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Arabic printed books

We have over 80,000 books and serials in Arabic. This is one of the largest collections in the UK and a rich resource for the study of the Arab world and Islam.  Books are held in the humanities and social sciences from across the Arab and Islamic world. The collection is strongest for books from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and India but there are books from across the Arab world, including North Africa. Particular strengths are early Arabic printing, and books published in India and the UK. We also have a large collection of e-books, mostly from Egypt, that can be consulted in Reading Rooms.

Please note: there are delivery issues affecting some books published after 1900 with shelfmarks in the range 14002.a.1 to 19968 following their move to a new storage facility. More information on moves of Asian language materials.

History and scope

Current acquisitions policy

Consulting Arabic books

History and scope

The majority of the older Arabic books in the Library came from the British Museum library, but many books from India and the Arab world were contributed by the India Office Library. A major strength of the collection is early Arabic printing. Early European imprints in Arabic are represented by Roman Catholic publications as well as philosophical and medical works printed in Spain and Italy, and the Hamburg Arabic Qur'an of 1694. The Library holds a small number of rare 18th-century publications from missionary presses in the Levant, and Arabic works printed on the press brought to Alexandria by Napoleon in 1798. The Library has strong holdings of Arabic books published at the press established by Muhammad 'Ali at Bulaq from 1822 onwards. Another strength is Arabic books printed in India between 1867 and 1957; we hold around 7000 books published in India before 1947.

The Library's holdings reflect dominant trends within British study of the Arab world. An early priority for the Library was the collection of classical texts of Islamic scholarship and Arabic literary writing. The Library's holdings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are strong in classical texts and subject matter (Islamic studies, Arabic language/philology, Islamic history and sciences), but weaker on 'modernist' and literary writing. However, the Library has relatively strong holdings of early Arabic journals and newspapers that may not be held by other UK libraries.

As British scholarship on the Middle East widened to include contemporary society and cultural expression, so the Library's holdings reflected this change. Increasingly, the Library collected works in the contemporary humanities and social sciences in addition to classical texts. The Library has good holdings of material published in Egypt and Lebanon but its holdings from North Africa and the Arab Gulf are less extensive, although its collection of works from or about Iraq and Yemen compares well with other UK libraries. Arabic texts published in Europe are well represented and copyright legislation has ensured strong coverage of works published in Britain.

Current acquisitions policy

Our policy is to selectively acquire research level publications in the humanities and social sciences focusing on the Arab world or on Arab communities worldwide. We also collect studies in Arabic focusing on regions or issues of concern to the Arab world. We do not collect textbooks or translations from other languages, and we collect modern literary writing only for a limited number of writers whose work is the subject of academic study, supplemented by a wide range of critical studies on literature. We continue to acquire new editions of classical texts. We also acquire a small number of publications produced by Arab non-governmental organisations and independent research centres. A very limited number of official publications of Arab governments continue to come into the Library, but the Library does not systematically collect official publications in Arabic, nor the literature of political parties.

The Library currently subscribes to a relatively small number of academic and cultural journals, but in the past it has acquired examples of a large number of titles. Most are relatively short runs, with complete runs of only a small number of titles. At present the Library receives all major Arab newspapers printed in Britain, and subscribes to a small number of other daily and weekly newspapers. The Library is in the early stages of acquiring Arabic material in electronic formats, with only a small amount of material currently available.

The collection is currently growing by about 2000 books per year – this figure includes UK publications received under legal deposit legislation, current purchases and donations.

Kitab salat al-sawa'i

Kitab salat al-sawa'i:.a book of Christian prayers recognised as the earliest surviving Arabic book printed from moveable type (Fano, Italy, 1514). Or.70.aa.12. Copyright © The British Library Board


The scale of publishing in the Arab world makes it impossible for a single library to collect research level publications from every Arab country. Cooperation between libraries is needed to ensure broad coverage. UK libraries which belong to the Middle East Libraries Committee (MELCOM) have agreed an Area Specialisation Scheme which allocates groups of Arab countries to particular libraries. Full details of this scheme are on the MELCOM website, but in general terms the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) has stronger holdings from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) whilst Exeter University has a special focus on the Arab Gulf states and Iraq, along with official publications, and Durham University collects material on Sudan as well as official publications from all Middle East states.

The British Library's primary focus is on Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian National Authority, and Iraq. A smaller number of books come from other countries including those in North Africa, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. A small number of books are also bought from other countries where Arabic books are published including Iran, Israel, Mauritania and Germany.

Consulting Arabic books

Most Arabic books may be consulted in the St Pancras Reading Rooms. You need to register for a Reader Pass to use our Reading Rooms. Our oldest and rarest books are stored on-site, but books acquired since 1900 are stored off-site, and need to be ordered at least 48 hours in advance of your visit. Please see the information on Arabic catalogues and advice on searching for Arabic books in Explore the British Library.

Most Arabic books published since 1945 (other than those published in the UK) are available for inter-library loan to libraries and other institutions via the British Library Document Supply service.

The Library also has two collections of Arabic e-books available in reading rooms, one of books published between 1820 and 1914, and the other of contemporary books, most published since 1980. Together they offer 5000 titles, mostly from Egypt.


al-Lafif fi kull ma'na tarif

Example of a typescript designed by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, one of the pioneers of Arabic printing. al-Lafif fi kull ma'na tarif, an Arabic first reading book, published in Malta in 1839. 14586.a.15. Copyright © The British Library Board


Daniel Lowe
Asian and African Collections
British Library
96 Euston Road

Tel: +44 (0)T +44(0207) 412 7000 (ext. 4635)


Dr Colin Baker, Head of Near and Middle East Collections
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7645


PDF files

The links below are to Adobe PDF files. Accessibility solutions and free Reader software are available from Adobe.