Material on and from Africa has been collected since the foundation of the School (as the School of Oriental Studies) in 1916, although Africa was not included in the name until much later and there was no separate Africa Section in Library until the 1960s.

The significance of the 1960s for African studies:
  • The Hayter Report (1961) initiated the era of area studies.  For example, the  SOAS Department of African Languages and Cultures had grown to about 25 academics covering the whole continent by the early 1980s – when financial and other constraints reduced these to nine through retirements and cut-backs
  • The “Invention” of African history as a discipline by Roland Oliver (whose papers are now in the Library’s Archives and Special Collections).  Africa was at last considered to have its own history.

The SOAS Library is the principal academic library in the UK for African studies and, unusually, it covers the whole of Africa.  It is therefore the Library of first resort for many students and researchers, whether in the UK higher education community or otherwise.

European language collections

The bulk of the collections are in English, but a substantial minority of what the Library purchases is in the metropolitan languages of the colonies:  chiefly French as the other principal presence, but also Portuguese as the third largest, with some Spanish, Italian and German.  Other European languages are represented where there is no obvious historical link with Africa but research and scholarship is undertaken, such as in Russian and Polish.

The Library holds the most extensive French-language collections on and from Africa in the UK.  The collections also include significant materials on Lusophone Africa – the only such in the UK.  A grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation in the early 1970s enabled the Africa Librarian to visit Portugal and buy many local publications.  The collection also includes a number of Italian publications of the Fascist period on particularly Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Library has built up unparalleled holdings of African literature in English and the other metropolitan languages of Africa (French and Portuguese) in a range of genres, including a substantial collection of literary criticism.  The Library’s extensive collection of Francophone literature from northern, western and central Africa is unique in the UK.

During the Apartheid era the Library collected a range of publications from within and outside South Africa covering all perspectives – many visiting South Africans were amazed to find books and journals here which were censored and unobtainable in South Africa – and often unobtainable post-apartheid as out of print.

Government publications: the policy is to acquire these where possible.  But with over fifty countries, many of them with no direct links to Britain, this has not been easy.  The aim now is to concentrate on Anglophone countries (bearing in mind other UK academic libraries’ collection policies) but be selective for Francophone and Lusophone.

Law: the policy is to acquire laws and law reports from all African countries except South Africa where Roman-Dutch law applies (collected by the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies).  The Law Department for a long time had a strong interest in customary law and there was a strong African law presence in the Department.  This has changed as the political circumstances of African countries changed; scholarly interest now lies more in thematic law (e.g. human rights, gender, migration)

Change in focus: It is interesting how the older parts of the collections are much more traditional in coverage and focus.  African studies began with a focus on history, archaeology, language, anthropology, religion (traditional and Christian), folklore &c.  After a period in which Africa tended largely to be seen, even by the scholarly community, in terms of famine and civil war, African studies have now become much more vibrant and relevant to the contemporary world – music and performance (film, theatre, dance), art, development studies, globalization, media, migration and diaspora, financial management, governance – as well as the more traditional disciplines.

African Languages Collection

This is a unique collection in the UK and Europe, perhaps worldwide.  As befits its national research role, the Library seeks to acquire material in and on all African languages rather than simply support languages taught and researched at SOAS.  The collection goes down to pre-university level, as far as children’s literature in some cases, in order to provide representative examples of languages in which little is written or published.  Certain languages (e.g. Somali, Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba) are substantially published, and at a range of levels.  For others there is very little published (or at least obtainable), maybe almost nothing outside official publications and school textbooks.

Africa Department Library

This collection belonging the Department of African Languages and Cultures was given to the Library in 1973.  It was a hybrid collection, containing multiple copies of teaching texts but also – and more interestingly – a huge amount of material from the early part of the 20th (and occasionally late 19th) century in and on African languages.  This was the period when African languages were being studied intensely by the missionary societies for evangelical purposes, and English scriptures and classic literary works like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress translated into them.   In certain cases, African languages, traditionally oral, were written down for the first time.  The Library holds an excellent collection of Christian texts in African languages, such as the Bible and constituent parts of it, prayer books, classic literary works.  There are also many practical publications – for example, on basic hygiene, health care, agricultural techniques – for use by the local populations.  The collection is only partially catalogued and much of it is still held in store.

African Language Texts Project

This project – run by Dr. Michael Mann (of the Africa Department) in 1990/91 with external funding from the Boston Colonial Experience Project – created a database and printed catalogue of African language texts (excluding purely linguistic and teaching materials) held in SOAS Library, both in the main collection and in the Africa Department Library.

