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Collection Development Policy for Asia, the Middle East and Islamic North Africa

The following policy operates under the Library's general policy statements with respect to collection development.

Some of the material acquired under this policy is available for loan or document supply through the Library's Document Supply service.


The British Library - through the combination of the collecting traditions of the old British Museum Library and the India Office Library and Records - possesses the finest single resource for Asian studies in the world. On the British Museum Library side, there were Asian manuscripts and printed books in the foundation collections of the British Museum Library in 1753, and with the expansion of Britain's trading and political involvement in Asia centred on India from the late 18th century onwards the Library's collecting of Asian material expanded strongly across the whole language spectrum from Arabic and Hebrew to Chinese and Japanese. The India Office Library was the successor of the East India Company Library which had opened in 1801 and acquired much material directly from its servants in the East as well as through book-trade channels. Its collecting always embraced English-language as much as Asian language material as a notable early example of an 'area-studies' approach, but there are certain lacunae e.g. while it collected both English- and South Asian-language periodicals published in India it did not collect vernacular, only English-language, newspapers.

From 1868 onwards the British Museum Library and the India Office Library both enjoyed the privilege of legal deposit of printed books, periodicals and newspapers from undivided India, which expanded the collections enormously for the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. NB Not all items printed in the region were acquired by this means. Titles were individually selected, and the system was far more effective in acquiring monographs than sustained runs of periodicals and newspapers. The British Museum Library also benefited from similar legislation relating to Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Fiji, Hong Kong and Malaysia. The effectiveness of the operation of colonial legal deposit had dwindled by the 1930s and it was not until the 1960s that systematic collecting - largely through straightforward commercial channels backed up by some exchange agreements - was revived.

The India Office Library and the British Museum Library (from 1973 onwards part of the British Library) continued to collect systematically - both English-language and Asian-language material - but separately right down to 1982 when the India Office Library was transferred to the British Library. From then onwards, the British Library has continued to collect widely in all areas of the humanities and social sciences, including official publications, from most countries of the Middle East, Asia, Islamic North Africa and the Horn of Africa. The historic holdings of creative literature are extremely strong in all languages, but since the 1980s only a representative selection has been acquired and the Library's modern intake of such material does not match, for instance, that of the Library of Congress.

Collection Development Policy

A wide range of research-level current printed publications are acquired across the humanities and social sciences (including official publications) in the principal languages of the Middle East and Asia, Islamic North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. The only exceptions are children's literature and translations, except where these are of linguistic or literary significance.

The main languages covered are: Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Urdu, Panjabi, Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Assamese, Oriya, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Sinhala, Nepali, Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa (Malay/Indonesian) . Material in these languages published elsewhere in the world is also collected. As part of the UK national published archive, the increasing number of newspapers published in Asian vernaculars in the UK are systematically acquired under legal deposit - in Gujarati, Panjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Japanese, etc.

Material is also acquired on a smaller scale in Amharic/Ethiopic, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Kurdish, Tajik and other Turkic languages of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, Pashto, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Laotian, Javanese/Balinese, the languages of the Philippines, Malagasy, and Manchu/Mongolian. Books on the ancient languages of the Near East - Old Egyptian, Akkadian, etc. - have always been collected by the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities in the British Museum, not by the Library.

Reference works and serial titles in Western languages, predominantly English, are also acquired to support the historic collections, not least works relating to the history of the East India Company and the India Office Records. Large microform collections and electronic publications are acquired in consultation with other orientalist libraries in the UK. Manuscripts in Asian languages continue to be acquired to a limited extent, largely to fill significant gaps in the collection. Attempts are also made to fill gaps in the India Office Records, European Manuscripts, European Printed Books, the Map and pre-1947 Indian Official Publications collections, and Prints, Drawings and Photographs, as opportunities arise.


