Historic Arabic medical manuscripts go online

Jul 28, 2011

Researchers may now search and browse the Wellcome Library’s Arabic manuscripts using groundbreaking functionalities in a new online resource that brings together rich descriptive information and exceptionally detailed images.

Arabic medicine was once the most advanced in the world, and now digital facsimiles of some of its most important texts have been made freely available online. The unique online resource, based on the Wellcome Library's Arabic manuscript collection, includes well-known medical texts by famous practitioners (such as Avicenna, Ibn al-Quff, and Ibn an-Nafis), lesser-known works by anonymous physicians and rare or unique copies, such as Averroes' commentaries on Avicenna's medical poetry.

The Wellcome Arabic Manuscript Cataloguing Partnership (WAMCP) combines the efforts of the Wellcome Library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and King's College London Digital Humanities Department and is funded by JISC and the Wellcome Trust. It offers a rich digital manuscript library available online for free, which represents a significant resource for a wide range of researchers - including Arabic studies scholars, medical historians and manuscript conservators - to aid and enhance their work.

Alastair Dunning, Programme Manager at JISC, said: "When it comes to digitising manuscripts, there are real challenges not just in faithfully representing the original image in digital form but also in ensuring that manuscript is described with precision and accuracy. This JISC-funded project has surmounted these challenges, allying the remarkable collections at the Wellcome Trust with the technical and academic expertise available at the Library of Alexandra, and creating a resource to open up new avenues in Islamic Studies scholarship."

"We were keen here at the Library to create the Wellcome manuscript collection online resource with the functionalities it offers," said Professor Magdy Nagi, Head of the Information and Communication Technology Sector at the Library of Alexandria. "The smooth streaming of content without the need for high bandwidth, and being able to zoom endlessly into the pages helps users to explore the details and beauty of the manuscripts. One of the key challenges in developing the online catalogue was maintaining the authenticity of thousand-year-old manuscript texts, such as rendering the old Arabic characters as they appear in the manuscripts."

All the manuscripts have been photographed in their entirety and can be viewed in detail alongside the comprehensive manuscript descriptions. Sophisticated cataloguing tools were built based on definitive standards to achieve rich, thorough manuscripts descriptions. Users are able to link between specific descriptive fields and the related images, and it is possible to compare two manuscripts side-by-side on the screen to illuminate the differences. Moreover, significant passages in the manuscripts - such as the incipits, basmala, explicits and section headings - are fully transcribed. Extensive physical descriptions have been recorded by conservation specialists.

Researchers may explore the content of the online catalogue more selectively, where manuscripts may be browsed according to their categories or searched via the full text search facility. Significantly, the system allows users to search using the old Arabic alphabet through a virtual keyboard, matching the original content of the manuscripts. The results of the searched manuscripts may be further narrowed down through the faceted filters, which retrieve more precise results for the researcher's convenience.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, expressed his enthusiasm for the project: "Providing global access to our collections is at the heart of our mission to foster collaborative research, and we are delighted to see these particular treasures become freely accessible online. We are grateful to the Library of Alexandria and Kings College London, whose partnership in this project has enabled us to extend the availability of these rare materials to the countries of their origin."

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More information: The resource is available online: wamcp.bibalex.org/

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