The Esplin Arabic Manuscript Projects: The History and the Future

December 6, 2019

In 1973, David Esplin, then associate chief librarian of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, purchased from Sulaiman’s Book Shop in Beirut, Lebanon, a collection of almost 1,200 manuscripts. These texts were primarily in Arabic and from the 19th century, although some go back as far as the 17th. This collection, in its astounding number of texts, covers topics such as Islamic history, Islamic law, theology, tafsir (Qur’anic commentaries), biographies of prominent Muslim figures, collections of hadith (sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad), as well as a variety of other topics, which will be broken down later. Purchased 46 years ago, this collection has unfortunately never seen much light or use from students and researchers as it has been widely under-publicized and developed. This is not due to any disrespect towards the collection itself but rather to the woeful lack of both resources as well as a certain degree of diversity. This, thankfully, is changing. As the city, and the University, become increasingly diverse, this collection provides an immense opportunity to diversify, expand, and celebrate our library collections, our research capabilities, our stance among community partners and ultimately propel Toronto further into a heightened role in the field of Islamic studies, as a hub for research, and as a center for rich cultural representation and celebration.

Figure 1. A page from one of the over 1,200 manuscripts.

This collection highlights two distinct, yet inexorably combined, opportunities for the U of T. First, there is the obvious research benefit which a collection like this provides. Second, and excitingly for the IIS, this collection also brings with it an immensely powerful cultural and historical potential for the study of Islam and Muslim societies at U of T, as well as throughout the city. I spoke to a number of people in the University of Toronto community – from the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, from Metadata Services, and from the Institute of Islamic Studies – about the importance and uniqueness of this collection, and what it means for the University on a number of different registers. In this brief article, I hope to explore the history of this collection and hopefully shine a light on the academic and symbolic significance of the ‘Esplin collection’.

The collection is officially broken down into the following categories:

  • Islamic law, Islamic theology, and Qur’anic commentaries (500 texts)
  • Islamic and Arab history (100 texts)
  • Arabic language, grammar, and literature (100 texts)
  • Islamic sects and biographies of Muslim figures (100 texts)

The remainder of texts cover a litany of topics including philosophy, Islamic mysticism, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The collection is believed to have come from a madrasa (school/educational institution), with roughly 300 of its titles believed to have never been published. Due to the rareness of many of these texts, as well as a lack of language skills in the library setting here at the University, this collection remained rather opaque for quite a while. Loryl MacDonald, the Associate Chief Librarian for Special Collections and the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, explained that “we never quite knew what it was for a good 40 years,” though its presence remained a constant point of interest and intrigue for her and others at the Library. Due to perhaps a lack of academic interest, as well as the lack of language skills in Arabic (among other Middle Eastern languages) among library staff, this collection and this type of literature overall hasn’t been fully emphasized or prioritized historically in the library’s collections and development. As Pearce Carefoote, the Head of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, shared, there has historically been “a lacuna in the collections” when it comes to collections in areas of fields of interest for students and scholars of Islam. The prospect of systematically cataloguing and thereby sharing globally a collection like this both signals and elevates research capabilities and opportunities in this field of study. It “signals to the wider community that you can do research in Islamic studies here and we can be a hub for that,” says Moska Rokay, IIS Digital Humanities Research Fellow. She goes on to emphasize how this collection, and others like it, can not only help support researchers currently at the University of Toronto, but it also invites others to come – highlighting the U of T as a hub for Islamic studies. So what does the future of this collection look like? What does cataloguing and caring for these books entail? And what does that physical care represent for research purposes and beyond?

Figure 2. An example of an annotated page with multiple contributors.

Since acquiring the collection, these texts have mainly been stored and cared for in the lower levels of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, with limited progress being made in terms of cataloguing and advancing the collection. However, 500 of the manuscripts have been digitized and are available online. This raises an important question about working with collections like these; what are the comparative advantages and costs of digitization, as opposed to cataloguing and caring for the physical manuscript?

In terms of digitizing the collection, there is the obvious benefit of democratizing the content found within it, extending its research opportunities to scholars worldwide. However, as Carefoote also points out, there is an element of preservation to the digitizing of this collection; “if there is a digital surrogate… it also means it isn’t necessary to have as much wear and tear on the artifact itself”. The risk of damaging the physical copy is mitigated by access to digital copies, allowing these texts to remain in their best condition. Digitizing the collection contains an incredible amount of value, yet this also brings up an important discussion; that is, the value of the physical, the tangible. While digitizing a collection such as this is clearly of paramount importance, the physical copy promises immense research potential, and presents cultural and historical value that cannot be understated.