Somali language collection

Several SOAS academics have been very helpful in building country or language collections.  For example, the late Prof. Bogumil Andrzejewski who travelled and worked a great deal in Somalia always purchased local publications for the Library.  Prolonged civil war destroyed most libraries and universities – but SOAS holds an outstanding collection of what are now quite possibly unique or rare local Somali-language publications

Named collections
  • Society for Libyan Studies Library
    The Society for Libyan Studies, now based at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, promotes and co-ordinates the activities of scholars working on the archaeology, history, linguistics and natural history of Libya. Its extensive library collection, covering a broader geographical area, is extremely significant in its fields. The Society gave its library to SOAS in 1974 on permanent deposit.  New material is added regularly as the Society publishes or purchases works in these fields.
  • Hardyman Madagascar Collection
    This unique personal collection was donated to the Library in 1991 by the late Rev. James and Marjorie Hardyman. Born in Madagascar and son of a missionary there, James Hardyman himself served as a missionary in the country until his retirement in 1973.  This astonishing collection of books and journals, built up over a lifetime from boyhood, focuses exclusively on Madagascar and is far wider and deeper than the Library’s own.  It covers a broad swathe of subjects in addition to church and mission history and in a variety of languages including more French and Malagasy than English – and some Welsh.  The collection is unparalleled worldwide and attracts visitors from Madagascar as well as the international scholarly community.  It complements and connects neatly with the SOAS Archives and Special Collections which holds the archive of Council for World Mission, for whom James Hardyman served as archivist during his retirement, weeding and preparing the archive for transfer to SOAS.
  • Onitsha Market Literature Collection
    This is a selection of about 140 Nigerian popular pamphlets from the 1960s.  They are part of a literary phenomenon that developed after the end of World War Two, coinciding with a spurt of literacy growth and increase in Nigerian-owned and operated printing presses along with other factors.  It ended with the Nigerian Civil War (the Biafran War).  The pamphlets were sold in the market in Onitsha in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, and mostly printed in and around the area.  They were written for and purchased by the increasing number of the literate and semi-literate population, were mostly in English, and ranged widely in scope.  Many were fiction (particularly relating to love and marriage), but the bulk dealt with factual subjects, mainly “self-help” and advice on dealing with the problems of life (economic and social).  The SOAS Collection is a fraction of what was published and there are similar collections held in other research libraries in the UK (e.g. British Library) and the United States.
  • Furniss Hausa Popular Literature Collection
    This collection of popular Hausa-language fiction, much of it written by women, was built up by Prof. Graham Furniss at SOAS and came to the Library in 2007 after he had finished using it for his research.  While individual items are flimsy and non-academic, the collection as a whole possesses immense research significance.
  • Gifford African Christianity Collection
    This collection of mainly English-language local publications on African (especially West African Christian sects) was built up by Prof. Paul Gifford at SOAS and presented to the Library on his retirement in 2009.  Again, individual publications may not be particularly significant or academic in themselves, but as a collection it possesses valuable research significance.  The collection is yet to be catalogued.
National responsibilities
  • SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group) (12)
    SCOLMA was founded in 1962, following the Hayter Report’s recommendations for the creation of inter-university committees to cover “library needs” in a co-ordinated manner and the allocation of resources both to the development of existing libraries serving the field and to new centres being established and building up new collections.  SCOLMA’s purpose was to provide a forum for librarians and others concerned with the provision of materials for African studies in libraries in the United Kingdom.  SOAS Library has always been a key member and the Africa Librarian has always served on its Committee, usually as one of the office-holders.

The SCOLMA Area Specialization Scheme (13) was initiated in 1966/67 as a cooperative scheme whereby certain member libraries assumed responsibility for obtaining publications from a particular country or group of countries or in a particular subject field.  SOAS Library has been unusual for the large number of countries for which it has taken responsibility, reflecting its own broad coverage:

  • North Africa and the Horn: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia (i.e. the whole, excluding Libya)
  • southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Madagascar
  • west Africa: Nigeria

SOAS also holds responsibility for African vernacular languages, reflecting its own unique collection.

  • MELCOM (Middle East Libraries Committee)
    A similar arrangement is in place for libraries with Middle Eastern collections.  SOAS Library holds responsibility for collecting publications on North Africa (excluding Egypt), in Arabic and other regional languages as well in French and English, in the humanities and the social sciences [see below: paragraph III.vi]

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The China and Inner Asia collection covers China (including Hong Kong & Macao), Taiwan, Mongolia, Eastern Siberia and East Asia in general.

It is the largest collection of materials on modern and contemporary China in the UK and is one of the most important China libraries in Europe.  The collection is a rich research resource for both individual and corporate users.  Consisting of some 200,000 volumes in total, the majority are written in Chinese; 20,000 pamphlets;  6,000 Japanese-Sinological works; a considerable amount of material on microform, including  local Chinese newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s in microform, some kept up to date; important missionary archives, and some 2,000 periodical and newspaper titles, over 500 of which are current Chinese titles; about 120 atlases.  The strengths of the collection include a law collection, statistical, economic, and provincial yearbooks, and a growing collection of e-resources.

It is a rich resource for modern and contemporary China studies and a solid working basis for the study of pre-modern China.  The collection covers vernacular languages; politics and government; foreign relations; anthropology and ethnic minorities; business, finance and economics; law; modern Chinese literature and language; military studies; overseas Chinese; press and media; women's studies and the Chinese Communist Party.

