Comparing Digital Materials from Leiden

A hands-on comparison of the digital materials from the manuscript collections of Leiden University, the Netherlands, executed by Brill Publishers.


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.


Leiden University has one of Europe’s most famous Islamic manuscript collections, the bulk of it brought together as early as the 17th century. It contains many autographs and uniques, and as such digital access is nothing but welcome. Whereas other institutions digitized their collections with public money, Leiden has chosen a different route: they gave the project away to a company, to be commercially exploited.

This company is Brill, an academic publisher well known to the Islamic Studies community. What they decided to do is not offer the manuscripts on an per item basis, but in bulk. However, do not expect that bulk to be very bulky; not all of Leiden’s manuscripts have been digitized and the ones that are, are split up into different packages. These can all be viewed here.

In this review I restrict myself to the two packages that I see as the core of Leiden’s manuscripts, which Brill has named:

  • Middle Eastern Manuscripts Online 1: Pioneer Orientalists
  • Middle Eastern Manuscripts Online 2: The Ottoman Legacy of Levinus Warner

The first consists of 303 volumes, which institutions can buy online access to for a mere $26,610.00. That’s twenty-six thousand dollars, correct. The second package contains 140 volumes, priced at $11,760.00. Both come down to about 25 cents per page. Paying $50 for a 200-page book would be the same cost per page ratio, so I would say these large sums of money are not completely unjustified.

Please note: As an individual you can buy a day pass, much like in a theme park. Day pass is forty dollars. If you can manage to examine and download everything you need in one day it is not a bad deal. Not bad at all.

Content of collections

MEMO 1: A wide variety of subjects but a noticeable presence of mathematics, history, poetry, philosophy,  and the Bible.

MEMO 2: Seems to focus on literature, history, law, and the Bible. Most texts come from the Ottoman Empire.

In both cases there are plenty of manuscript copies of texts that are available in edition. Perhaps they are digitized because they are early manuscripts, such as manuscript Or. 71, Sharḥ fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam by Qaysarī, dated 782/1380, with Qayṣarī’s death year being 751/1350.


Manuscripts can be accessed in two ways: there is a search function and there is a page where all manuscripts are listed.

The search function is a bit erratic. From the main page the search box only searches within this collection. But if after one search you want to immediately search again, it has now switched to become a search box for the entire BrillOnline website. This is of course unnecessary tedious and quickly works on your nerves. Searching for specific codices is problematic. For example, Or. 168(11) is the provenance code for a text of a “solution of a geometrical problem”. However, searching for “Or. 168(11)” gives two results; also Or. 203, which happens to have 168 folia. Worse still, searching for “Or. 168” gives only one result: Or. 203! It seems impossible to quickly see what Or. 168 contains. (Solution: Use Jan Just Witkam’s excellent catalogues in crisp digital format available here)

The page with all the items listed is a bit simple. In the case of MEMO 2 it is alphabetically by title, with also the author mentioned. In the case of MEMO 1 it is arranged alphabetically by author, in which case you have to click on the name to reveal the list of manuscript copies of works attributed to this author. This second organization is much more tedious if one wants to browse the entire collection; involves a lot of clicking. What is downright sloppy is that some authors are listed multiple times, e.g. Ibn Sīnā and Ibn al-Layth are listed four times. Kātibī and Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī are listed five times.

Once you click through the metadata is sparse. It makes mention of Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Literattur, but it would have been nice to see actual integration with Brockelmann Online, or other online catalogues like

Manuscript viewer

The online viewer for the manuscripts is decent. For example, you can even rotate images. One magnificent flaw though is that at no point can you see which manuscript you are looking at, nor which folio.


Scrolling is decently pleasant. Zooming in and out takes some time, but works as expected.

The download button at the top is most convenient. You can download the entire manuscript if you like, which only takes a few minutes at most.

