There are three major categories of libraries and archives with Asian, African and Middle Eastern collections in the UK:

  • National libraries such as the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives.  These institutions have important legacy/historical collections on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, often associated with Britain’s colonial past;
  • Libraries and archives attached to specialist or research institutions, either specifically related to a region such as the Royal Asiatic Society, or where part of the collections have an Asian, African or Middle Eastern content (often significant but not always obvious) such as the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Imperial War Museum, the National Art Library at the V&A, and the Royal Zoological Society.  These lesser known collections are a valuable and under-utilised resource;
  • University library collections, either specialist institutions such as SOAS, or larger university libraries with collections supporting departments or centres of Asian, African or Middle Eastern studies within a general university, such as the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

In the UK, university teaching and research, and the supporting library collections, have been shaped by the recommendations in the 1947 Scarborough Report, (2) the 1961 Hayter Report, (3) the 1986 Parker Report, (4) and the 1993 Hodder-Williams Report. (5) All of these, even the most recent, date from an era when library collections were still predominantly made up of print and archival resources and the post-war division of the world into defined areas was reflected in distinct area studies collections in libraries.  Area studies centres developed and were supported by print resources in university libraries.

A number of library groups, together covering Asia and Africa trace their origins to a Conference on the Acquisition of Library Materials from Asia, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London in 1967.

Academics and ideas are more mobile than physical library collections.  Area studies centres may close or relocate and become separated from their collections.  For example, the Centre for South East Asia Studies at the University of Hull closed and its academic staff were absorbed into East Asian studies at the University of Leeds but the library collections remain at Hull.

Academics with an interest in Asian, African or Middle Eastern studies (an interest that might be disciplinary as much as regional) do not have to be attached to the main regional studies institution.  SOAS is the major centre for Asian, African and Middle Eastern studies in London, but this has not stopped academics with an interest in Asian politics or African economics from being based at LSE or elsewhere.

Many academics with an interdisciplinary, cross-regional approach to a subject may  primarily be interested in the discipline (such as development studies or gender studies) rather than identify with a specific region, and will turn to resources from a range of regions.  For example, many students, academics or researchers using a South Asia collection might not identify themselves as Indologists or South Asianists, or those using Chinese material might not identify themselves as Sinologists, yet they need to access resources on and from these regions for their individual courses or research.  And, increasingly, research funding is awarded to intra-university, cross-disciplinary and trans-regional projects.

SOAS Library is the obvious and, very often, the first port of call for resources to support research and study. (6)

(2)Scarbrough Report (The Earl Scarbrough), 1947, Report of the Interdepartmental Commission of Enquiry on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies, London:  Foreign Office

(3)Hayter Report (Sir William Hayter), 1961, Report of the Sub-Committee on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies, London:  University Grants Committee

(4)Parker Report, (Sir Peter Parker), 1986, Speaking for the future:  a review of the requirements for diplomacy and commerce for Asian and African languages and area studies, London: University Grants Committee

(5)Hodder-Williams Report (Prof. Richard Hodder-Williams), 1993, Area Studies in the United Kingdom:  a report to the Area Studies Monitoring Group, Bristol:  [University of Bristol]

(6)My thanks to Nicholas Martland from whose paper information in this section is drawn: Martland, N., 2008, Asian area studies librarianship in a globalised, inter-connected world: death or transformation? Paper presented at a NACIRA [National Council on Orientalist Resources] Conference, 9 December 2008. pp.3-4

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