Personal Libraries around the World

26 Feb


It is not an uncommon occurrence that I find myself staring long and hard at a book, putting it back on the shelf, walking away and then returning, considering whether to buy it. One prime justification I use for the almost inevitable purchase is this: some time after my death someone will gaze at an erotic novel written in Arabic by someone with the pseudonym Ovid (or whatever it may be) and wonder how it came into my library. There is something apparently random still deeply personal about private libraries. So I have compiled a list of a few private libraries which are now preserved in institutions for your delectation.

  • Mohammed Yusuf Najm at The American University in Beirut

This is the library that is prompting me to write this post. Mohammed Yusuf Najm was a Palestinian who basically started the systematic academic study of Arabic theatre and taught for most of his life at the AUB. The Archives and Special Collections centre at AUB have just acquired his library and it is (as was always expected by scholars in the field) unparalleled. It must be one of the best collections of late 19th and early 20th century playscripts as well as huge numbers of other fascinating books (like an original run of Abou Naddara). It will be a very important resource

  • William Moir’s Bee Library in Edinburgh

William Moir, eccentric imperial administrator and beekeeper, who put down his long life to eating a spoonful of honey every day, once boasted he had “the best collection of Bee Books in the British empire.” He even corresponded with Ramsay MacDonald about the library. The Prime Minister told him “You seem to have a very interesting Bee Library, and it must be a great comfort for you to spend quiet hours in companionship with your books.” When he died he left the books to Edinburgh Public Library. The most valuable books went to the National Library of Scotland but the bulk of it (including the only run I know of Ahmed Zaki Abu-Shadi’s Bee Kingdom journal in the UK) is in the basement of the Fountainbridge Public Library in Edinburgh. To access it, one must go through the Kafka-esque organisation of the Scottish Beekeepers Association but it is possible.

bee library

  • A.C. Creswell in the American University in Cairo

This tip off comes courtesy of Anthony Quickel. The illustrious and often bad tempered scholar of Islamic Architecture “Archie” Creswell had a library that was all catalogued by his own esoteric system. Part of the condition for donating it to the American University in Cairo was that they maintained the library as he had kept it. So, be prepared to look around its room on the top floor of the Library on the new AUC campus for a while before you find what you are looking for but Anthony swears by it.

  • Edward Said in Columbia University

This one needs no explanation, surely? Sit and work a while surrounded by Edward Said’s books, check out the inscriptions in them, have fun.

  • R. B. Serjeant in Edinburgh University Library

A major name if you are interesting in the history of Yemen, if not perhaps he has evaded your ken. A few years ago Edinburgh University got hold of his library and it is amazing. He spend time in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere and collected books with enviable vigour. Many of the books also bear dedications from the likes of Ali Ahmed Bakathir, Abdallah al-Tayyib, etc. (though the librarians at Edinburgh have covered some of them up with its slips of paper for date stamps). Particularly fun are the 10s of boxes containing random political pamphlet and poetical booklets. I am no expert in the subject but I imagine such a good collection of Yemeni material is hard to come across.

  • E. G. Browne at Cambridge

Pioneering Persianist and proud son of Pembroke College, Cambridge. His library was left to Cambridge University in his will and now appears to be mostly spread out across West Four in Cambridge University Library. It is, unfortunately, not put together in one block but scattered amongst other books. Still, one can get used to the look of the books and begin to spot them on the shelves. They also all carry a little book plate telling you where they are from. Highlights include a nice edition of “The Superiority of Dogs to Many of Those who Wear Clothes” and some novels dedicated to Browne by Jurji Zeidan.


  • Al-Aqqad in Dar al-Kutub in Cairo

Dar al-Kutub in Cairo carries many people’s private libraries, as does the new Bibliotecha Alexandrina. Among them are Futuh al-Nashati, Abd al-Rahman al-Badawi and more. Perhaps the most large and impressive is the library of Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, the famous Egyptian critic. The problem with all these private libraries, both in Alexandria and Cairo, the institutions do not let you stroll through the library but will only deliver you a book if you find it in the catalogue and request it.


These are a few libraries that I have come across in the past few years. I would love to know about any others if people have them.



One Response to “Personal Libraries around the World”

  1. Sarah Irving April 1, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Somewhat tragic, though, is the fact that, since the RB Serjeant Library is in the keeping of the University of Edinburgh Main Library, rather than the hideously under-resourced Islamic Library, and the Main Library has no librarian who reads Arabic, the University really doesn’t know what an amazing resource it has. The books and pamphlets have been deposited on a set of out-of-the-way shelves and the smaller items dumped in boxes. Sad, and ultimately likely to lead to items being lost or damaged.

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