of an extensive library. It provides grants for Armenological research, publishes books and a journal and organizes conferences and extensive lecture series throughout the United States. It even holds Armenian language classes at its center.

NAASR as an independent institution has a constitution and an elective structure. Its annual assemblies elect in a staggered fashion each year one-third of a 27-person board of directors (at present 24 or 25 people) representing various regions of the country, which in turn elects annually from its members a seven-person Executive Committee. Regional or local chapters are formed in various parts of the country.

Various advisory boards, including academic and financial, help the central administration.

The NAASR staff carries out day-to-day affairs. Raffi P. Yeghiayan of Lexington, Mass., a retired engineer (and son of the well-known writer Puzant Yeghiayan) who is now in his second year as board chairman, explained that the Executive Committee meets monthly and the board meets quarterly. The board makes policy decisions and the executive carries out tasks. Last year a conference call system was instituted for distant board members allowing for their participation without costly journeys. The Internet and email also allow for quick board decisions.

Yeghiayan said that the total paid membership of NAASR at present is somewhere in the 600s, and has dropped a bit from its heyday of more than 1,000. While the membership is predominantly from New England, there are members in all parts of the world, even distant places like Japan.

NAASR’s bookstore carries the largest number of English-language book titles on Armenian topics in the world. Catherine Minassian, the administrative director of NAASR, is responsible for its management. She took over this post from Sandra Jurigian, who has been with NAASR for many decades and now serves as part-time executive assistant. Minassian revealed that in 2010, NAASR sold about 1,900 books, worth in all roughly $40,000. Interestingly, a large portion of that, approximately one-third, was sold through Amazon.com, which now lists NAASR’s holdings. A great number of books were sold at lectures and other events or directly in the store. The rest were sold through telephone, mail or the NAASR website.

Every year, 40 to 50 new English-language titles, including some published outside of the US, are acquired by NAASR, which attempts to be comprehensive in its attempt to find new relevant publications. It carries around 2,500 different titles of books in all.

Historical works and books about political topics have been the best sellers in recent years.

The second most popular category of books would be memoirs and biographies. NAASR often manages to locate difficult-to-find books on Armenian topics, such as self-published works or even works published abroad. Writers in Europe, Armenia and the Middle East know that NAASR is a good outlet for distributing their books in the US.

According to Yeghiayan, NAASR has cut back on its presence at book fairs like that of the Boston Globe, as it does not usually get enough sales to justify the staff time required. However, in-house sales such as for the Christmas season are still held.

Marc Mamigonian is the fulltime (perhaps more than fulltime) director of academic affairs for NAASR. Mamigonian grew up in New Hampshire, isolated from any organized Armenian community, and while interested in Armenian history, only began his involvement in the Armenian world after starting work at NAASR in early 1998. He had obtained a master’s degree and was working on his doctorate on James Joyce before embarking on this new career. He had come to do genealogical research at NAASR and interviewed his distant relative, Manoog Young, who happened to be a founder and chairman of NAASR. It turned out that NAASR was looking for a new employee and Mamigonian was in the right place at the right time. Hired as an assistant to Young, Mamigonian then became in turn director of publications, director of programs and publications and then director of academic affairs, in 2008. Mamigonian added, “I’ve been fortunate to have access to a wealth of material, books and people here in this building.”

Mamigonian is involved with many aspects of NAASR’s activities. He is in charge of programs. He spends a lot of time coordinating activities with academics and helping people who contact NAASR with questions pertaining to Armenian studies. He responds with advice as to what books are available or what academicians might be able to assist in the matter. He has succeeded Dr. Barbara Merguerian as the editor of NAASR’s Journal of Armenian Studies, publishing six issues, including two double issues, and is in charge of NAASR’s publication series.

Eight books have been published by NAASR’s Armenian Heritage Press between 2003 and 2010 on a variety of Armenian topics, and there are two more books in press at the moment. NAASR arranges the editing, printing and publication of these works. Several were published in collaboration with other institutions, such as Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, or Haigazian University. Some of the volumes received outside funding. Mamigonian has served as editor of the publication series, and specifically of some conference proceedings. Mamigonian oversees the Edward and Helen Mardigian Reference and Research Library at NAASR, with holdings of over 20,000 books and other items primarily in English and Armenian. Recently the library was enriched by Ani and George Bournoutian’s personal collection of 3,000 volumes. The library also has some personal papers of Armenian-Americans. Mamigonian provides the administrative coordination for the NAASR research grant series, as well for the Knights of Vartan grants administered through NAASR. These grants in the last five years have supported a wide variety

of work, including that of the Armenian National Committee for Byzantine Studies in Armenia, the Association Internationale des Etudes Arméniennes (for its 2009 workshop on Armenian literature), a researcher traveling to the Mekhitarist library in Vienna to work on Ottoman Armenian newspapers and the publication of George Bournoutian’s new book, The 1823 Russian Survey of the Karabagh Province (Mazda Press).

