Collaboration in Cataloging: Islamic Manuscripts at Michigan

In December 2008, the Library was awarded a CLIR-sponsored, Mellon-funded “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” grant to support the cataloguing of its Islamic Manuscripts Collection. Our four-year project, "Collaboration in Cataloging: Islamic Manuscripts at Michigan", endeavored to engage established and emerging scholars by involving them in the cataloguing process - training, examination, description, and generation of searchable metadata - for the collection of roughly 1,100 manuscript codices dating from the 8th to the 20th century CE and carrying texts in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish. 

With over half of the contents dating from before 1800, the collection contains historical manuscripts of rich textual significance, many of which are quite exceptional in their fine calligraphy, illumination and bindings, and ranks among the largest and most important such collections in North America. The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired via purchase in the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with the Abdul Hamid and Tiflis manuscripts in 1924, the Yahuda manuscripts in 1926, and the Tracy W. McGregor manuscripts in 1933-34. The purchase of the Abdul Hamid, Tiflis, and Yahuda manuscripts was orchestrated by the University of Michigan’s Francis W. Kelsey (1858-1927) with funds provided (initially anonymously) by Horace H. Rackam (1858-1933). The manuscripts of the Walter Koelz, Nuttall, Stephen Spaulding, Horace Miner, Heyworth-Dunne, Sulaiman, and Frank Schulte Collections were acquired separately, by purchase or donation (even from other departments within the University), mainly during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Still other manuscript purchases have been made in subsequent years with collecting activity ongoing. Subjects covered by manuscript texts include the Qur’an and sciences (exegesis, readings, recitation, etc.), collections and studies in the science of ḥadīth, and works of theology, jurisprudence, Sufism, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, philology, poetry, belles-lettres, history and geography. The collection offers a vast range of raw material for philologists and historians of various disciplines, including Islamic social history, knowledge transmission and acquisition, manuscript production and ownership, and the arts of the book.

To support the cataloging effort, a project website was created to provide unified access to bibliographic records and digital surrogates for the digitized manuscripts; to facilitate the gathering of informative and insightful commentary from scholars on campus, across the country, and around the world; and to expose in real time the dynamic enrichment of bibliographic information as project staff and scholars interact with the system. Built on an open source platform, the website was fully integrated with the Library’s central bibliographic information system (Mirlyn) and with HathiTrust, a shared digital repository that provides persistent, high-availability storage for digitized book and journal content from the collections of the University of Michigan and other partnering research institutions and libraries. This interoperability enabled the automated, real-time transfer of bibliographic information and page images to the website and made possible the most innovative aspects of our project, including the iterative enrichment of catalog records as project staff on campus and colleagues from around the world worked together in a distributed, real-time environment. By making digital surrogates and preliminary metadata for our collection of Islamic manuscripts available to the widest possible community, inviting scholarly commentary in the form of amplification, clarification, and correction, and incorporating those contributions into the cataloging process, we aimed to create and make the best possible use of an aggregate of expertise uniquely positioned to help overcome the challenges inherent in traditional manuscript cataloging.

Project staff included Jonathan Rodgers (Principal Investigator), Martha O'Hara Conway (Project Manager), Evyn Kropf (Project Cataloger) and Peggy Daub, Nancy Moussa, Jon Rothman, and Ken Varnum. The grant funds have been used to support the website development and work of project cataloger and graduate students for the duration of the project. 

The project concluded successfully in early 2013 with 883 new catalogue records created in the course of the project, representing 1447 titles in 877 volumes, 2 rolls, and 3 single leaves. Another 21 manuscript descriptions were significantly enhanced. While in the end most of the cataloguing was done by the project cataloger, we are grateful to all who contributed remotely and locally, especially our local project staff who worked on manuscripts not yet digitized. As a result, the entire collection is thus fully catalogued with detailed, searchable descriptions for each manuscript appearing in the online Library catalogue. Further, descriptions and complete digital surrogates for 1029 manuscripts from the collection appear in the online catalogue of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

As an outcome of the project, a collection research guide was created with details on the collection history, size, and scope, as well as strategies for locating manuscripts of interest, instructions for viewing manuscripts in the Library, and advice on locating, viewing and downloading digitized manuscripts.

In addition, an evolving research guide on Islamic Manuscript Studies was created with more general advice on identifying and locating manuscripts, an introduction to palaeography and manuscript description, bibliographical resources and reading lists, as well as listings of digitized manuscripts and online catalogues with links and descriptions, a selection of the largest collections of Islamic manuscripts held in North America having some sort of web presence, and links to other relevant research guides and associations, institutes and research initiatives.

In the Press

>> An article about the project at (July 27 2009).
>> Collaboration in Cataloguing: Islamic Manuscripts at Michigan by Evyn Kropf and Jonathan Rodgers, University of Michigan. MELA Notes, no. 82 (2009) pp. 17-29.
>> An article about the project in Montage, an online magazine showcasing collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the arts at the University of Michigan (January 21 2011). 
>> A mention of the project in Karen Smith-Yoshimura and Rose Holley's Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Part 3: Recommendations and Readings (Dublin, Ohio: OCLC, 2012), p.16.

>> A case study on the crowdsourcing aspect of the project: "Collaboration in Cataloging: Sourcing Knowledge From Near and Far for a Challenging Collection" by Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan. In Description: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections, Ed. Kate Theimer (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014): 99-114.

Page maintained by Evyn Kropf
Last modified: 04/01/2015