The collection is well-used by the UK and international research community, particularly for its historical collections such as the Chinese literature of the 1920s-1930s and its Republican periodicals.

The European Association of Chinese Studies (funded by the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation) provides annual travel grants for European researchers to visit libraries in Europe.  On average, three to four such researchers visit SOAS every year, and acknowledge SOAS Library in their resulting theses or publications.

Morrison Collection:

Assembled by Dr. Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the first Protestant missionary to China, in Guangzhou and Macao from 1807-1823 and important in the history of cultural contacts between China and the West.  He translated the Old and New Testaments into Chinese, compiled the first Chinese-English dictionary (published 1823) and a Chinese grammar.  The collection contains over 800 Chinese titles, mainly 17th and 18th-century Chinese blockprints.  Subjects include medicine, astronomy, Buddhism, Daoism and literature as well as history and philosophy.  This unique Chinese collection at SOAS has attracted scholars from all over the world especially on the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Robert Morrison’s arrival in China.  A recent publication, West, A.C., 1998, Catalogue of the Morrison Collection of Chinese books, London:  University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (funded by the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation) is now online and freely accessible  worldwide.

Marsden collection

These printed books and manuscripts were collected by the Orientalist and numismatist, William Marsden (1754-1836), who was involved in the East India Company and later held a post at the Admiralty.  The collection includes some Chinese books and unique old travel books related to China.  He translated Marco Polo into English.

Johnston Collection

The library of Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874-1938) was bequeathed to SOAS after his death.  He was a British administrator, first in Hong Kong (1898-1903) and then in Weihaiwei district, Shandong Province (1904-1918) and oversaw the District’s return to China in 1930.  He was English tutor to Puyi, last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1918-1925), and later joined SOAS as Professor of Chinese (1931-1937).

The collection comprises some 16,000 volumes, mostly in Chinese and English, with some in Japanese and Sanskrit.  It is rich in Buddhism and 1920s Chinese literature, including mountain chronicles.  Johnston was well-connected to those in high positions, including well-known authors.  His collection includes autographed editions of Hu Shi (1891-1962) a Nationalist diplomat, philosopher and scholar, the poet Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) and an album of paintings by Chen Shu (1612-1682) dedicated to Johnston.  This collection is considered to be one of the finest collections of Chinese and Far East books in the UK.

Pre-20th-century books and manuscripts

Books: c. 20,000 volumes of pre-modern Chinese books.  This includes over one thousand bound volumes of Ming dynasty edition (1368-1644) and over eighteen thousand volumes of Qing dynasty block-print editions (1644-1911).  Many of these titles are rare and provide a rich source of material for scholars and students studying Chinese literature, history, philosophy, law, medicine, popular beliefs including Buddhist and Taoist works, and institutions.

Manuscripts: include the Yongle dadian (Yongle encyclopaedia), the world’s largest known encyclopaedia - compiled between 1403 and 1408 during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) under the direction of the Yong le Emperor.  The work was in 11,095 volumes, covering all that had ever been written on the Confucian canon, history, philosophy, literature and the arts and sciences.  Most of it was burnt in the fire during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, with fewer than 400 volumes of the set surviving into modern times.  Many are in private collections outside China; SOAS has six volumes of the encyclopaedia.

Pre-1949 Chinese periodicals

Sixty pre-1949 Chinese journals and magazines published in China, most of them originals published in Shanghai and not held in any other libraries.  These capture the literature, culture, advertisements and politics of the time and many have colourful illustrations.

China coast newspapers, late 19th-early 20th century

Thirty China coast newspapers of the 19th and early 20th century published in London, Hong Kong and China relating to commercial and political relations between China and Europe.  They are invaluable primary sources of information about aspects of the politics, commerce and culture of times past and present, offering the researcher time-stamped facts, perceptions and reactions of the contemporary participants in historical events.  The articles, photographs, letters, advertisements, and obituaries of the daily and weekly press bring to light events rarely detailed in official sources.  They are objects of study in themselves, reflecting the views and biases of their respective editors and publishers, and casting a revealing light upon local, national, and international issues.

The newspapers are fragile and out of copyright – a resource highly suitable for digitization, thus making them internationally accessible via the web without fear of further damage.

Hong Kong collection

SOAS is the only library in the UK which actively collects material on Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong Government Office Library was donated to SOAS in 1997 after Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, and consists of c. 800 volumes of western books and periodicals on Hong Kong and 228,000 pages of newspaper cuttings on microfiche.

The newspapers cuttings are items selected from Hong Kong government information bulletins, proceedings of the British Parliament and the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, press releases and a wide range of Hong Kong and United Kingdom newspaper and periodical articles.  They date mainly from the 1970s and 1980s, with a few from the 1960s.

This collection covers the gaps in SOAS Library’s own Hong Kong Collection, and it reflects the history, politics, economics and the people of Hong Kong and the relations between China, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom which is an invaluable resource for researchers.

