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African language collections

We hold collections of national importance in African languages. Holdings of books are particularly strong in Swahili, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Somali, Sotho, Xhosa, Yoruba and Zulu, although publications in many other languages, from all over the continent, are also held.

African languages in the British Library

The historical collections are particularly important. We hold many early published works in African languages, printed both in Africa and Europe, particularly the UK. Collecting continued through the 20th century so that, for example, we hold a good collection of publications in Swahili for the early independence period in Tanzania. Today, we continue to collect publications in a range of African languages.

The Library has many examples of early translations of the Bible into African languages - often the first rendering (however imperfect) of a particular language into written form - together with a large collection of grammars and dictionaries of African languages. Our holdings also cover a wide range of other subjects including fiction, drama, history and politics. In recent years, we have also collected samples of information literature and pamphlets in African languages. Some government publications have also appeared in African languages, particularly Swahili and Afrikaans.

How to find African language material

Published works in most African languages are included in Explore the British Library. To search for works in a specific language published from the early 1980s onwards, select the relevant option on the language menu on the advanced search page. Older works can also be located in Explore the British Library. If you wish to search by language, keyword searching is recommended.

Scripts and manuscripts

Works in African languages in non-roman script, particularly Amharic, can be located through the card index in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

The British Library also holds manuscript material from Africa in Arabic and in African languages, particularly Swahili, in Arabic script. There are very significant collections of Ethiopic manuscripts. Other holdings include an early table of the Vai script from Liberia, recorded by a British naval officer in 1849 (Add. 17,817).

Other formats

Much material in African languages is held in the form of sound recordings by the British Library Sound Archive. Some newspapers, or parts of newspapers, also feature African languages.

See also

For Afrikaans, see also the Dutch pages. For Arabic, see the British Library's Arabic collections.

The Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, also holds very significant collections of African language material.

The British Library's holdings also include published material on the history and culture of immigrant communities to Africa from Asia (Malays, Indians and Chinese) and from Europe (Jews), who produced literature in Africa in their own languages (Malay, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Chinese and Yiddish); studies of these communities are also held. To trace these works, see the relevant language pages.


Dr Marion Wallace, Curator of African Collections
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7829