New York University Abu Dhabi digitises Arabic books for worldwide access

A new project by NYU Abu Dhabi also involving Princeton University, Columbia University, Cornell and the American University of Beirut will make up to 15,000 books available to the public – for free.

The cover of Sulayman Al Bustani's Iliad. Courtesy NYU Libraries
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The world will soon have free online access to 15,000 Arabic books ranging from 12th-century collections of the hadith to Sulayman Al Bustani's translation of Homer's Iliad, thanks to a project funded by New York University Abu Dhabi.

Arabic Collections Online ( has been set up to address the fundamental problem of a lack of freely available Arab academic literature, says Virginia Danielson, NYU Abu Dhabi's library director.

“Foreign libraries have been collecting Arabic books for as long as there has been publishing in the Arab world. But, foreigners have been taking books outside of the Arab world and there is no really strong history of reprinting books [locally].”

Many institutions are somewhat inaccessible – a library such as the Dar Al Kutub national library in Cairo has to be visited in person with a letter of introduction. Arabic Collections Online hopes to tackle this knowledge gap – there are no login screens or paywalls; all that is required is an internet connection.

“High-school kids in the Sudan can use these books – and from that perspective it’s almost a repatriation project of bringing the books back to the communities from where they originate.”

NYUAD is not the only university involved in the project – Princeton University, Columbia University, Cornell University and the American University of Beirut are all contributing books from their collections. The project was conceived while NYUAD was still being planned in 2007.

Digitising books and checking the scans for legibility is a labour-intensive process, Danielson says. It can also be challenging, she adds, to find books published before 1955 that are in a decent enough condition to withstand the digitisation process and remain legible.

Today Arabic Collections Online has digitised roughly 200 books – with a small sample chosen to make sure that the website functions properly.

Although the project was originally part of an overall move to relicense resources and make sure that NYUAD students had materials to meet their needs, it has since expanded its ambitions and has become “a resource for the Arab speaking world,” she says.

“With all the upheaval, which I think in 2007 or 2008 nobody imagined, and all of the displacement of kids in the Middle East now – out of Arabic schools and away from educational institutions – I think a project like this has even more value, because you can still read and teach if you can get access to books.”

There are 2,000 titles “in the pipeline” that have been digitised and are ready to be put online. Novels have only begun to appear in the Arab world over the past 150 years or so. Traditionally, Danielson explains, Arab publishing has usually covered the humanities, history, poetry, religion, social conditions and biographies. “Those things,” she says, “don’t go out of date.”

As Danielson says: “These are scholarly resources: they were [collected] originally by educated Arabists; people who spoke Arabic and read it fluently. They were selected from the major publishers of the Arab world for collection into these libraries.”

The bulk of the website’s collection will, therefore, be rooted in scholarly fields – though Danielson says this could change, since “when you bring in more different libraries, of course your chances of increasing your scope are better.

“Many governments in the Arab world can’t pay for a thing like this. Now, Abu Dhabi can – and has. And the good news is that the government that can do it is doing it.”

The project is likely to be well-received by those calling for increased education and emphasis on the Arabic language within the UAE and beyond.

“There are great Arabic essayists with a wonderful use of language. Another thing we found in this collection are grammars that discuss Arabic, its history and its grammar.”

As well as planning wide-ranging content, NYUAD had to devise a page-turner that could operate in the correct direction, to facilitate the digitisation process. Danielson, who has worked in digitisation for two decades, believes that NYU has “one of the best digital or visual programmes in North America”.

Danielson says the university has already heard from a new school in Lebanon that asked if it could use the books for its online courses. “We said: ‘Sure, there are no restrictions, you can do what you want with them.’”

• This Thursday from 6 to 7pm, NYUAD Institute’s Library of Arabic Literature is holding a panel discussion in Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall about its publications, the art of translation and the importance of translating pre-modern Arabic works for a wider audience.

Hareth Al Bustani is a features writer at The National.