The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

7 April 2016

The British Library’s collection consists of eight bound volumes of written material and five Qur’ans, numbering some 3,000 manuscript pages altogether. Most of these items date from the mid-19th century, and were acquired by the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) between 1895 and 1917. In addition, two of the Qur’ans were acquired in the 1970s, and two other manuscripts have been purchased since 2000.

The manuscripts were paginated and bound in leather, and have remained largely undisturbed ever since. That they were not seen as important is shown by the brief, vague and sometimes shockingly dismissive handwritten records of acquisition: an 1895 entry, for example, uses the phrase: ‘Muslim catechisms prayers and charms in a barbarous African style of writing’.

Thankfully, scholarship has moved on from this view, and manuscripts from West Africa, as from any other part of the world where manuscripts in the Arabic language are created and studied, are now seen as valuable in their own right and important for the study of the societies that produced them. One of the aims of my research project is to facilitate the study of these manuscripts by providing detailed catalogue records and search terms for the collection, so that it will be easily searchable through the British Library’s online catalogue.

Read the full story here online or in PDF format.

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