Modern China collection

The Hayter Report (1961) advocated modern studies in the fields of history, geography, law, economics and social studies and emphasised the concept of area studies.  Funds were made available to the Library to support research and teaching in these new areas.

The Contemporary China Institute was established in 1968 (and merged with SOAS Library in 1972) to support advanced research and training in modern Chinese studies, to promote publications, and to find a way of disseminating knowledge of contemporary China to a wide audience.  It included H. McAleavy’s library of mainly modern popular literature and material social life (donated in 1970).

When the library and archives of the old London Missionary Society (now the Council for World Mission) was deposited at SOAS in 1973, its extensive collection of old Western books on China, assembled by a medical missionary, William Lockhart, in the 19th century came with it.

During the 1980s, because of the increased demand in teaching and research, the Library set up a Chinese law collection which was heavily used by several law firms at a time when law materials were difficult to find elsewhere.

SOAS Library holds some 400 titles of Chinese yearbooks and annual statistical compendia covering provinces, cities, economic zones and individual industries as well as other economic and social developments.

The library also holds some 5,000 volumes of Japanese material on Chinese studies.


Chinese databases tend to be expensive.  SOAS Library subscribes to the China Academic Journals as part of a UK libraries consortium and has individual subscriptions to a number of other databases.

China Library Group & European Association of Sinological Librarian s (14)
The subject librarians for China are members of the China Library Group and the European Association of Sinological Librarians.
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The original collection was transferred to the newly founded School of Oriental Studies from the London Institution in 1917.  Quite soon the collections of B. Ponsonby-Fane and Sir Henry Partlett were added to the School.  Those are the origins of today’s collection.  The next major acquisition took place at the end of World War Two when books originally kept in Japanese embassies and consulates in London and Europe were transferred to the collection.

The collection benefited from the Scarborough Report (1947) stressing the importance of acquiring Chinese and Japanese language materials.  The Library was able to spend £4,000 on Japanese language materials between 1948 and 1950 and these form the core of the collection.

The collections have been widely supported by external donors in recent years:  Academy of Korean Studies, Japan Foundation, Kasumi Kaikan, Korea Foundation, Korean History Compilation Committee, Mitsui and Company Ltd., Toshiba International Foundation and many other organizations and individuals.


The Library holds some 100,000 items on Japan.  The collection is one of the largest and oldest in Europe and is particularly strong in pre-modern history and literature, religious studies, film studies, and Japanese linguistics.  The section has built up a collection of pre-Meiji (1868) woodblock prints and manuscripts.  Most of the 270 titles were donations from Lord Harlech and Mr. Frederick Anderson.  For details see:  Chibbett, D.G, Hickman, B. and Matsudaira, S., 1975, A descriptive catalogue of the pre-1868 Japanese books, manuscripts and prints in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies , London:  Oxford University Press.


The Library has collected some 40,000 items on Korea.  The collection is the largest in Europe, and is focused on history, literature, music, and Korean linguistics.  It includes materials from North Korea, which were difficult to acquire until recently.  Materials from North Korea were acquired through exchange with East European libraries between the 1970s and 1980s.  The Library has purchased selected North Korean materials to support research in SOAS in recent years.

Japan and Korea Library Groups

The subject librarian for Japan and Korea is a member of both the Japan Library Group (15) and the Korea Library Group.
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The legacy collections on South Asia reflect 19th and early/mid-20th century British involvement in the region, so material on the sub-continent is well represented,

SOAS Library has actively built up research collections relating to South Asia (covering present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka) and, to a lesser extent, on the South Asian diaspora.  These include publications on and from South Asia, in the languages and cultures, arts and humanities, and law and social sciences.

Current strengths

As well as continuing to collect a representative collection of material in the languages of the region, the large size and growth of the collections in English on South Asia is an indication of the regional context.  English is an important language in parts of South Asia, used in business, administration, publishing, education and in academic research.  Much of the academic research is conducted in English and there is a thriving English language publishing and bookselling trade.

Noteworthy is the large collection of original English-language literature (novels, short stories, poetry and dramatic works)) published in South Asia and among the diaspora communities, particularly South Asian diaspora writers in the UK, North America and Australasia.

The Library has especially strong collections of films from India, built up to support the growing interest, at both teaching and research level, by the South Asia Department and the Centre for Media and Film Studies

Substantial research collections have been developed in a range of South Asian languages, ancient and modern – beyond what is taught or researched at the School.   These include Sanskrit and Pali, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi, Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.

The Dey Bengali Book Fund is donation by Mr. & Mrs. Dey, on their retirement from SOAS  after many years (not based the Library) for the purchase of books in the Bengali language published in India.


The Library develops and maintains a range of material relating to the religions of South Asia, the sociology of religion and translations of religious texts.  Coverage  includes Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity in South Asia; also Buddhism in India, especially on the history of Buddhism and the Buddha.  Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and on Mahayana Buddhism in the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan.


