Collecting Books: Where is its place in scholarly biographies?

One thing that has frustrated me for a while now is how most collectors of Arabic manuscripts are portrayed in biographical entries. To be more succinct, while the collections are usually mentioned, this often happens as an afterthought. According to such biographical entries, everything else a collector did in their life was more important / interesting than their collection. This is a common feature shared by articles on Wikipedia, in encyclopedias, and other scholarly publications (with the obvious exceptions from book and library history).

Often enough, collecting is not portrayed as an active scholarly practice but as a side product of other activities, often in politics or print publishing. Even where it is mentioned, this mention is often the extent of it.  Some might now say that the authors of those studies might not have had the necessary access to those collections. Or that their interest was a different one. And I ask in return: Why is authorship prioritized even in cases where the collection is without a doubt the legacy of a person?  

As, for instance, Boris Liebrenz has demonstrated in his research on the Damascene Rifāʿiyya Library, a meaningful investigation into any historical collection and the engagements collectors have with both the collection as a whole and its individual components requires steady access to a collection over an extended period of time.{1} This kind of access is often difficult to attain and to fund.

This is but one reason why European, North American, and Turkish collections have received more treatment than collections in the Arab Regions. Historical collections from within the Arab Regions have mostly been studied by using digital surrogates and catalogues, thus using both corpus-based and documentary approaches. Understandably, a larger focus has been put on rather small-scale pre 20th-century collections.

But what about those large scale collections that bibliophiles especially in Cairo amassed around 1900? In contrast to western collections which were catalogued either in the context of their bequeathment to an institutional library or even on the collector’s own initiative, Aḥmad Taymūr’s collection still awaits its own comprehensive catalogue. 

Taymūr is, however, a prime example for the importance of taking collection efforts seriously. He collected books over a period of several decades, ever growing his own library until it numbered around 20,000 items. He bought printed books from around the world and had manuscripts manually copied, photographed and reproduced with photostat in and beyond Egypt.

It is also noteworthy that he, as I have elaborated here, did not in his own cataloguing efforts distinguish between manuscripts and printed books. While he valued the old manuscripts he owned, for the purpose of organizing his library thematic categories were more important than the respective medium which contained them. Manuscripts appear as books first and thus were shelved together with their printed sisters.

This library was itself Taymūr’s magnum opus or life’s work, as is visible not only from the ledgers he wrote to serve as catalogues but also from the numerous descriptions and tables of contents he added at the beginning or end of those manuscripts. Yes, Taymūr did publish books and articles as well.{2} One of his books just received its latest print run in 2019. Yet, compare this with the thousands of references to manuscripts in his collection in scholarly books and articles. 

Taymūr’s influence was acknowledged in a number of obituaries, which are themselves revealing in their treatment of his library. Joseph Schacht’s “Nachruf” in the journal of the German Orientalist Society (ZDMG) can serve as an example.{3} I summarize it here by topics treated in order of writing first:

  • Death of Taymūr “in his library” (short summary of his achievements: knowledgeable in Arabic literature, creator of THE private library in the region, “selfless supporter of European research”)
  • biography (with focus on education) and family background
  • close connections with other grandees of Arabic literary renaissance
  • “his greatest feat”: the creation of his library with 12,000 volumes (half being manuscripts or reproductions thereof); his own annotations increased the value and accessibility; he offered researchers access to his library; endowment of the library should assure its survival for posterity and continuing access for researchers
  • Taymūr’s publications and his contributions to other publications (more were published posthumously by his son Maḥmūd Taymūr) 
  • Taymūr’s “character”: he is portrayed as having both feet in the “traditional arabic sciences” and “a true European spirit”; his “humility, mercy, and helpfulness” made him “an entirely sympathetic character”
  • A final commiseration of his death 

The obituary contains five paragraphs on two pages, and even though Schacht’s treatment of the library can be considered one of the best (and most influential) descriptions, it is restricted to one paragraph only, which is shorter than the paragraph on Taymūr’s limited publication activities. Admittedly, this is probably partially due to the genre of obituaries, and Schacht calls the library Taymūr’s “greatest academic achievement”. The information he gives on the library is almost identical with that given in other descriptions, such as the one in Ignaty Krachkovsky’s Among Arabic Manuscripts.{4} 

So, collecting obviously expands the infrastructure upon which written knowledge production rests. It offers a large amount of information clustered in one space and, hopefully, organized in an understandable way. And while Taymūr’s library continued to fulfill this function after its incorporation into the Egyptian National Library as well, we also see a sharp decrease in the acknowledgment of his contribution within a decade after his death. 

Casting new light on the efforts on collection requires a lot of sustained work and novel approaches that go beyond the highlighting of specific manuscripts because of their antiquity or their layout. It requires an engagement with the labor of collecting, cataloguing, and annotating, which is often elusive. It might have become more elusive in a printing—or now digital—world where the publication has ever more become the gold standard of knowledge production. 

However, as the examples of Taymūr as well as, for instance, William Ouseley and his collections (d. 1842), Robert Huntingdon (d. 1692), and Aḥmad Zakī (d. 1934, who has received more attention in this regard so far, demonstrate, the production of knowledge relies on collection efforts.{5} To reiterate what has been said above, collecting is not only creating an infrastructure for the knowledge production in the shape of new publications but always was knowledge production in its own right.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Collecting Books: Where is its place in scholarly biographies?", in Damascus Anecdotes, June 14, 2020, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/1689.
  1. Liebrenz, Boris. Die Rifāʿīya Aus Damaskus: Eine Privatbibliothek Im Osmanischen Syrien Und Ihr Kulturelles Umfeld. Leiden: Brill, 2016. []
  2. for a comprehensive list, see Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics. How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition, Princeton: 2020. []
  3. Schacht, Joseph. “Aḥmed Pascha Taimūr. Ein Nachruf.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 84 (1930): 255-258. []
  4. Krachkovsky, Ignaty Y. Among Arabic Manuscripts: Memories of Libraries and Men. Leiden: Brill, 2016. []
  5. On Zakī and his library, see Ryad, Umar. “‘An Oriental Orientalist’: Aḥmad Zakī Pasha (1868–1934), Egyptian Statesman and Philologist in the Colonial Age.” Philological Encounters 3, no. 1–2 (2018): 129–66; Dayeh, Islam. “From Taṣḥīḥ to Taḥqīq: Toward a History of the Arabic Critical Edition.” Philological Encounters 4 (2019): 245-299. []

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