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India Office Library: History and scope of the western language book collections

The India Office Library's western language collections included printed books and journals in most European languages, but principally English, published in, or relating to Asia and the Middle East. These older collections are now supplemented by contemporary books, journals and electronic resources on Asia and the Middle East actively acquired by western language curators in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, and by colleagues elsewhere in the British Library. 

Caricature of the Maharaja of Bikaner

Caricature of the Maharaja of Bikaner. Copyright © The British Library Board

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From: Indian Round Table Conference, 1930. London, [1930].
(X 1183). Hand-coloured prints of caricatures of the participants by Emery (originally Imre) Kelen.

Historic collections on Asia and the Middle East from the India Office Library

The historic collections relating to Asia and the Middle East were originally acquired by the East India Company , founded in 1600.  The books which had been amassed over the years by the Company's servants were not formalised as a collection until the foundation of the East India Company Library in 1801, when the Directors decided to establish a public repository to safeguard the books and manuscripts entrusted to the Company's care.  

The Library soon began to expand, with an active acquisitions policy supporting the officers of the Company in their administrative and commercial activities.  On the transfer of the East India Company's powers and material possessions to the Crown following the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, the Library collections were administered by the newly-established India Office.  

The Library functioned both as an official reference collection for the Secretary of State for India and his staff, and a learned library for the use of orientalists.  In some ways it was also a typical "gentleman's library", with collections of classical texts, literary works, illustrated topographical and natural history books and texts on worldwide exploration. 

The India Office Library had broadly similar acquisition policies to those of the British Museum Library. This resulted in a good deal of duplication between the two institutions' collections on Asia and the Middle East, particularly after the (Indian) Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867 entitled both libraries to requisition a copy of any book published in British India.  

This provision, combined with British legal deposit legislation, has resulted in an extraordinarily rich and complete collection of material published in and about South Asia.  However, despite its particular concentration on the South Asian region, the India Office Library also acquired books on and from all areas where the East India Company and the India Office had an interest, such as Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. 

Highlights of the historic collections include a large number of eighteenth to twentieth century tracts or pamphlets on Indian and East India Company affairs;  a magnificent collection of print books containing hand-coloured illustrations of places, temples, occupations, costumes, birds, animals, etc.;  and nearly-complete sets of published census data and other pre-1947 official publications from India.  

The collections are invaluable for research into life in British India, including as they do many personal accounts of important historical events, poems and novels written by British residents, and much documentation of social life, such as rules of clubs and societies, programmes of amateur dramatic groups, booklets of advice on clothing and equipment needed by newcomers to the subcontinent, Anglo-Indian cookery books, and much more.

Following the transfer of the India Office Library and Records to the British Library in 1982, the acquisition of books and journals on Asia and the Middle East was shared with other collection areas.  Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections Western Language Collections staff now acquire books in English and other western languages published in these regions, as well as journals and electronic resources appropriate for the study of Asia and the Middle East.

Further information about the British Library’s full range of resources for study of the area covered by the India Office Library can be found on the pages relevant to South Asian studies and Middle East studies.   For information about journals for the study of Asia, see Asia, Pacific and Africa: Periodicals and newspapers.