The collection of South Asian law, including religious and customary law, is unrivalled in the UK and possibly worldwide.  SOAS has responsibility for South Asian law in the University of London.  The library collects all the India Law Reporter and individual law reports.  All legislation, court reports and official gazettes are collected for South Asia.

The following are extensively collected:

  • All India law reports
  • Bombay law reporter
  • Indian law reports
  • Pakistan legal decisions

Significant among a number of subscriptions, SOAS Library subscribes to the Bibliography of Asian Studies, a specialised bibliographic database that is a valuable tool for teaching and research.

Oral Archives

The Library‘s Archives and Special Collections carries some important oral material relating to British India and the Raj.  This consists of a collection of cassette copies and transcripts of 82 interviews on which the BBC series Plain Tales from the Raj was based.  The interviews were conducted in both Britain and India between 1972 and 1974.

The series was first broadcast in 1974.  The men and women interviewed, the majority of whom were British, describe their experiences of life and work in India from the closing years of the nineteenth century until Independence in 1947.

Further transcripts focus on the British in India Oral Archive Project.  There are cassette copies and transcripts of 77 interviews with both British and Indian subjects covering the pre- and post- Independence period.

There are also tapes and transcripts of interviews carried out in 1997 in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in preparation for a BBC World Service series on the Partition of India.  Most of the tapes are in English but some interviews were recorded in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Punjabi.

Fürer-Haimendorf Photographic Archive

The photographic archive of Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1909-1995), held in the Library’s Archives and Special Collections, includes photographs, cine-film and written materials.  Reflecting his fifty years of scholarship, the collection is widely recognised as the world's most comprehensive study and visual documentation of tribal cultures in South Asia and the Himalayas in the mid 20th century.  It is especially valuable because it documents these cultures before many changed rapidly with the advent of external civil administration after the mid-twentieth century.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the archive was selected by CeDAAME (the School’s new Centre for Digital Asia, Africa and the Middle East) for its first digitisation project, Fürer-Haimendorf Photographs Online.

South Asia Archive and Library Group (SAALG) (16)

The South Asia Library Group was formed in 1967 and changed its name in 2001 to South Asia Archive and Library Group to acknowledge the presence of a number of archivists amongst its members.  It consists of representatives of libraries, archives and other institutions in the United Kingdom with some degree of specialisation in South Asian Studies.

The aims of the Group concerned the acquisition and use of books, manuscripts and archival materials in the field of South Asian studies, co-operative bibliographical projects and other matters which can be served by common consultation.  The Group meets twice annually and the South Asia Librarian serves on the committee that organizes the two annual conferences.
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The legacy collections on South East Asia reflect 19th and early/mid-20th century British involvement in these regions, so material on the region is well represented,

From the early days as the School of Oriental Studies, SOAS Library has collected material relating to South East Asia in the arts and humanities and, increasingly over time, in the social sciences.  This included not only Burma/Myanmar, Malaya, Singapore and Borneo (where Britain had a direct interest) but also Siam/Thailand, the Netherlands East Indies/Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.  The collections also cover Aboriginal Australia, Maori New Zealand and the Pacific Islands)

In addition, the Library focuses on regional groupings (ASEAN, APEC, ASEM) and on historical and contemporary cross-boundary geo-political areas such as Indo-China (Annam, Tonkin, Cochin-China); Borneo; Malaya and the Straits Settlements; the Malay Archipelago; the Mekong Valley Region; the Dutch/Netherlands East Indies; and the South China Sea (including the Spratly Islands).

As well as continuing to collect a representative collection of material in the languages of the region, the large size and growth of the collections in English on South East Asia is an indication of the regional context.  English is an important language in parts of South East Asia, used in business, administration, publishing, education and in academic research.  Much of the academic research is conducted in English and there is a thriving English language publishing and bookselling trade.

Languages and literature

The holdings in and on the languages of the region are outstanding, as SOAS is one of the few academic/research libraries in the UK to collect.  The Thai literature collection is of particular significance and heavily used.  In addition, the Library is developing its collection of South East Asian literatures in English (mainly Singaporean, Malaysian and the Philippines) and the English literatures of diaspora communities.


The Library supports a growing collection of South East Asian films on DVD (particularly Thai, Indonesia, Malaysian, Vietnamese  and Singaporean film) with publications on films and the film industry; film scripts, and works by and about particular directors and actors.


The Library develops and maintains a range of material relating to the religions of South East Asia, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Animism and folk beliefs – and also the relationships between the different religious traditions within South East Asia.

The Library acquires material on religious and customary law (adat). This includes detailed coverage of Islamic law from a South East Asian perspective.

Australasia and the Pacific Islands

SOAS Library holds an important collection on Australian Aborigines and New Zealand Maori languages, anthropology and on land rights.  Material on the Pacific Island is strongest on linguistics and anthropology.

Vietnam Exchange Programme

SOAS Library had an exchange programme with the National Library of (North) Vietnam in Hanoi, and so holds an important collection of Vietnamese and English language material dating the 1960s and 1970s.

