Arabic manuscripts at World Digital Library: a few notes

Recently, I discovered, probably later than many others, that the World Digital Library (WDL) is hosting 57 Arabic-script manuscripts, many of whose originals are kept at the Egyptian National Library (EGL). This post is kind of a review of their online presentation.

Having online access to high-quality images of EGL manuscripts is, to be frank, exciting. It is, in fact, what sparked my interest when I came across the website through some unrelated search. The manuscript this search brought up, is, moreover, not only from the EGL but specifically from the Taymuriyya collection. And if you have been reading this blog for a while now, you might know that I am very interested in the Taymuriyya collection and its history and contents.

And as such, it has been a wonderful surprise to have access to additional Taymuriyya manuscripts through this website. Moreover, as the digital images are of excellent quality, quite different from other digital images circulating online, which are usually black/white and taken from microfilms.

Not all of the hosted EGL manuscripts are also Taymuriyya manuscripts, and this aspect is not addressed in the WDL descriptions, as I will address below. However, you can identify Taymur’s manuscripts through his stamp, visible in the viewer window.

Figure 1: WDL entry for Cairo, Egyptian National Library, MS Riyāḍa Taymūr 198 (available at https://www.wdl.org/en/item/2863/).

Speaking about the viewer feature, click on it and you are directed to a full digital reproduction of the respective item. And you can even download some of those items. Great, right? Unfortunately, however, the viewer proceeds left to right, which presents Arabic books in the wrong order.

Figure 2: Display of the first two pages of the work contained in Cairo, Egyptian National Library, MS Riyāḍa Taymūr 198.

In my opinion, this is a minor obstacle in enjoying these digitized images but I understand if others are confused or frustrated by this. My problem is a different one, which is bigger for those digital uploads which are concerned with manuscripts which contain more than one work.

As you can see in figure 2, the manuscript reference number “Riyāḍa Taymūr 198” is written in the upper left margins. However, you will find this only in cases of “one manuscript/one work”. Why is that? Because in the other cases, not the entire manuscript is uploaded as one unit. The result is that you won’t know how to reference the manuscript if the uploaded part is not the first item in that manuscript.

As you can see in these images of the entire entry for the manuscript, the WDL offers a lot of important codicological information on the item. While the title is translated into English in the heading, its Arabic original is given. The description of the text/manuscript is quite helpful. The author information links to the other entries associated with, in this case, Sibṭ al-Māridīnī.

What is dearly missing from these entries, however, is the manuscript reference number. Why is it not given in the description in addition to the images? As described above, you can work around this lack in some cases. But if you happen to be interested in the history of a work that is only available within a larger manuscript, the WDL digital images might not be helpful at all, simply because you cannot reference them.

By far, I am not the first one to point out the necessity of good cataloguing in conjunction with digitization. In fact, my own stance has been heavily influenced by what Dagmar Riedel wrote back in August 2012. If you have not read it, it is still topical. Riedel even mentions a treatment similar to the one about which I am complaining:

“The Hathi Trust Digital Library, for example, allows its members to download pdf-files of digitized works in the public domain.  But the pdf-file itself will only preserve information about the holding library, without revealing the actual call number […]. The fact that the creators of this academic digital library consider call numbers dispensable suggests that the digital surrogate is seen as a complete replacement of the original book, making any further interaction with the material artifact itself unnecessary.  For I do not know of any library where it be possible to request a book without knowing its call number.”

Dagmar Riedel, “How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books,” in: Islamic Books
A Research Blog about Manuscripts, Printed Books, and Ephemera in Arabic Script
(published 14 August 2012).

Contrary to my earlier statement, this issue does not exclusively apply to parts of manuscripts but also to some fully digitized ones, such as this manuscript of “Crowning Arts for the Treatment of the Eyes“. I could not find any note of the manuscript reference number, and thus this issue might apply to other ENL but not Tamuriyya manuscripts. I hope not to the ones you are interested in.

P.S.: I have identified twelve Taymuriyya manuscripts but it is difficult to be certain, as the codicological context for parts of manuscripts is not always clear. It is thus also not certain that the entirety of the Majamiʿ Taymur manuscripts was digitized. This is a bit frustrating.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Arabic manuscripts at World Digital Library: a few notes", in Damascus Anecdotes, January 3, 2021, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2183.

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