Sylva Natalie Manoogian: Research Spans Generations of Family History, Centuries of World History

Manoogian credits professional library skills, support of IS faculty, and determination with completing her doctoral dissertation at 75.

Being a grandmother and a new Ph.D. graduate is not without sometimes having to do a bit of explaining, as Sylva Natalie Manoogian (’13) recently found out. She recalls that when her five-and-a-half-year-old grandson attended the UCLA Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at Royce Hall in June, he was “quite awed by the whole thing.”

“He’s a very smart boy,” says Manoogian. “He looked at me and said, ‘Medz Mama, are these all your friends?’ And I said, ‘Well, some of them are my friends, but most of them are my classmates.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Medz Mama, you’re old. You’re 75. Why do you go to school?’ Are you a dumble-o?

“I said, ‘Alex, I go to school so I won’t be a dumble-o. And you need to go to school so you won’t be one either.”

Although it took Manoogian ten years to complete her Doctorate of Philosophy in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, a decade is nothing compared to the generations of family history and centuries of world history that contributed to her dissertation and still propel her continuing research.

Sylva Natalie Manoogian receives her doctoral hood and congratulations from dissertation chair Mary Niles Maack. Gregory Leazer (at right, seated), IS department chair, looks on.

While writing her dissertation titled, “The Calouste Gulbenkian Library, Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, 1925-1990: An Historical Portrait of a Monastic and Lay Community Intellectual Resource Center,” Manoogian examined the inner workings of an Armenian presence in Jerusalem that dates back to the 7th Century. The Patriarchate is a clerical and lay community of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of three Christian denominations in Jerusalem responsible for maintaining and preserving sacred sites such as Mt. Zion, the Holy Sepulchre Church, and the Mount of Olives.

For Manoogian, the connection to her topic was even more direct than her Armenian heritage: her brother-in-law, the late Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, served as the 96th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem during the time she was researching her dissertation. He was elected to the lifetime position in 1991, and died in 2012. His successor, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian was elected in January this year and enthroned in June as the 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.

“I had communicated with Patriarch Torkom II, who had studied the works of Patriarch Yeghishe I Tourian, in whose honor the library was built.,” says Manoogian, who made her first pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1992. At that time, she was working as head of the International Languages Department at the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), where she had initiated an English language learning center for library patrons using the Laubach method. She had told the Patriarch about this program, and he invited her to bring it to his community.

“I spent three weeks with the teachers of the St. James Seminary and the Holy Translators School, including the patriarch, who was sitting in class to make sure that everything was going well,” recalls Manoogian. “Students who go to the lay school start in kindergarten [and on] through high school. The seminarians are as young as 13 or 14 years old when they begin their religious studies, and then they take advanced classes at the theological school. Some of them do go on to serve the church as priests. Armenian, English, French, Arabic, and Hebrew are five languages that these students have to be conversant in.”

When Manoogian was leaving Jerusalem after introducing the English language program, Patriarch Manoogian invited her to return to take a look at the community’s library, which was built in the 1920s through the benefaction of oil magnate and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. Among the library’s holdings are a collection of rare books and a catalog of ancient Armenian manuscripts, including Ottoman edicts that granted the Quarter protection and rights under Muslim rule. Manoogian had worked with her husband Khachig Manoogian, a structural engineer, on projects in Armenia after the devastating earthquake of 1988, offering assistance in restoring libraries that had been damaged.

Sylva Natalie Manoogian and Khachig Manoogian, her husband of nearly 53 years, at the GSE&IS Commencement in Wilson Plaza. Photo by Arpi Barsoumian

“Khachig and I are a team,” says Sylva Manoogian. “He took a look at all the plans and drawings of this library. We went over them together and developed a proposal for renovation and restoration.”

“Over the period of time from 1992 until 2012, I went back and forth to Jerusalem 24 times,” she recalls. “I didn’t just work on the library, I was examining the archives as well. Those had not been readily available. They had been stored in many patriarchal departments, not accessible for public use. Over the period of time that it had been established, the library had been cared for, but its caretakers, who were bibliophiles, did not have the academic training required of librarians today.”

Manoogian says that in writing her dissertation, she was careful to maintain academic integrity in her account of the Gulbenkian Library, by ending the work at the time of Patriarch Manoogian’s ascension to his position in 1991. She is currently converting her dissertation into a book, and will expand upon it with more of her behind-the-scenes experiences of visiting the Gulbenkian Library, and the effects of civil unrest in the Holy Land.

“I wanted to maintain an objective distance from the topic because this process of writing a dissertation or doing doctoral studies is to develop your skills as a scholar,” she notes. “If I were too much of an insider, it might be perceived as a hagiography, a work of praise.”

Retired from full-time duty at LAPL in April 1999–she continues working 16 to 20 hours a week as an ‘at-will’ reference librarian – Manoogian has also begun the task of translating and curating the extensive, and as of yet, unpublished archives of her father, a prolific author and activist. Known as Shahan Natalie, among his several pen names, he was the principal organizer of Operation Nemesis, which aimed to bring the chief perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to justice due to the efforts of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

“My father was 11 years old in 1895 during the Hamidian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey,” Manoogian says. “His father, a prominent member of their community, was one of the victims, in a village community in what we now call Western Armenia. My father was a witness [to the massacre] and was saved and hidden by a neighboring family during this horrible tragedy.”

Although his mother and four sisters had survived the massacres, as an only son, Natalie was sent to an orphanage in Constantinople, where he was admitted to the renowned Berberian Academy. He proved himself a literary prodigy at 12, when he was not only a star student, but tutored the academy’s director’s two children. At age 16, he returned to his village to teach children who were orphaned by the massacres, until age 20, when he was sent for in 1904 by two uncles who had emigrated to the United States and lived in the Boston area. Upon his arrival, Natalie began to attend Boston University to study Shakespeare and philosophy.

