African-language collections

Hand written title page of Robert Maxwell MacBrair, ‘A sketch of the Foolah language’ (1843)
Robert Maxwell MacBrair, ‘A sketch of the Foolah language’ (1843) (shelfmark: Add MS 14,327)

The British Library holds material in well over a hundred African languages. The best-represented languages are Amharic, Ge’ez, Hausa, Igbo, Malagasy, Shona, Somali, Sotho, Swahili, Xhosa, Yoruba and Zulu.

About the collection

We have large collections of printed books in African languages, and some newspapers wholly or partly in African languages. We also hold Ethiopic manuscripts, mainly in the Ge’ez language and script, as well as manuscripts in other African languages and Arabic. There are extensive holdings of audio-visual material in African languages, which include music, oral literature and ethnographic recordings.

We have strong historical holdings of printed books in African languages (mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries), as well as good collections of later printing, which continue to grow as we acquire recent publications. The earliest material is mainly religious and linguistic, and also includes works by African intellectuals such as the South African writer, linguist and politician Sol Plaatje.

In the collection as a whole, a wide variety of subjects is covered, including fiction, poetry, drama, history, politics, government and religion. The collections also reflect the development of some languages before and after independence. Our Swahili holdings, for example, are broad and include government publications as well as works of fiction and non-fiction.

We also hold extensive collections in the Afrikaans language (which is of Dutch origin but considered by many scholars to be an African language).

What is available online?

Use Explore the British Library, our main catalogue, to search for records for printed books, serials and newspapers in African languages. (After searching, use the menu on the left to select records for items in the language you are looking for.)

Some older books in African languages have been digitised and are freely available online. These can be found through the main catalogue.

‘African Newspapers’, a digitised collection of historic newspapers published in Africa, includes African-language titles, particularly from South Africa. This is available on site, or remotely to holders of a British Library Reader Pass.

Use the Sound and Moving Image catalogue to search for sound recordings and moving image in African languages. Selected sound recordings in African languages have also been digitised and are available here. There is more information here.

Some digitised Ethiopic manuscripts from the British Library’s collections, mainly in the Ge’ez language and script, are available online. The digital collections of the Endangered Archives Programme also include manuscripts and other collections in African languages, for example the Nigerian Hausa-language newspaper Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo.

This article on ‘Language, script and symbol’ explores these issues in relation to West Africa.

For a flavour of individual African-language collection items, see our online features on

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

You can view books, periodicals, newspapers and manuscripts in African languages in our Reading Rooms at St Pancras, London.

The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the collections of recorded sound and video at St Pancras.

What is available in other organisations?

SOAS Library, University of London, has strong collections in African languages. 

Further information

  • Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, A linguistic geography of Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • Ricard, Alain, The languages and literatures of Africa: the sands of Babel (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004).