Marsden Collection

Relevant to the region but held in the Archives and Special Collections are some important Malay manuscripts, including the Light Letters, including several hundred Malay letters, primarily received by Captain Francis Light and his business partner, Captain James Scott, from rulers and dignitaries of the Malay Sultanates.  These Malay documents formed part of the collection of William Marsden, bequeathed to King's College London Library by William Marsden's widow in 1835 and 1837.  They were transferred from King's College London to SOAS Library shortly after the School’s foundation in 1916

Powell Collection

Ifor Ball Powell, was a Rockerfeller scholar who spent 3 years in the Philippines in the late 1920s and whose interest continued after his return to the UK.  As well as his papers (housed in the Archives and Special Collections), his sizeable library of Philippine publications has been incorporated into the South East Asia collection.

Burma Campaign Memorial Library

The Burma Campaign Memorial Library is a comprehensive collection of memoirs, histories, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, personal narratives, essays, letters, fiction and poetry about the war in Burma from 1942 to 1945.  The collection also contains historical information on Burma’s neighbouring countries, such as the Indian National Army, the Gurkhas, China-Burma-India Theatre and the Burma Road.

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG) (17)

The subject librarian for South East Asia is a member of the Southeast Asia Library Group.  Aware of the difficulty of obtaining material from South-East Asia in the late 1960s, the Group’s founders aimed to explore means of cooperation through sharing the services of staff travelling to South-East Asia for book-buying in the field, exchanging information on holdings and potential for loan or photocopy, and compiling union lists of periodicals and theses.
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The SOAS collections relating to the Middle East and Central Asia are unique in that while the British Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University have similar coverage, only SOAS Library keeps the bulk of its materials on open access and thus available to browse or borrow.

The Islamic Middle East covers a very wide area both geographically, stretching over three continents, and linguistically, with languages that are spoken from the western tip of north Africa to the farthest reaches of Siberia.

In broad terms the section comprises material on the Arab Middle East (including Egypt and areas formerly under Arab rule like Spain and Sicily) and Arabic; Iran and Iranian languages – ancient and modern (including ancient Persia and its religions); Turkey (including parts of the Balkans formerly under the Ottoman Empire) and Turkish; the Caucasus and Caucasian languages; and Afghanistan and the Republics of former Soviet Central Asia.  The division of Central Asia in SOAS Library between the Middle East and the China collections is based on the Turkic languages and peoples being in the former, and the Mongolian and Tibetan languages and peoples in the latter.  Materials in the collection are in all European languages as well as in the vernacular languages of the area.


The linguistic spread is extremely wide.  The one Semitic language, Arabic, comprises the bulk of the collection and includes works on all subjects with special emphasis on Islam, Arabic language and literature and Middle Eastern history.  There is a particular focus on works in Arabic from and about the countries of north Africa.

Iranian languages include more than seventeen ancient and modern languages, principally Modern Persian (Farsi), but also significant collections in and on Old Persian, Balochi, Kurdish and Pashto.

The Turkic languages collection includes Turkish (by far the largest) and also sixteen derived languages – most prominently Uzbek, Uighur (Uygur), Azeri and Kazakh.


The foundations of the collections on what was then called the Near and Middle East were laid in the old London Institution, which was taken over by the School at its inception.  The University of London Library and the libraries of two other colleges, University College and King’s College, transferred to the School their Oriental books in exchange for western-language material from the Institution’s collections, although Hebrew and Syriac were excluded.  Donations were also received from the British Library, the India Office Library and a number of private benefactors.

Marsden Collection

Foremost amongst these foundation collections was the library of the noted Orientalist, William Marsden, one of the founders of the Royal Asiatic Society and later its Treasurer and Vice-President.  After resigning from the post of First Secretary at the Admiralty in 1807, Marsden devoted his remaining life to his Orientalist studies and presented his printed books and manuscripts to King’s College in 1835, from where they were later transferred to the School.  This was the forerunner of a number of other valuable collections.

Major purchases
  • library of Martin Hartmann, a major figure in modern Islamic studies before World War One (1920)
  • collection of Sir Thomas Arnol, the first Professor of Arabic at the School (1930)
Significant donations
  • over 100 Persian manuscripts were received as part of a larger collection of Oriental manuscripts donated by Mr. R.C. Reid
  • a valuable library pf European  printed books dealing with Turkey and the Turks, known as the Auboyneau collection, came to the Library in 1949
  • Mr. C.J. Edmonds presented his excellent Kurdish collection in 1957
  • the library of Sir Norman Anderson, presented in 1976, strengthened the Islamic law collections as well as containing many other notable items, including personal papers
Manuscripts and rare books

The Library possesses over 200 Arabic manuscripts, some 400 Persian and 45 Turkish, and a few in Coptic and Ethiopic.  Some of these are especially rare and beautiful, the finest example being perhaps Husayn Va’iz Kashifi’s Anvar-i Suhayli which contains 27 exquisite Persian miniatures.  Other manuscripts are interesting for their illustrations and calligraphy, particularly some of the Qur’an, and for their history, such as the Persian Guide of Kings composed by Jeronimo Xavier, S.J., and addressed to the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, in 1609 A.D.

