Comparing Digital Materials from Tehran

A hands-on comparison of the quality of digital materials offered by the manuscript collections from Tehran.

Digitization projects have been taken up by manuscript libraries around the world. The two pillars of such libraries -catalogues and the actual holdings- are undergoing a process in which they first become available digitally, usually for a fee, then they become available online for viewing, sometimes for a fee, then they become available for download, at which point the fee may be dropped and access is granted gratis. This process can only be encouraged and met with enthusiasm by us scholars and students, as it comes with obvious and overwhelming benefits for our studies.

But, of course, now is not the time to lean back and think that everything will turn out alright by itself. There is a huge difference in the actual end product, the pictures, that these institute offer to us. Let us take a closer look at the different qualities of these pictures to 1) better understand what we may expect and 2) see if we can come up with certain preferences.

In this post, I will sample pictures from the collections of Tehran. If you like to see evaluated other collections or libraries, please contact me.

The collections I shall include are the following:

  1. Malek Museum Library
  2. Kitab-khane Milli Iran (National Library)
  3. Majlis Library (Parlement Library)


A summary overview of the digital materials these libraries offer is the following list, which is sorted according to file size of the original image. In between brackets is given the year as was found in the metadata of the file.

Origin: Tehran, Kitab-khane Milli

File Size Excerpt: 133kb

File Size Original: 626kb

Dimensions Original: 1925 x 3069

Particular Folio:  MS 1155194 (??) f. 2b: Sharḥ al-Tajrīd

Evaluation: It offers a photo for each page instead of two pages. The quality is really good, almost surprising given the file size. What helps is that the color balance is  particularly pleasing. What is not so helpful is that it is unclear which manuscript you are actually looking at. Perhaps there is a system to figure it out, but it is not as obvious as it should be.

Origin: Tehran, Majlis

File Size Excerpt: 231kb

File Size Original: 500kb

Dimensions Original: 1497 x 1058

Particular Folio:  MS 10196, ff. 396a-395b: Majmūʿah Rasāʾil

Evaluation: Obviously, this is unacceptable. The cut is done well, but if the picture on the left is the maximum zoom then clearly these photos are only useful if used in tandem with another manuscript.


Origin: Tehran, Malek

File Size Excerpt: 163kb

File Size Original: 474kb

Dimensions Original: 2001 x 1659

Particular Folio: MS 2156 ff. 1b-2a: Ḥāshiya Sharḥ Ḥikmat al-ishrāq

Evaluation: The text is readable but other aspects of the photo are not so good which could make it difficult to use in tough situations. The cut is too narrow, the watermark in the middle (see below) is annoying, and the color balance is off giving the paper a greenish hue.


Origin: Tehran, Majlis

File Size Excerpt: 249kb

File Size Original: 467kb

Dimensions Original: 1205 x 852

Particular Folio: MS 860 ff. 208-209: Sharḥ al-Hidāyah

Evaluation: In many regards a fine picture but the detail is so low, the picture becomes virtually unusable.



Origin: Tehran, Majlis

File Size Excerpt: 254kb

File Size Original: 451kb

Dimensions Original: 1205 x 852

Particular Folio: MS 5478, ff. 56b-57a: Majmūʿah

Evaluation: The main text is barely readable leaving the marginal notes well beyond clear comprehension. For the file size it is not a bad picture.



General remarks

In general, photos from Tehran are not great. Take the following from Malek Library. Though the text is readable (thanks to the clear handwriting), the watermark and color balance make it an unpleasant experience.

With others, like these two from Majlis Library, we can see that they are seemingly shot on a black background, with a good cut, the page pretty much completely flat. These are all positive points. But still, the quality (in other words, file size) has been reduced too much.

MS Majlis 5478 56b-57a majmūʿa MS Majlis 10196 396a-395b Rasāʾil


Quality varies among photos from Tehran. Even within one collection, such as Majlis, there seems to have been different digitization processes at work. In general though, the Iranians downsize their photos way too much. I do not believe they made picture on about 500kb, surely their original pictures are in the 2mb range. We can only hope they saved those originals and will be replacing these poor images with the originals or at least pictures around 1mb in file size. To read glosses -perhaps the main reason we would actually want to look at manuscripts- these photos are not satisfactory. Sure, there may be people who use such photos to read such glosses. But then I would say that their readings cannot be trusted.


Edit: Comparing Photos Directly Obtained from Malek and Majlis

Thanks to Hunter Bandy of Duke University, I can also show how photos look like when you are physically present at Malek or Majlis Library and obtain pictures on a CD (for a fee). In the case of Majlis, you get a better quality, it seems.

Majlis better TRUE

Origin: Tehran, Majlis

File Size Excerpt: 103kb

File Size Original: 1,5mb

Dimensions Original: 5698 x 4494

Particular Folio: unknown

Evaluation: Picture quality is much better though as is clearly visible on the paper surface it is still grainy. It also seems to be slightly out of focus. Color balance and cut are okay.




Malek better TRUE

Origin: Tehran, Malek

File Size Excerpt: 212kb

File Size Original: 356kb

Dimensions Original: 858 x 1262

Particular Folio: unknown

Evaluation: It is in focus and even the tiny hand in between the lines of the main text is legible. The paper seems again way too green. This picture is workable, though one would have expected it to be better than the ones available online, which it hardly is or perhaps there is really no difference. The cut is atrocious: there is no guarantee you are missing out on something. In fact, you are almost guaranteed you will miss out on something at some point.


Disclaimer: Please note that all rights to these photos are reserved for their respective owners. Usage of photos in this blogpost is strictly for educational use in compliance with Fair Use as defined under the U.S. Copyright Law, section 107.

One thought on “Comparing Digital Materials from Tehran

  1. Several points need to be afforded greater consideration in your discussion here. First, these documents are samples, offered to the public by the libraries. If you need a high resolution file, they are easily available for a small fee. Second, some of the files you claim are unreadable are only so because you are not fluent enough with the language; an educated native speaker can read the text perfectly. Third, remember that an internet connection in Iran is not to be taken for granted and so uploading files is limited. Finally, please remember to choose your adjectives carefully for they reflect your biases. Overall, this is an important discussion highly pertinent to the digital humanities. Thank you.

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