Transforming Rare and Endangered Ismaili Texts Into Accessible Digital Resources: Projects at British Library and Princeton University Library

Prepared and compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

This is the first in a two-part series on projects that are underway to preserve and digitize Ismaili texts that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. We begin the short series with initiatives undertaken by Endangered Archives Programme with respect to rare Ismaili and other Central Asian texts at Semyonov’s Memorial Library in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where the material is “becoming progressively worse because of inadequate care.”

Our second part will focus on documents from Badakhshan in Tajikistan and Afghanistan dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries that relate to Ismaili Imams, Nasir Khusraw and others, as well as property documents. They are being digitized through a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, with the support of Princeton University Library.

Endangered Archives Programme: Preserving Endangered Archives on Ismailism and Central Asian Cultural Heritage at Semyonov’s Library in Tajikistan

NOTE: The material published in this post is taken from the website of Endangered Archives Programme. We would like to credit the British Library Board for the copyright material; it is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

The Endangered Archives Programme captures forgotten and still not written histories, often suppressed or marginalised. It gives voice to the voiceless: it opens a dialogue with global humanity’s multiple pasts. It is a library of history still waiting to be written. — Lisbet Rausing, Co-founder of the Programme


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and gives access to the world’s most comprehensive research collection. It provides information services to academic, business, research and scientific communities. The Library has a collection of over 170 million items includes artefacts from every age of written civilisation. The Library keeps the nation’s archive of printed and digital publications, adding around three million new items to its collection every year.

The British Library administers the Endangered Archive Program (EAP), whose key objective since 2004 has been to facilitate the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration, and make it available to as wide an audience as possible. The British Library is responsible for managing and monitoring the research grant scheme, and ensuring the material digitised through the programme is consistently catalogued and discoverable online.

Archive types digitised so far through EAP include rare printed sources, manuscripts, visual materials, audio recordings running into more than 10 million images as well as 35,000 sound tracks. The continually expanding online collection is available freely through local archival partners, the EAP website and it is discoverable via the British Library catalogue, for research, inspiration and enjoyment. Generous funding from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, has enabled the British Library to provide grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries worldwide, in over 100 languages and scripts.

One such very important project relates to the preservation of rare collection of materials on the Ismailis at Semyonov’s Memorial Library in Tajikistan.


While travelling across Near East and Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Professor Semyonov and other Russian Oriental scholars collected valuable materials about the history and culture of the Ismaili people and, therefore, made a significant contribution to the study of Islamic philosophy, theology, and anthropology. The Ismaili people were not well known to many researchers and wider audiences and continue to be often misunderstood both in terms of their religious tenets and historical background.

Semyonov’s Library has not received sufficient funding to modernize its facilities….A large number of materials are in exceptionally vulnerable conditions and in danger of perishing if not digitised and properly cared for

The rare collections at Semyonov’s Memorial Library, which has been operating since 1958, sheds light on the rich culture and history of the Ismaili people, including their early stages of development in the pre-industrial periods, and provides invaluable materials for scholars and students of Ismailism, Islam, and Muslim cultures.

Physical conditions of the materials differ according to their age but overall, the physical condition of the whole collection of Semyonov’s Library is becoming progressively worse because of inadequate care.

Since the independence of Tajikistan from the Soviet Union in 1991, Semyonov’s Library has not received sufficient funding to modernize its facilities (e.g. to change window frames to prevent accumulation of dust and dirt inside the building). Manuscript cleaning and treatment technologies are outdated. None of the materials at the library have been properly digitised; the staff scanned some materials using regular office scanners, but the scanned copies are of poor quality. Moreover, some manuscripts have been badly eaten by insects and are damaged around the edges because the library cannot afford to buy special insect repellents.

In addition to insufficient government funding, less attention was paid to the rare collections at Semyonov’s Library by donor agencies despite the fact that the collections are an important cultural, historical, and intellectual heritage. Manuscripts located at the library are mainly from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Newsletters, periodicals, and other publications are from the early 20th century. A large number of materials are in exceptionally vulnerable conditions and in danger of perishing if not digitised and properly cared for.

In 2014, a grant was given to Dr Sunatullo Jonboboev to investigate the potential to digitise the endangered archives at Semyonov’s Memorial Library for a future major project. This was in alignment with the University of Central Asia’s mission to help the different peoples of Central Asia to preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future.


An outcome of this project was that the University of Central Asia and Semyonov’s Memorial Library within the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan, signed an agreement to work together to preserve the endangered archives of the library.

Over the course of the project, the team developed an electronic catalogue for the library, which comprises of 8611 library holdings — valuable books, manuscripts, guides, dictionaries, encyclopaedias on Central Asian cultures and languages, articles and monographs. From the total holdings of the library, 396 books are in Arabic and Persian; 112 manuscripts; 284 lithograph; 413 books in English; French and German. The holdings in Russian, 7802 items, have been also catalogued, which consist of 6021 reference books, dictionaries and brochures; and 1781 journals. The team also organised the library’s holdings, re-shelving, labelling, cleaning and in addition partly repaired 2170 books.

It has become possible, for the first time, to develop an electronic catalogue for the full collection of the library, many of which are rare and valuable books and manuscripts, due to the support of the project. The catalogue is divided into three separate catalogues: in Russian, Persian and English. The links to the PDF catalogue files are provided below:

(1) Catalogue translated from Persian and Tajik (PDF document 613KB); and

(2) Russian catalogue (PDF document 7,871KB)

Date posted: September 14, 2021.


Next: Badakhshan Collection, Princeton University Library.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

One thought on “Transforming Rare and Endangered Ismaili Texts Into Accessible Digital Resources: Projects at British Library and Princeton University Library

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s