In addition, the Library was able to acquire microfilm copies of the remaining five books needed to complete its holdings of the limited editions from the press of that most fascinating printer, Ibrahim Muteferrika, a Hungarian by birth who fell into slavery but later became the founder of the very first Turkish press in Istanbul in 1729.

The personal bookplate of Ras Tafari (afterwards Emperor Haile Selassie I) is to be found on several early printed Ethiopian works.

Personal papers

In recent years the Library has been building up its collections of unpublished documents and records, in addition to individual manuscripts and such papers as came with original collections like those of William Marsden.  The extensive missionary records which have been received are concerned with areas other than the Middle East, but some personal papers should certainly be noted.

The Paget Collection comprises papers of William Paget, sixth Lord Paget, Ambassador Extraordinary to Turkey, 1693-1702 and 1705-06, and were deposited on permanent loan by the Marquess of Anglesey in 1964.

The papers of Lt.-Col. D.L.R. Lorimer (1876-1962) cover historical, geographical and particularly linguistic topics arising out of his career in India and  southern Persia.

Published catalogues

Forbes, L., 1968, Catalogue of printed books, 1500-1599, in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London:  SOAS.  This includes a short list of Arabic and Hebrew books printed before 1600.

Gacek, A., 1981, Catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London:  SOAS.

Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery (YS-IMG) Digitization Project (18)

This project, funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) and NEH (U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities) Transatlantic Digitisation Collaboration Grants, is a pilot to create an archive of and a gateway to Islamic manuscripts.  The materials selected comprise important manuscripts, related manuscript catalogues and language dictionaries held separately in their two library collections.  The intention is to make available in electronic format all the tools that the scholar requires to work on manuscripts.

The project aims to:

  • create an integrated se of full-text digital resources supporting manuscript research from manuscript catalogues and dictionaries, many of which exist only in printed form with publication dates from the 19th century;
  • augment existing digital collections of Arabic and Persian manuscripts by scanning, depositing and indexing selected Yale- and SOAS-held historical manuscripts;
  • develop an infrastructure to integrate manuscripts with related reference resources by building a suite of tools that will analyse digitized materials and  construct internal cross-references for connecting the materials in the archive.

Yale University Library possesses one of the world’s largest and richest academic libraries and is a world leader in digitising Arabic manuscripts.  SOAS Library, while much smaller, holds probably the biggest collection of its type specialising in the study of the whole of Asia, Africa and the Middle East with extensive collections of raw materials in both Western languages and the vernaculars of the areas of its interest.

National responsibilities

MELCOM (Middle East Libraries Committee) (19)

MELCOM was founded in 1967 at a time of expansion of Middle Eastern studies in Britain following the 1961 Hayter Report.  Resources were being allocated to the development of existing libraries serving the field and to new centres being established and building up new collections.  The Hayter Report itself had recommended the creation of inter-university committees to cover “library needs” in a co-ordinated manner, and MELCOM was the first such venture in the field of Orientalist librarianship.

The main function of MELCOM has always been to provide a forum for personal contact, discussion and exchange of information and ideas among Middle East library specialists and bibliographers in the UK.  The Middle East has been defined for this purpose as meaning the Arab world, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel (but excluding Hebraica and Judaica), Iran, Afghanistan and the Muslim and Turkic peoples of the former Soviet Union, in all cases since the rise of Islam.

The MELCOM Area Specialization Scheme deliberately followed the example of its sister group for African studies, SCOLMA, and allocated the collection of “lesser-used” materials to particular libraries.  Lesser-used materials were defined as specialised monographs on modern (post-1800) studies:  pamphlets, party political publications, newspapers and vernacular periodicals.  Although the scheme has gradually declined from its original aim, SOAS Library is one of eight nationwide which continue to maintain specialist acquisition programmes – SOAS collects publications on and from North Africa, including Libya but not Egypt, in the humanities and social sciences.
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The Ancient Near East, Semitics and Judaica section of the Library dates from the foundation of the School in 1917, the nucleus having been formed by transfers from University College and King’s College London.  The Semitic languages of Ethiopia were taught from the outset, and modern Hebrew entered the curriculum soon afterwards.  A chair, specifically in Ancient Semitic languages, was established in 1948, and another in Semitic languages as a whole, in 1961.  From this period, library acquisitions were governed by a more specific policy, and real efforts were made to develop the collections on a systematic basis.

The Hebrew language books comprise nearly half the section, the remainder being divided up between the other Semitic languages (excluding Arabic), and Western language books.

Ancient Near East

The Ancient Near East collections comprise books on the languages, literatures and cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and Israel.  Primary and secondary source material is acquired in these areas, being central to teaching and research at SOAS.  In 1970, these collections were considerably enhanced by the bequest of the library of Professor C.J. Gadd, making them one of the best in the United Kingdom.  SOAS also holds extensive journal runs in this area.  In addition to the Akkadian, Sumerian, and ancient Anatolian languages, there are good collections in other languages of the Ancient Near East, such as Ugaritic, Aramaic and Syriac.  The texts and translations of the Syriac section are an excellent support for the study of Eastern Christianity.  There are smaller but good working collections on ancient Egypt, Egyptian, Coptic and the Byzantine Empire.