Figure 3. A heavily annotated manuscript, showcasing the complexities of digitizing certain texts.

To appreciate the value of preserving and studying the physical copy, we must shift our understanding of texts like these from being simply carriers of textual knowledge to being in themselves historical artifacts brimming with significance. Through this approach, an entire new realm of study opens up, whereby these texts are examined for their abundant extra-textual details. The material nature of the book can “tell you a lot about the society in which the book was actually created,” says MacDonald. Texts can contain specific styles of binding, specific types of ink, a variety of stains and markings; all of these provide a wealth of historical context not available in digital copies. Rokay reiterated this point, saying that “the original has certain contexts… different meanings and interpretations that you would be missing from a digitized version. The content is one thing… [but] finding meaning in the entire thing” is crucial. These physical details contain worlds of information yet add greatly to the challenge of cataloguing. I sat down with Blair Kurtz – the principal cataloguer for Arabic and Middle Eastern sources – as well as May Chan – the Head of Metadata Services – to talk about what cataloguing this collection to rare book standards entails. They helped dispel the idea that cataloguing is just ‘data entry’, emphasizing that it is a much more intellectual endeavour than many people even within the field of library studies understand. Cataloguing is really “a craft”, as Chan made clear. Carefoote added to this discussion, mentioning some of the key aspects of cataloguing; when examining texts like these, a major facet of what cataloguers are looking for are “ marks of provenance… that could be the name of a scribe involved in the writing, it could be the name of any of the previous owners of the manuscript… autographs, annotations… bindings”. This is a fundamental aspect of cataloguing, which requires historical analysis, language experience, and even detailed scientific examination. Chan emphasized a strong desire of signalling to the academic community, through developing more staff for this kind of work, that this truly is a vibrant and integral part of the academic/intellectual enterprise.

Figure 4. A detailed leather binding of a manuscript.

And finally, we come to what is perhaps the most significant aspect of what this collection (and others like it) represents to a university and a city like ours; what Rokay terms the “community value”. Yes, this collection provides a wealth of research opportunities, but it also provides an opportunity to dramatically shift the scope and focus of our academic and cultural environment on a very foundational level. This ‘community value’ revolves around the impact of greater visibility and representation a collection such as this represents for communities. Rokay described this sentiment aptly; “how much of a representative picture can the researcher make if the community doesn’t see themselves represented?”. While not all research in the field of Islamic studies must focus on the lived experiences of contemporary Muslims, the visibility and representation that flourish through developing collections such as this carries a deep significance, not only to those of us at the U of T but also to the diverse range of communities spread across the GTA. The collection signals not only to current researchers but also to Muslim students, that the U of T is a place where Islamic studies thrive. It is a fundamental reimagining of the intellectual landscape which makes room for communities to see themselves represented where they once were not. This demonstrates, as MacDonald says, that “we live in a diverse society… that there isn’t only the Western canon or Western thought when we think of humanities knowledge”. As the city and the U of T continue to grow and are made up of increasingly diverse communities and fields of study, it is essential that we signify that our libraries and institution are “not only stewarding the culture of the West… [because] the story of humanity and culture isn’t just simply a Western story, and we can often forget that”. Moving forward with highlighting and celebrating this collection is an admission that there has in fact been a lacuna, that we are pointedly moving away from that, and instead adopting a more inclusive, diverse, and ultimately representative academic, professional, and cultural approach.

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, partnered with the Institute of Islamic Studies, is committed to cataloguing the full Esplin collection, as well as digitizing the remainder of texts. In addition to this, they are welcoming a new staff member dedicated to Middle Eastern languages to catalogue this collection. A new member of staff, trained in rare book cataloguing and with language experience, does more than just advance this specific collection; it “opens up a whole new world for us in terms of acquiring new materials and making them accessible,” says MacDonald, regarding the growth made possible by new staff. Having the physical and staff resources to work on rare manuscripts opens up room to explore other collections as well. Ultimately, showcasing and advancing this collection could be the first step towards a paradigmatic shift in what we deem valuable as an institution and how we represent and celebrate, the complexities and diversity of our communities and our academic pursuits at the University of Toronto – turning Toronto into a thriving new centre for not just Islamic studies, but an array of fields and narratives which have historically been under-emphasized.