Islamic Heritage Project

Scope and Content

Harvard’s Islamic Heritage Project (IHP) is a digital collection that includes over 280 manuscripts, more than 50 maps, and more than 275 printed texts from Harvard’s renowned library and museum collections. Through the IHP, these materials are freely available to Internet users worldwide.

Totaling over 156,000 pages, IHP materials date from the 10th to the 20th centuries CE, and represent many:

  • regions, including Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and South, Southeast, and Central Asia;
  • languages, primarily Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish; also Urdu, Chagatai, Malay, Gujarati, Indic languages, and several Western languages; and
  • subjects, including religious texts and commentaries; Sufism; history, geography, law, and the sciences (astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine); poetry and literature; rhetoric, logic, and philosophy; calligraphy, dictionaries and grammar, as well as biographies and autobiographical works.

Additional materials may be added to the IHP over time.

Mission and Purpose

The IHP expresses the missions of its two coordinating partners.

IHP was organized to maximize the number of digital objects and to

  • protect and steward historical source materials;
  • produce digital objects and cataloging (metadata) records that are open, persistent, and useful; and
  • leverage existing infrastructure for staffing, systems, and services.

Physical Holdings

Harvard’s rich holdings of Islamic materials are distributed among several libraries, as well as the Harvard Art Museum/Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Houghton Library alone holds over 1,200 volumes of Islamic manuscripts representing 2,000 works, and Widener Library’s Middle Eastern Collection includes hundreds of thousands of published works.

As physical holdings were selected for the IHP, special collections conservators in the Weissman Preservation Center confirmed that candidate items were complete and of suitable condition for cataloging and photography—or amenable to treatment within the project timeline.


Selections in the Aggregate

Materials included in the Islamic Heritage Project are meant to increase the availability and use of Harvard’s historical resources for teaching and research. This collection does not, however, aggregate everything available at Harvard on a broad topic.


Languages and scripts also served as a selection criterion, particularly when pre-existing descriptions were sparse and faculty needed to be consulted to evaluate individual items.


Chronologically, most IHP manuscripts date from the 16th to 19th centuries CE. They originate in the Middle East, Turkey, India, Central Asia, and North Africa. Some are earlier, including a collection of poems of al-Muʼizzi, dated 1156 CE. The personal correspondence of a Young Turk with various like-minded intellectuals in Geneva dates from 1900 and 1901.

Taken together, the IHP manuscripts constitute a record of the diverse artistic traditions, literary cultures, learning traditions, and religious interpretations of the pre-modern Islamic world.

IHP manuscripts adhere to one or more of the following criteria:

  • manuscripts supporting research in a given genre or academic field that would not have otherwise been represented in the project;
  • rare or inaccessible items not previously published or available only through rare, obscure, or unreliable prints, or prints otherwise difficult to locate or use;
  • autograph copies or copies from the autograph;
  • early copies from an author’s lifetime or shortly thereafter;
  • copies of interesting provenance;
  • annotated copies;
  • copies of artistic value, including items with miniatures or other illustrations, illuminations, exceptional calligraphy, or bindings.

Published Materials

For printed materials, IHP staff took selected public-domain titles with high research values from the Middle Eastern Collection in Widener Library that had not been digitized through the Harvard–Google project. See Non-Duplication below. A number of these titles were large-format items, and many were in poor condition.

Rare works of Islamic law from the Harvard Law School Library are represented within this category, as are nearly 50 titles from Houghton Library, including Ismaili literature on microfilm, for a project total of more than 300 volumes and nearly 87,000 pages.

In addition, IHP features digitized versions of fairly common books that are available in multiple prints. Already being used in Harvard classes, these texts of the Islamic literary tradition may now be made available for study to faculty and students everywhere.


IHP currently includes 58 maps (70 sheets) selected from the Harvard Map Collection. Maps were chosen for their rarity, research value, condition, and regional distribution in relation to other IHP materials and texts.

Selected IHP maps that are amenable to geo-referencing will be delivered through the Harvard Geospatial Library (HGL). HGL provides tools that enable users to view high-quality digital images of historic maps, and to overlay these with data layers encoded by longitude and latitude that enable users to view evidence of changes to regions over time.



Materials digitized for the Islamic Heritage Project are limited to those in the public domain.


In selecting materials for the Islamic Heritage Project, the Open Collections Program has avoided materials that are available in digital form elsewhere.

Photographs, Works of Art, Microfilm

Photographs and works of art were deemed out of scope. Microfilm was selected only in a few cases.

Related Links

Consult the Related Links page for a selection of web sites intended for use by researchers, teachers, students, and others interested in exploring digitized collections of Islamic materials.

Digitization Standards and Practices

Catalog Records

IHP cataloging and descriptive metadata practices ensure openness at the broadest level—not only for searching and browsing within the project web site, but also to promote discovery of individual items in other digital environments that students, teachers, and researchers use.

The primary goal was to create modern online bibliographic records; a second, equally valuable objective was to improve the organization and description of the manuscripts housed in the Houghton and Widener libraries that were not digitized by IHP.

Standards and practices employed for bibliographic description were codified in the Houghton Library Single-Item Manuscript Manual to produce full-level records for each manuscript. These guidelines mandate use of AACR2/APPM, MARC 21, LCNAF, LCSH, AAT, and the application of ALA-LC Romanization tables. All records are stored in centrally supported library systems using open protocols (MODS, OAI–PMH).

The majority of works selected for IHP were previously described only in printed catalogs or checklists of uncataloged manuscripts. About half of the pre-existing records for Arabic manuscripts (MS Arab classification) in HOLLIS were corrected and updated, even if not "fully cataloged" to meet the standard applied to digitized items. In addition, approximately 40 percent of the Arabic manuscripts in the MS Arab SM classification, which were previously identified only on hand lists, now appear in HOLLIS, with greater consistency in the use of classification scheme.

Digital Objects

To produce useful digital reproductions, IHP instituted practices to produce complete, legible, navigable, citable, and portable electronic reproductions available through the University Library’s centrally managed delivery systems.

Processes and practices for materials preparation, special collections conservation, and quality control balanced mandates for safe handling, high rates of throughput, and affordability.

Published materials and manuscripts were digitized cover-to-cover, generally excepting spines, at 1:1 scale, to yield 300ppi 24-bit lossless compressed JP2 digital master images. (This local JP2 "profile" offers significant advantages for affordability and performance within the library’s services environment for object storage, preservation, and delivery.)

Produced at high quality, IHP’s 155,000 page images may be used in the future as source files to produce searchable text ("full text"), when demands for full-text searching justify transcription costs (e.g., "keying" of handwritten manuscripts), or when Optical Character Recognition of machine-printed Arabic script does not require extensive, and costly, error correction.

All IHP texts were assembled into single navigable objects with (XML) structural metadata conforming to a Harvard profile of the METS standard. Each page of each IHP manuscript was labeled with its page attribute (e.g., cover, flyleaf) or folio label to support citation, to simplify on-screen navigation, and to enable future enhanced methods of locating folio types within digitized manuscripts (i.e., all images of bindings).