British Library Persian Manuscripts Project


he British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, holding around 170 million items from many countries, in many languages and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library’s collections include around 14 million books along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC; it is currently the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued.

From the pocket miscellany (Add.27261), with its exquisite miniature illuminations, compiled in 1410-11 for Timur’s grandson Sultan Jalal al-Din Iskandar, ruler of Fars, to unique historical documents and literary manuscripts, the Persian Manuscripts collection at the British Library is one of the most significant collections in the world in terms of both its size and importance. Consisting of over 11,000 works in almost as many volumes, it combines the two world-class collections of the British Museum and the India Office Library. These manuscripts originate from the whole of the Persianate world, in particular Iran, Central Asia and India and range in time from the 12th century to recent years, representing most of the traditional fields of humanities and religious studies. The collection is strong in most of the traditional fields of humanities and religious studies and many of the Persian manuscripts are copies of rare texts, and the illustrated volumes include some of the most famous miniature paintings of the Persian and Mughal schools.

Although printed catalogues exist for most of this material, only some of the catalogues are available online. Moreover, very little of the collection has been digitised. Our Persian manuscripts have, until recently, only been accessible onsite to those who can physically visit the British Library to study in the Asian and African Studies reading room. With limited access to catalogue records, the collection has therefore been much underused.

The British Library is currently engaged in a program to enable digital access to the Persian collections and has now reached the end of the second year of a planned three-year partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters. The project involves creating catalogue records for manuscripts which are uncatalogued, standardizing the existing print records and creating digital files to make them available online. At the same time we aim to digitise 50 of the most significant manuscripts within the three year period. By the end of the initial three-year partnership, records of nearly all acquisitions made after 1903 will be available online. Currently, details of over 2,500 works are searchable on Fihrist, a union catalogue of some of the major Arabic script manuscript collections in the UK, and will also be available within the Library’s own manuscripts’ catalogue. At the present time, more than 27 manuscripts are now available in entirety and can be viewed on the British Library’s project page.