Comparing Digital Materials from Berlin, Munich, and Leipzig

A hands-on comparison of the digital materials from the manuscript collections of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek Munich, and the Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig.


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. 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.


The Germans have been late to the digitization game. Lucky for us, in Germany there is still quite some money to spend on arcane fields such as Islamic Studies, and it seems that they are catching up fast. In that sense, there are even some advantages of their late arrival, as they can make use of the latest technologies available. This is not immediately clear from the webpage of the team working on the collection in Leipzig, at . Indeed, it looks a bit arcane, perhaps owing to the fact that their digitization project began as early as 2006. Their project seems to be structured exactly as I sketched out my preface: first establish a digital catalogue, then digitize the actual holdings. Their catalogue is by and large done now and is an impressive piece of work. See for example the detailed holdings for ms.or. 377, an old Ismāʿīlī manuscript. And it is all there in glorious digital format! Other parts of their project (e.g. clearly rely on the same technology but have a much fresher look so perhaps a fresh look will be implemented in due time for the entire web presence of their project. Looks aside, the search field is easy enough to use. Please also note they use the German system of transliteration, though you can search in other transliterations too, as well as Arabic. It seemed to me I got different results search for e.g. ابن سينا and Ibn Sina, so be sure to exhaust all possibilities. The results that are displayed are not all digitized, though I have been assured that in the following years more and more will become available. In total they are planning to make freely (!) digitally available a whopping 1800 Islamic manuscripts. Only those marked with “Bilder vorhanden” are currently available. Clicking through gives the images immediately. These images are displayed on the “DFG Viewer” ( The interface is reasonably fine but one big caveat is that you cannot see the exact manuscript and folio number. Referring to these manuscripts will be very difficult. It is such an obvious thing to fix you really really wonder why they do not do it.

The web presence of the Stabi, on the other hand, is state of the art. The only thing is that there is such a proliferation of web pages it is unclear where to look for what. As far as I have figured it out, here is where you look for manuscripts: Judging from the interface and other technical details, the Stabi and Leipzig use the same technology. The Stabi has it figured out a bit better, giving us a little checkbox to search only for digitized materials. Again, make sure to exhaust all possibilities in your search. Once you have found something of use, you click on the picture and you are taken to the part of the website where you can look at pictures ( Going directly to the digital part will not be useful because you cannot search through the entire catalogue! The actual interface for the pictures is good. Very good indeed. With an easy way to download parts or the entirety of the manuscript and at all times it is indicated which folio number you are looking at, from which manuscript. One final note I like to make is that though the search engine is perfectly fine, the catalogues by Ahlwardt made in the late 19th century are still the very best descriptions of the collection. They can be downloaded freely on, links are provided at Note that some manuscripts described by Ahlwardt did not survive World War II (the library was bombed) and about 19.000 Oriental volumes were relocated to Krakow and never returned. The Bavarian digitization project is large, but for Islamic materials still very small. Their website looks decent though offers a bit of an awkward browsing. Arabic manuscripts can be viewed here: It still needs to grow before it can be considered a true digital collection.

The Digital Materials Scrutinized

I do this in a format that should be familiar by now. I first show 350×350 excerpts to give an indication of the true size of the pictures. Then I give some general observations.

Origin: Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek

File Size Original: 62kb

Dimensions Original: 602 x 873

Particular Folio: MS or 45, f. 1b: Waṣīyyah

Evaluation: One can hardly believe the file size. The dimensions of the image are of course small as well, perhaps due to the small size of the codex. Granted, the script is readable, but one may wonder what happens at this quality level in cases in which the script is not as legible. Color balance is good and in general this image is useful no doubt.

Origin: Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek

File Size Original: 230kb

Dimensions Original: 1002 x 1358

Particular Folio: MS arab 49, f. 1b: Hidāyat al-murīd

Evaluation: This is clearly a different picture than the one before. Bigger in dimensions and file size, with a different color balance (still good) and even a seemingly different focus. Again, legible, but here already we start to run into the limitations of the low quality.

Origin: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek

File Size Original: 175kb

Dimensions Original: 800 x 1000

Particular Folio: MS Glaser 10, f. 7a: al-Shifāʾ

Evaluation: The manuscript features a rather tiny script, and at this quality level this becomes problematic. Color balance is good, though a bit saturated. It is clear from the picture in general that it is made well. For example, the page is fully flat on a black background.

Origin: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek

File Size Original: 163kb

Dimensions Original: 800 x 1311

Particular Folio: MS or oct 217, f. 6a: Nuzhat al-arwāḥ

Evaluation: The picture is clearly made in a similar fashion as the previous one. The same comments apply. Because the script is a bit more airy, the text becomes more legible as a whole at this quality point.

Origin: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

File Size Original: 637kb

Dimensions Original: 1062 x 1464

Particular Folio: MS Cod arab 805, f. 5a: Kitāb Qustā ibn Lūqā

Evaluation: The color balance seems to be off and there seems to be some dirt in the picture. The detail is still much better than the ones before, so that is  relief.

Origin: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

File Size Original: 1.5mb

Dimensions Original: 1500 x 2126

Particular Folio: MS Cod arab 1287, f. 3b: Taʿlīqah Sharḥ al-Uṣūl al-khamsah

Evaluation: This picture shows the Bavarian State Library has different ways of digitizing, this one being much bigger in file size but in black and white. Perhaps it was made from a microfilm, like the picture we saw from BnF in Paris. Even if it is a surrogate of a surrogate, the detail and contrast is great to work with.

General Remarks

It seems all German photos are made of only one leaf, not a spread. Color balance is in many cases very good. The only real concern is the file size at which they offer these pictures to the public. This, in my opinion, is too low. Interestingly, I know it need not be so. Through other means I acquired some pictures from a manuscript in the Stabi in Berlin, and compared to pictures of the same manuscript online it is visible that pictures acquired directly have a much greater detail. On the left we see a fragment from a manuscript acquired by other means, on the right the same but taken from the website. Both images show a 350×350 pixels cut. In the left picture on the بسـ is visible, while on the right a whole bit of text shows. This means that the right picture contains far less detail.

Ms. Berlin or. oct. 623 mulakhkhas_010 TRUE Ms. Berlin or. oct. 623 mulakhkhas_010 WEBTRUE

Another way to show this phenomenon is to zoom in on the pictures such that the بسـ is of the same size. The left picture is not zoomed in (true size). The right picture needed to be zoomed in about 2,5 times, which causes a lot of noise and loss of detail.

Ms. Berlin or. oct. 623 mulakhkhas_010 TRUE Ms. Berlin or. oct. 623 mulakhkhas_010 WEBBIG

The ready availability of these German manuscript collections is commendable, and especially the integration in the catalogue of the Stabi is wonderfully done, providing ample information on the codex at hand. The pictures themselves seem to have been taken very professionally. The photos are clearly taken with the health of the manuscripts in mind, such as not bending the spine too far as is visible here on the right: qusta ibn luqa bayern Cod arab 805 5a The level of detail, however, is good but not excellent. Clearly, better files are available, so why not make a button with the option to download those better files? Or did I miss that option?

Thanks are due to the team in Leipzig, who provided further information which lead me to update this post. Their project concerning the Rifa´iya family library (around 500 mss) will be subject of a future post.

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