Book Repositories for Islamic Studies (not a preliminary list)

I shall not attempt to put together a list of online repositories for books related to Islamic Studies, whether it be primary sources or secondary literature. Rather, I like to offer some reflections on how these repositories are structured.

I am picking up on this subject as my earlier post on online full-text databases of Arabic texts gained a lot of traction. Clearly, people are interested in textual resources that are available online. At the same time, as I explained earlier, people are just as much interested in getting their hands on PDFs which are not full-text searchable. Black and white page-per-page scans of actual printed books are hugely popular. They are in fact so popular that many people do not distinguish between full-text searchable resources and image-scanned resources. Thus, when I asked around for more resources to complete my list of full-text Arabic texts databases, I got a lot of responses back suggesting websites that only offer scanned books.

In a matter of years, these websites have become omnipresent. For Arabic sources the power houses seem to be alwaraq and al-mostafa. Smaller projects also exist, such as Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project. I have myself not kept an eye on these websites and therefore do not know how they have evolved. Especially al-mostafa seems to be useful, as it aggregates from different websites. Download speeds have always been reasonable, as far as I know. In short, then, al-mostafa has become the go-to source. Its hosting structure is unclear to me and therefore the sustainability is unreliable.

We also have a reverse situation; clearly Archive is hosting a very large amount of scans of Arabic texts but its metadata and its support for non-Latin scripts is such a nightmare that reaching these texts through the Archive webpage itself is hugely unreliable. The solution that many seem to go for is to build weblogs to list correct metadata and link to these resources, such as Narjes Library, bo0oks, and jāmiʿ al-makhṭūṭāt al-islāmiyyah (wqf). Others attempt to structure this information through a forum, such as the subforum al-kutub wa-al-turāth of al-azhariyīn (azahera). I find especially the weblog format not the most user-friendly way of disclosing this information, but such attempts remain commendable without a better alternative. It was further interesting is that this approach relies mostly on free services and it seems reasonably future-proof.

Other websites rely on file sharing websites for hosting PDFs. There are websites primarily linking to editions of primary sources such as Shubkat al-fikr (alfeker) and Biblioteca Alexandrina (bib-alex). On the file sharing websites we also find the majority of available secondary literature. The landscape of file sharing websites has changed dramatically over the last ten years. In the wake of the fall of megaupload, nearly all file sharing websites shut down, changed their policy, or rebranded themselves. File sharing websites can now only be used for temporary storage and do not offer reliable future-proof solutions. 4shared is a case in point: it is my impression that either their search function is throttled back or they simply deleted large swaths of their hosted materials. It seemed to be the number one hosting site for Arabic resources and it no longer is (let me know if I am wrong). Another notable example, and much better documented, is  Gigapedia (library.nu). They received a cease and desist letter from a consortium of publishers and complied. The way gigapedia was structured that the gigapedia website would only structure metadata whereas the actual (illegal) content was hosted on ifile.it. Both websites were owned by the same person(s) and it was hosted and operated from Ireland. In other words; the whole endeavor was bottlenecked physically and personally and moreover it was bottlenecked in a geographical location where law and order is well established. It probably did not take much effort from these publishers to shut it down.

Thankfully, other projects such as AvaxHome and LibraryGenesis prove to be resilient. Perhaps I am mistaken, but they seem to be different from Gigapedia on all these three points. Indeed, especially their hosting structure is commendable. They rely on file sharing sites, but nearly always diversify and have learned to adapt to the changing landscape of the file sharing industry. Indeed, they will even make efforts to repost or mirror their files. For some reason their supply chain remains in order, maintaining to offer PDFs which obviously come straight from the publisher.

Amateur efforts are lagging behind, probably largely because, well, they are amateurs. Thus you will see the occasional enthusiastic uploader on Scribd, but the process of uploading is perhaps laborious and these accounts seem to be regularly shut down, so it is not really going anywhere. You would also now and then see people setting up shared Dropbox folders. These are ticking time bombs because if one person deletes a (or all) file(s) it is deleted on all other computers as well. Always hilarious to see a bewildered post on Facebook along the lines of “who just deleted our entire Dropbox folder!!?” A special league among the amateurs is formed by devoted enthusiasts of a certain topic. The wordpress blog Islamiclib is a good example of connecting the free WordPress weblog with the free Dropbox file hosting. Of more academic nature we may note the blog of ahadithstudies, which seems not to have run out of steam yet, and Islamicmanuscripts and Muslimphilosophy are already serious repositories for their own specific topics. Every now and then you also find other types of amateur efforts, offering a somewhat random set of PDFs, such as the Ebook Collection of al Madinah international university (media) or mohamedrabeea’s website.

In the end, then, the situation as it is right now is not bad at all. But how resilient all of this is, remains to be seen. Or rather, I would strongly suggest that we should not sit back and just wait what will happen. The attempts to shut down and prosecute Megaupload or The Pirate Bay was perhaps to be expected, but the way in which it was done sent out a clear message: the gloves are coming off. Larger projects may suffer the same fate or perhaps their supply lines will be cut off at some point. Amateur projects survive by keeping under the radar. But this is necessarily a temporary strategy. That even relatively small scale endeavors such as OiNK and Gigapedia were shut down by the commercial sector proofs that even relatively small groups of mere enthusiasts will be ruthlessly crushed. Eventually they must, just as larger projects should, diversify, scatter, hide, and keep reposting.

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