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Posted on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 : 8:58 p.m.

University of Michigan's Islamic Manuscripts collection going online

By Juliana Keeping

The University of Michigan Special Collections Library needs help cataloguing its vast Islamic Manuscripts Collection.

But the library doesn't plan to hire an expert. Instead, almost all of its 1,250 pieces are being scanned in-house to put the work on the Internet.

And the library hopes interested scholars will get involved.

The manuscripts are mostly in Arabic, but also include works in Turkish and Persian, with one in Chaghatai. Works date from about 750 to 1906.

Subjects covered are varied, including Quran texts, commentaries and criticism, Islamic traditions, philosophy, and poetry, history and mathematics, among others - and all of it is hand-written. "It will be presented to the public in Wiki or blog-type interface, so people can comment on what they see. In that way, we hope we can get help from scholars all over the world in identifying the manuscripts and cataloguing them properly," said Peggy Daub, director of Special Collections. Daub hand-selected the texts to be scanned, leaving out only the most delicate. Pieces in the collection are especially noteworthy for the beautiful script throughout and ample, intricate gold leafing found in the religious texts, Daub said. Some of the texts are not known in any other copy.

Now, the pages are being scanned with special equipment in the Buhr Building by U-M's in-house digital library production service. The scans can't be digitized for searching using the typical Optical Character Recognition process because the manuscripts are handwritten. University of Michigan Professor Francis W. Kelsey acquired the collection 1924 with funds from an anonymous donor, Daub said. About 285 pieces of the collection were once part of the library of Sultan Abdulhamid II of Turkey, the 34th ruler of the Ottomon Empire. About a quarter of the collection was entered into the library's old card catalogue system over the years, as far back as 1925. A few hundred records from the old catalogue system have been entered into Mirlyn, the U-M Library's digital card catalog.

The goal is to get the new Web site, which will feature entire manuscripts, up in a few months, Daub said. "There's a lot of studying to be done, and that's the point of cataloguing, so people can find out about them and really study them," Daub said. The Web site will eventually work with Mirlyn and HathiTrust, a shared digital library repository that stores digitized library content from a number of organizations, including U-M. The project is funded with a $225,000 grant administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellow Foundation. The principal investigator is Jonathan Rodgers, head of U-M's Near East division. The Islamic Manuscripts project is not the first time U-M has made scans of its special collections available to scholars and the public online. The university made its collection of ancient scrolls available online in the '90s to provide preservation and greater scholarly and public access to the materials. That program evolved into the Advanced Papyrological Information System, or APIS, an series of online databases that encompass almost all American universities which have papyrological collections as well as several European partners. The Islamic Manuscripts effort marks the first time a collection will be published on the Web using a blog interface, Daub said.

Juliana Keeping covers the University of Michigan for She can be reached at 734-623-2528 or



Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 5:41 a.m.

I like the idea very much; however, I wonder is importing an expert is too much costy? any estimation!!


Thu, Aug 6, 2009 : 10:07 a.m.

Digitization is a great preservation and dissemination tool, but why can't the University help save the Library of Michigan?


Tue, Jul 28, 2009 : 2:15 p.m.

I agree Jen! Digitization is a wonderful and essential complement to our grant-funded collaborative cataloguing project. Cataloguing is essential for fullest access and, for manuscripts, scholarly examination is essential for fullest cataloguing. We obviously would like to enhance access to our collection as quickly as possible, but rather than shirking the analysis our manuscripts are due we are seeking to draw from an aggregate of expertise to accomplish the analysis more efficiently. We do have a skilled project cataloguer ("librarian with master's degree", excellent linguistic skills, experience with Near Eastern studies and Islamic manuscript studies, etc. if credentials are important) and several Near Eastern Studies doctoral student assistants on the project who have been and will continue to examine the manuscripts and craft the essential descriptive information that will be so useful to researchers. Digitization makes it possible for the wider community of scholars to examine the manuscripts remotely and conveniently. As Peggy stated so well, the blog will make it possible for these scholars to report the results of their analysis and to confirm, amplify, and/or critique the preliminary descriptions that have already been crafted (some 870+ records have been entered to Mirlyn since March) thus assisting us with enhancing those descriptions. appreciate the support!


Tue, Jul 28, 2009 : 12:37 p.m.

I respectfully disagree; although, I'm not an expert. UM won't hire a librarian with a master's degree to catalog. It will open the collection to experts who will apparently debate each other until there is a "catalog-consensus"...the question is who will be the final arbiter (hopefully this person is a librarian). With the subject of the Elgin Marbles in the news recently, how did the UM obtain this priceless collection? Should UM return the pieces to their countries of origin?


Tue, Jul 28, 2009 : 10:46 a.m.

Not to be pedantic, but this article seems to confuse "cataloging" and "scanning." Scanning will make the images available on the Web, and the wiki aspect will ensure scholars can comment on the items and perhaps improve the Special Collections Library's understanding of the material. Cataloging, which IS done by experts with training in the field (to wit, librarians with master's degrees), will provide access to each manuscript in the collection in the online catalog, and provide information on where to find the actual item, its physical description, and far more. Cataloging can be enhanced by information found through the wiki, and that supplied by interested scholars, but a wiki itself cannot replace cataloging. Carry on!