Photo quality

Or 151 downl

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 744kb

Dimensions Original: 1468 x 1999

Particular Folio: MS Or. 151, f. 7a: al-Ḥikma al-ilhāmiyya

Evaluation: Color balance and sharpness are all great. Level of detail is high enough. In short, it is a great picture to work with. There is some blockiness showing, especially on the blank parts of the paper, but  it is of no big concern. This is the image you get when you hit the ‘download’ button. See also next image.



Or 151 webOrigin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 2.1mb

Dimensions Original: 2100 x 2860

Particular Folio: MS Or. 151, f. 7a: al-Ḥikma al-ilhāmiyya

Evaluation: This is obviously the same folio, and indeed the same picture. However, as you may notice, it is a bigger file and has bigger dimensions. This image you can see when you zoom in at maximum on the online viewer. In other words, the photos you see online when zoomed in at maximum have a greater detail and the ones you download are reduced.

Or 137 brill

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 889kb

Dimensions Original: 1241 x 1998

Particular Folio: MS Or. 137, f. 3a: Sharḥ al-Talwīḥāt

Evaluation: Here we see what different paper and a different hand can do to the same digitization procedure. More so than in the previous picture can we see how much the black ink stands out. This can also be seen when compared with the next picture.

Or 137 self

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 937kb

Dimensions Original: 1455 x 1947

Particular Folio: MS Or. 137, f. 3a: Sharḥ al-Talwīḥāt

Evaluation: This is obviously the same folio as the previous one but this time the photo was taken by myself using an iPad (4th generation, late 2012). The iPad picture has a somewhat smoother or blurrier quality to it. Indeed, Brill photos distinguish themselves as so sharp, shapes sometimes become crisp or even jagged.


Or. 184 f32a

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 973kb

Dimensions Original: 1199 x 2000

Particular Folio: Or. 184, f. 16b: Talkhīṣ ṣifāt wājib al-wujūd

Evaluation: One more picture simply for good measure. The paper is a lot darker, yet the text still stands out well. In general, then, these pictures are good to make use of.



Glosses on Maṭāliʿ al-anẓār Leiden Or 155 f3a

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 957kb

Dimensions Original: 1404 x 1998

Particular Folio: Or. 155, f. 3a: Ḥawāshī ʿalá Maṭāliʿ al-anẓār

Evaluation: The readability of glosses is far better



Glosses on Maṭāliʿ al-anẓār Leiden Or 155 f3a web

Origin: Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek

File Size Original: 2.6mb

Dimensions Original: 2100 x 2988

Particular Folio: Or. 155, f. 3a: Ḥawāshī ʿalá Maṭāliʿ al-anẓār

Evaluation: But for glosses, the superior quality of the web version of the images becomes most handy.




General observations

Here is an example of a professional photo and an amateur photo, of the same folio. Noticeably, the cut is well done in the Brill pictures, the folio is very flat and the image has even lightening throughout the picture.

Ibn Kammuna Sharh al-Talwihat Leiden Or. 137 3aa Ibn Kammuna Sharh al-Talwihat Leiden Or. 137 3a


Here are two photos from Brill of harder to read folia, one because it is faint, the other because the text is so dark it bleeds through from the other page.

al-Idah fi al-khayr al-mahd Leiden Or. 209 d.573 page_5Or. 138 f.130a


The latter can be fixed a bit by hand:

Or. 138 f.130a corrected


Brill’s photos are one of the best among digitized Oriental manuscripts. The online viewer can give higher quality images than the downloadable ones, which is a bit odd especially since access is certainly not free. There is room for improvement with the viewer, the search function, and the metadata. However, the biggest gripe I have is simply that only a fraction of Leiden’s collection is digitized and among the digitized ones are many texts that are already available in print. The target audience is therefore limited. But for those lucky enough to need digital photos of a manuscript included in MEMO 1 or 2, these photos are a pleasure to work with.

Note: Brill provided temporary access for me to write this review.

One thought on “Comparing Digital Materials from Leiden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s