Asian-language collections (all containing printed books current and antiquarian, periodicals, newspapers and manuscripts) may be divided into five main geographical/cultural groups:
Judaeo-Christian covers Hebrew, Yiddish, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Ethiopic and other languages of the Horn of Africa. The manuscript collections are of world importance, including illuminated Bibles and Gospels in Hebrew, Armenian and Ethiopic, and numerous early Christian Coptic and Syriac texts. The early printed Hebraica include 100 incunables and large collections from the 16th and 17th centuries; 20th century intake includes publications from Israel as well as the Jewish diaspora world-wide. The Armenian printed book collection is one of the five largest in the world.
Islamic comprises Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Iranian and Turkic languages. World-famous collections of manuscripts including many beautifully illuminated Qur'ans, and exquisite illustrated manuscripts from Iran, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Central Asia and elsewhere. The printed book, periodical and newspaper collections have great quality in depth, documenting the spread of printing in the Near and Middle East, particularly due to the introduction of lithography in the 19th century.
South Asian collections cover the classical languages (Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Tibetan) as well as the modern languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhala, etc.). There are outstanding holdings of manuscripts in Sanskrit and Tibetan, including items from the Stein collection, and in Sinhala (the Hugh Nevill collection). An important feature of the printed collections built up through colonial legal deposit are the Vernacular Tract Volumes which (like their English-language counterparts in European Printed Books) contain a wealth of pamphlets and other more ephemeral items grouped together by subject.
South-East Asian collections are concentrated on Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa (Malay/Indonesian), and Javanese. There are fine collections of illustrated Burmese and Thai manuscripts. The printed book collections are strong in early imprints, and among recent special features is a collection of Pro-Democracy printed ephemera from Burma.
Far Eastern collections include the Stein collection of manuscripts and blockprints from Dunhuang and other Central Asian sites principally but not only in Chinese, including the Diamond Sutra of 868 AD, the worlds' earliest dated printed document. The Japanese manuscript collections include a fine selection of Nara-Ehon scrolls. The Library has a rich collection of rare printed items in each language, including the best collection of Japanese antiquarian books outside Japan itself, that are key to understanding the rise and spread of early printing technology - xylography and pre-Gutenberg typography.
European Printed Books (part of the ex-India Office Library) is a major international specialist resource for Indological and modern South Asian studies, especially the history of India before independence in 1947. Particular strengths include a large collection of printed material relating to the East India Company and an almost complete set of 19th century plate books relating to Asia (Solvyns, Gould, Daniells, etc.). Another important feature are the Tract volumes comprising pamphlets and ephemera grouped together by subject (education, missionaries, trade, medicine. shipping, etc.).
India Office Records comprises the archives of the East India Company (1600-1858), the Board of Control (1784-1858), the India Office (1858-1947), the Burma Office (1937-1948), and a number of British agencies overseas which were officially linked with one or other of these four main bodies. This is the primary source par excellence for studying the modern history of India and many adjacent parts of Asia from the 17th to the mid 20th centuries. Apart from academic use, the Records also cater for the needs of family historians with a wealth of biographical information, including the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of European Christians in South Asia. As the official archive of a government department that ceased to exist in 1947 with the independence of India and Pakistan, the India Office Records is essentially a closed collection. But some parts of it (e.g. the files of the Indian Political Intelligence Service) have only been released into the public domain in more recent years. Linked to the India Office Records are extensive collections of maps, both printed and manuscript (70,000), including the Survey of India mapping, and of Indian official publications (administration reports, censuses, etc.) up to 1947.
European Manuscripts consists of over 30,000 volumes of letters, diaries, papers of all kinds and an oral archive of several hundred people who served in India, including Viceroys and Governors, civil servants, army officers and other ranks, businessmen, missionaries, scholars, travellers and their families. They illustrate the wide diversity of work and social life in India and neighbouring countries since 1650. Essentially they provide the unofficial view that supplements and counterpoises the official view represented by the India Office Records.
Prints, Drawings and Photographs comprises some 30,000 paintings and drawings as well as over 200,000 original photographs. Particular strengths include the world's best collection of the work of British artists who visited India and the East (the Daniells, Zoffany, etc.), and a very large collection of Company paintings made by Indian artists for European patrons. There are also important collections of Persian and Indian miniatures, and good collections of various schools of popular Indian painting (Kalighat, Madhubani, etc.). The photographs collection is remarkable for the high proportion of the work of 19th century photographers and includes the art-historically important Archaeological Survey of India photographs.

RSLP Projects

One of the main contributors - along with SOAS, the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library - to the RSLP MAPPING ASIA project which aims to document at collection level all the library resources in the United Kingdom relating to Asian studies, both classical and modern, and including holdings of western- as well as Asian-language material. The Mapping Asia web-site, as well as APAC's own web-pages, contains more detailed information on individual collection strengths (