Skip to Main Content

Middle East and Islamic Studies Library Resources

A guide designed for graduate students and researchers.

Finding Islamicate Manuscripts at Houghton Library.

Finding Islamicate Manuscripts at Houghton Library

Houghton Library has hundreds of manuscripts from the Middle East. These manuscripts span from the 10th to 20th centuries, although the majority are from the 19th century. Arabic is the best represented language, with additional holdings in Persian and Turkish. They span subject areas from religion to science to poetry, and include a variety of binding styles, scripts, and visual features. In addition to complete codices, there are many documents and fragments. Many of these manuscripts are digitized and available to browse via the Islamic Heritage Project digital collection.

Harvard University has been acquiring Middle Eastern manuscripts since the late 19th century. Many materials now at Houghton were collected by the Semitic Museum (now the Museum of the Ancient Near East), where the manuscripts were housed before being deposited at Houghton in the late 1950s. Other Houghton manuscripts were acquired via purchase, gift, or transfer from the Middle Eastern Division at Widener Library. In some cases, the HOLLIS record will include acquisition and/or provenance notes; in others, provenance information will be present on the item itself (in the form of bookplates or annotations), or the provenance is unknown.


To search for Islamicate manuscripts at Houghton in HOLLIS:

  • Go to Advanced Search and select “Library Catalog”

  • Under Scope, select Houghton

  • Under Resource Type, select “Archives/Manuscripts”

  • Add any desired search terms and limiters, such as date ranges, languages, or creators

  • If you only want to search for digitized manuscripts, you can narrow your results page using the “Show only” filter on the right side of the page to select “Online”

Keep in mind that catalog records vary in how exhaustively they describe items beyond the basics of title and creator, so your search may not find every potentially relevant item. You may also want to consult tips on Romanization/transliteration.


If you’re more interested in browsing what we have rather than searching for specific manuscripts, you have a couple of ways to browse the collections. The first is the Islamic Heritage Project digital collection, which brings together about 500 manuscripts from Houghton with other material across Harvard Library. All of these are fully digitized for easy browsing, but a significant percentage of Islamicate manuscripts at Houghton are not part of this collection. 

The search strategies in the guide to using early manuscripts at Houghton can help you build a fairly broad, exploratory HOLLIS search. These tips can help you search for, for example, manuscripts from a particular century or on a broad topic.

For a more complete browse, you can search by call number. Houghton organizes most of its manuscripts by language or country. For example, a manuscript in Arabic will usually have the call number MS Arab followed by a number. If you want to browse all the manuscripts in this call number range, you can:

  • In HOLLIS, go to Starts With/Browse

  • Select “Call number - Other” in the drop down menu

  • Type MS Arab

This will bring up all manuscripts with the MS Arab classification in order of acquisition. There are teal arrows in the bottom right corner to navigate to subsequent pages. You can do similar searches for any call number range–the most relevant here will be MS Persian or MS Turk.

However, while most manuscripts are classified by language, not all are. The most significant group of Islamicate manuscripts not organized by language will be found in MS Typ, the designation for manuscripts acquired by the Printing and Graphic Arts curatorial department. For this reason, do not consider the lists of manuscripts you find by browsing exhaustive - if you want to find something particular, you need to search for it rather than browse.

Additional information

There are uncataloged manuscripts in the collection, and some manuscripts are cataloged very minimally, without some of the information you would ideally want to be able to search like dates or physical features. There is a handlist of Arabic manuscripts at Houghton available online, which covers the portion of the collection transferred to Houghton from the Museum of the Ancient Near East. Many of the manuscripts on this list are cataloged, but a significant number are not, so you may find this to be a helpful resource in addition to HOLLIS.

You are welcome to contact Houghton Library for more information about our collections and help finding material. We may have additional internal resources to help with your search.