Semitics and Judaica
  • Israel-Palestine studies (in Western languages)
    This collection comprises material on the history, culture, politics and society of Israel/Palestine from ancient times to the present and supports the teaching and research needs of SOAS.  Examples are the 39 volume series, The rise of Israel , which includes facsimiles of 1000s of source documents covering the history and politics of this area, and various law reports, such as the Laws of the State of Israel , and ordinances of the mandatory government of Palestine.  Much valuable information is to be found in several yearbooks and various statistical abstracts.  Also of special interest is:  Fuller, T., 1650, A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the confines thereof: with the history of the Old and New Testament acted thereon, London:  Printed by J.F. for John Williams at the signe of the Crown in Pauls Church-Yard - the SOAS copy of which has marginal notes by the well known poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
  • Hebrew languages
    This collection comprises books on Jewish history and Judaism, and all aspects of Israel/Palestine studies.  It has been considerably enhanced through a systematic collection development policy and a number of donations.  Many specialist publications of Hebrew linguistics have been acquired over the years, as well as works on society, politics, demography and religion.  Notable are the complete facsimile edition of the Sassoon manuscript of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah , and facsimiles of some noted Haggadot , such as the Sarajevo Haggadah .
  • Modern Hebrew literature
    The modern Hebrew literature collection is central to the teaching and research interests of SOAS and recognised as one of the best in the United Kingdom and Europe.  In January 1986, the Library was fortunate to be able to acquire many items from Dr Meir Gertner’s collection in Hebrew and Jewish studies.  Dr Gertner, who had been a lecturer at SOAS from 1957 to 1972, was a prolific writer, whose articles were published in many Jewish journals and periodicals of Middle Eastern interest.  Over the years, there has been ongoing liaison with the Jewish Studies librarians at University College London, to discuss matters of mutual interest, and to avoid duplication in some areas.
  • Yiddish  language bequests
    The Yiddish collection covers the areas of Judaism, Jewish culture, politics, sociology, history, language and literature.  The bulk of this collection, acquired mainly in 1983, is made up of the bequests of the Stencl, Leftwich and Whitechapel Yiddish material, which makes it one of the major Yiddish collections in the United Kingdom, especially in the areas of Yiddish language and literature.  The Yiddish language material constitutes a key support to the teaching and research of modern Hebrew language and literature, the study and understanding of which cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of Yiddish.  Many standard 19th and 20th century Hebrew writers also wrote in, and spoke Yiddish.
  • Stencl Collection
    Avrom Stencl was a noted Yiddish poet well known in Berlin literary circles in the 1920s and 1930s, who lived in London’s East End from 1936 until the time of his death in 1983.  The Stencl collection comprises about 2500 items of 19th and 20th century Yiddish and Hebrew literature, a number of periodical runs (notably Stencl’s Loshn un lebn which he edited for over forty years) and invaluable archival material, which consists of Stencl’s correspondence with many noted Jewish writers, cuttings from Yiddish newspapers, manuscripts of other Yiddish works, and a collection of Stencl’s own manuscripts and proof-sheets of articles.  Were it not for the timely intervention of some concerned individuals, it is likely that the entire collection would have been disposed of by the local council.
  • Jewish studies in Western languages
    This collection has been developed primarily as a support for teaching courses at SOAS.  It has grown particularly over the last 30 years in response to expansion in teaching in the area of Judaism and Jewish music.
  • Ethiopian Semitic languages
    This collection comprises chiefly the classical language known as Ge’ez (or Ethiopic), used traditionally by the Ethiopian Church, and modern dialects based on it, particularly Amharic and Tigrinya.  The collection covers mainly religion, language, literature and history and contains some relatively rare items, especially in Amharic. The collection supports the teaching and research needs of SOAS and beyond as the only other library in the United Kingdom with a comparable collection is the British Library. The Ge’ez material includes source texts and translations for the study of Ethiopian Christianity, part of the areas of the study of Eastern Christianity at SOAS.
Hebraica Library Group (20)

The subject librarian for Semitics and Judaica is a member of the Hebraica Library Group
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(12) Scolma [viewed 21 April 2010]
(13) Scolma [viewed 21 April 2010]
(14) European Association of Sinological Librarians [viewed 21 April 2010]
(15) The Japan Library Group [viewed 21 April 2010]
(16) South Asia Archive & Library Group [viewed 21 April 2010]
(17) The Southeast Asia Library Group [viewed 21 April 2010]
(18) Information taken from: Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery (YS-IMG) Project [viewed 21 April 2010]
(19) MELColm UK [viewed 21 April 2010]
( 20) Hebraica Libraries Group [viewed 21 April 2010]

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