NAASR’s most visible activity, as Yeghiayan has pointed out, is its lectures and conferences on Armenian topics, which are free and open to the public. In recent years, NAASR has been much more active in this sphere, which again is coordinated by Mamigonian. The latter explained: “Years ago, during the earlier days of the organization, it was much more common for us to hold events in other parts of the country.

That practice fell into abeyance for a number of years. As we started doing more and more programs here in Belmont, we thought it would be good and useful — and people in other parts of the country who contacted us agreed — to do similar programs in other parts of the country. We want to expand the reach of Armenian studies and bring good quality scholarly programs to a wider range of people than we can if we just have them in our center. Of course it helps increase interest in this organization, and membership in it too.”

Southern California is one of the most active areas in which NAASR organizes events, though it does so in many parts of the United States outside of its hometown.

Local NAASR members have helped arrange these lectures, along with colleagues in other Armenian organizations. Frequently, NAASR cosponsors its events with partner organizations in order to get larger audiences and share costs. Some of the events are to promote newly published books, and this allows NAASR to sell books and thus cover some of its expenses. Also, NAASR has been fortunate to find that many speakers who waive their speaking fees or only accept very modest honoraria.

NAASR has hosted evening social events for area Armenian scholars doing work on

Armenian subjects in order to encourage a sense of community as well as to make them feel welcome at NAASR. At the initiative of Professors Simon Payaslian and James Russell, over the past year or so, it has held a number of roundtable gatherings of area scholars at NAASR or in Russell’s office so that the latter can meet and discuss work in progress, share ideas and ask questions of one another.

Mamigonian said, “One of things that I am proud of is that NAASR has managed to maintain good relationships with all of the [university] chairs and everybody working in the field of Armenian studies.”

Mamigonian has become formally involved in Armenian studies outside of NAASR too. At present, he serves on the executive of the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS), a scholarly association based in the United States. As complementary organizations, NAASR cosponsored the SAS 35th-anniversary conference at UCLA two years ago. Mamigonian has also participated in two workshops on the state of Armenian studies organized by Prof. Gerard Libaridian at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Despite some current arguments to the contrary, Mamigonian takes an optimistic view of Armenian studies: “I don’t see Armenian studies going into decline. You can look at any era in the history of Armenian studies in this country, going back at least 55 years, and do it in such a way that it looks like either happy days are here again or the decline and fall is upon us. I think that there is ample reason to pay close attention and be vigilant to what is going on in the field and with all the programs, and make sure that the universities are honoring their commitments to their endowed chairs and programs. However, we have a lot of outstanding scholars working in the field right now. Excellent work is being done and will continue to be done. I tend to try to take the long view with these programs.”

New Directions

Yeghiayan said that there were several major changes in NAASR’s work in recent years: “One major change is there are no further attempts to establish endowment chairs in Armenian studies. The costs of endowments have increased immensely, while we have an ample number of chairs that can produce the necessary scholars in the field. In fact, graduates cannot readily find appointments, and we might even end up with a glut of specialists. NAASR is now more inclined to promote Armenian studies in existing programs.”

Another major change, he continued, is that NAASR works outside of the borders of the US, in Armenia and elsewhere. The “N” in NAASR does stand for national, meaning US, but the annual assembly modified this. There is cooperation with Armenian universities, and many research grants now support studies in Armenia, whether by scholars there or from the US.

Young, one of the main founders of NAASR, led the organization as chairman for 47 years until Nancy Kolligian succeeded him in 2001. She served in this position for nine years, until 2010. Yeghiayan, who served many years on the executive as first vice chair, and was a board member since 1962, said he felt that Kolligian had done an excellent job, and he is continuing in the same direction. He is trying in particular to further the work of creating a stronger financial foundation for the organization.

NAASR began a $2-million capital campaign on its 50th anniversary, which is still continuing today, with some $1.4 million having been raised so far. Yeghiayan stressed that endowed funds today bring very low returns because of low interest rates. With lower income, NAASR is in a deficit situation.

Though it has been able to continue without cutting back on operations due to various bequests, this cannot be counted on forever. Yeghiayan has initiated a membership drive to earn more income through membership dues. In addition, he is attempting to find more donors to sponsor specific lectures and programs. Donors have specific interests and this satisfies them while allowing funding to continue for events.

Mamigonian said that last year, NAASR organized a social event for area Armenian college students as part of its outreach activities. He declared, “We would like to do more such things to encourage membership in this organization and to foster a sense of community among the students.”

With advances in technology, NAASR already has placed its library catalogue online and is continuing to modernize.

NAASR is also still seeking donations of Armenian source materials, including in particular the archives of Armenian-American groups such as the compatriotic unions from different parts of Western Armenia. It wants to improve its already extensive collection of volumes published by these organizations on different towns and villages of the Ottoman Empire and perhaps help in arranging for translations into English of these invaluable works.