“He wanted to improve himself and to contribute something to perpetuate Armenian culture,” says Manoogian of her father. “He had made a vow on his father’s grave that he would live a long time – he lived almost 100 years – and when he grew up, he would make right what had been done wrong to his people.”

A world traveler, Natalie lived in Paris with his wife, Angèle, where Manoogian and her older sister spent their early life. In 1938, he left for the United States to reaffirm his immigration status. But when World War II broke out soon afterward, Natalie was prevented from returning to France.

“I was a baby when [my father] left, so I only knew about him through photographs and things my mother told us,” says Manoogian. “I started writing to him when I was seven or eight years old, and I didn’t meet him in person until we came to America in 1946. I saw him for the first time when I was nine-and-a-half, on Ellis Island, but I already had an image of him. I used to make up stories and poems to entertain him, not to just tell him, ‘I go to school, I’m a good student,’ and all that. I wanted to impress him.”

Growing up in Boston, Manoogian and her sister were enrolled in public school. Although fluent in Armenian and French, her lack of English was an initial stumbling block, but she proved herself and was promoted to the appropriate grade level that she had left in France.

“On the first day of school, they put me in a class that today they have kinder terms for,” Manoogian says. “[It] was called the class for the mentally retarded. I was there for one day only. They gave me a math test and I aced it, so they moved me to the fourth grade.”

Natalie instilled in his daughter a love of literature and languages that guides her academic and personal curiosity to this day. Manoogian, who speaks fluent Armenian – both Western and Eastern dialects – French, and Spanish, also reads German and Russian.

“Right away, my father took me to the public library and registered me for a library card,” she says. “We borrowed my first book, ‘Tales of Many Lands,’ because he wanted me to know about world literature. This was my first ESOL book. I had to read a story a day, look up the words I didn’t know in the English-French dictionary, create vocabulary lists, write sentences, tell stories, converse with him. I had brought with me a large collection of French literature for kids, and every day after school, I was expected to read them.

“At dinnertime, [we spoke] no French or English; only Armenian, because that was the family meal. And if you didn’t know the word you wanted to use, you explained what you were trying to say, but you were not allowed to speak any other language than Armenian. I would get upset – you know how kids are. And I remember my parents saying, ‘When you grow up, you’ll understand. You’ll realize what a valuable lesson this is.’

“In Armenian, we say, ‘As many languages as you know, you are that many people.’ His expectation, and my mother’s as well, was that every language you know, you must never forget.”

Manoogian and her family have created the Shahan Natalie Family Foundation to support educational programs and to introduce and perpetuate her father’s works as an author, poet, playwright, and revolutionary. Natalie’s archives include numerous volumes of his journal, which Manoogian is transcribing and translating by hand from Armenian script, and years of correspondence.

“There’s a lot of interest in [Natalie’s archive],” she says. “I have had requests to cede every scrap of paper that he ever produced to people who are  attempting to do research. My father entrusted that responsibility to me. I’m the only one who can do this, and [who will] decide ultimately where this archive is going to reside. I tend to favor the concept of having access to it, and I prefer to have it [in the United States].”

Manoogian says that her experience as a library professional, as well as the rigorous education she received at UCLA prepared her to tackle such a project, and she hopes to capitalize on her research skills, public librarian expertise, and interest in international librarianship.

“It is rough,” she says. “The formality of the canon that is expected of you in academia is a real challenge. Only the basic vocabulary – ‘a,’ ‘and,’ and ‘the,’ are no problem. With everything else, you have to keep looking it up.”

Sylva Natalie Manoogian in the 1959 Radcliffe/Harvard yearbook. Her father took the name John Mahy when he achieved American citizenship. Courtesy of Sylva Natalie Manoogian

Manoogian earned her master’s degree in library science at the University of Southern California in 1969, and her undergraduate degree in Latin/Classics at Radcliffe/Harvard in 1959. She previously worked in the UCLA Business Administration Library after moving to Southern California in the 1960s. Manoogian and her husband have three sons who are all bilingual in Armenian and English.

Despite the challenges to completing her doctorate, Manoogian, who began the program in January 2003, says that she was blessed with expert and collaborative faculty and advisors who encouraged her through her doctoral studies, which were beset with personal and familial responsibilities that demanded a lot of her time. She credits Professors of Information Studies Clara Chu, the initial chair of her dissertation committee; Greg Leazer, IS department chair; Mary Niles Maack, who eventually served as Manoogian’s dissertation chair; Anne Gilliland; and S. Peter Cowe, UCLA’s Narekatsi Professor of Armenian Studies, for their encouragement and patience.

“Sylva’s persistence and determination to finish her thesis are a real inspiration,” says Professor Maack. “Despite the challenges and responsibilities she had to deal with, she kept working on the dissertation because she was passionately interested in the topic and wanted to make her own scholarly contribution to Armenian history.  And of course, her husband Khachig was always there to give her moral support and encouragement.  The two are a wonderful couple, dedicated to the preservation and diffusion of Armenian history and culture.

“At one point when I was concerned that the pressure of finishing the writing might be a too great an overload for Sylva, she answered that she found being immersed in her research actually helped her through some rough times.”

“I had the best of the best,” says Manoogian of her professors and advisors. “They’re human, they’re [present]; they want to share their knowledge.”

“I kept being reminded, ‘You’ve got to finish.’ And the thing is, when I make up my mind to do something, I take it to the finish. There’s no alternative.”


Above: Sylva Natalie Manoogian is translating and transcribing the journals of her father, the late Shahan Natalie, for her family’s archive on the prolific author, poet, playwright, and activist.