Columbia's Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities
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Muslim World Manuscript Project archive

We aim to create a data-rich digital repository of rare manuscripts from the Muslim world in the holdings at Columbia University. The archive will engage critically with questions of access, marginality, scholarly and enthusiast collecting, and related issues. It will build on some of the work undertaken by the Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities at their Mumbai meeting on free archives and shadow libraries. The first event for the project is a 3-day conference. You can learn the details here.

Collection Details

There is a substantial collection of Muslim-world manuscripts housed at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library (RBML), as well as in some other affiliated institutions (i.e., the Burke Library). These manuscripts are in Perso-Arabic or related scripts. Though part of the University’s collection, these manuscripts constitute a “dark” archive, for they are either uncatalogued or only partially catalogued. An Excel spreadsheet, created from a thirty-year-old card catalog, serves as the current finding aid for this collection.

The collection can be subdivided into six groups:

  1. Smith & Plimpton Collection Some 600 boxes containing manuscripts. Around 1200 manuscripts deal with “mathematics”. David Eugene Smith was a professor of Mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University (1901-1923). He collected mathematics manuscripts, and his whole collection is held at RBML. Plimpton was a manuscript collector mainly interested in educational manuscripts.
  2. Jeffery Collection A collection of Qur’anic manuscripts, roughly 50. Arthur Jeffery was a professor of Semitic Languages at Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary.
  3. X Manuscript Collection Purchased by or gifted to RBML since the 1930s, most of which are bound books. There are roughly 179 manuscripts, most of which have been poorly catalogued with widely diverging systems of transliteration.
  4. Persian Lithograph Collection This includes (but is not limited to) Saeed Nafisi’s library, purchased in 1960s. The collection is dispersed throughout Butler’s shelves, offsite storage, or at RBML itself. Saeed Nafisi was a renowned poet, translator and professor of Persian literature in early-twentieth-century Iran.
  5. The Arabic Papyri Collection RBML is in possession of an undisclosed papyri collection, which requires investigation and cataloguing.
  6. The Burke Collection A set of 26 manuscripts in Arabic script. They were probably collected by the missionaries connected to the Union Theological Seminary.

Project Team:

Aims of the MWMP

Plan of Action


Current modest funding (~ $5,000) has been acquired from the Middle East Institute, Global Studies, Professor Sheldon Pollock and the Center for International History. We are looking from funding from within the library as well as outside it.

Faculty in support of the project (alphabetically)

Department and Institutional Partners (ongoing list)