John Rylands Library

by Teymour Morel

Set in the heart of Manchester, between the City Council, the Magistrates’ Court, and the Coroner’s Court, The John Rylands Library (hereafter JRL) houses the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library. It is one of the three largest academic libraries in the United Kingdom, and houses more than 400,000 printed books and over a million manuscripts and documents, including important collections of Oriental manuscripts. In this article, I will focus on the JRL collections related to Near Eastern studies.


Exterior of the old entrance to the library.


The JRL is named after John Rylands (1801-1888), a famous British entrepreneur who owned the most important textile manufacturing concern in Victorian England. It was created by the wife of the latter, Enriqueta Rylands (d. 1908), shortly after his death. Architect Basil Champneys (d. 1935) was asked to construct the building, which opened to the public on January 1, 1900. The JRL was enriched by Mrs. Rylands’ important purchases of books and manuscripts, especially by the acquisition of two major collections: the Spencer Collection in 1892 and the Crawford Collection in 1901. The majority of the Oriental manuscripts at the JRL come from the latter. In 1921, Henry Guppy, the JRL Librarian from 1900 to 1948, invited local families to deposit at the library their archives for safekeeping, so that the library soon became one of the first institutions to collect and preserve historical family records. In July 1972, a merger between the JRL and the University of Manchester Library took place. Since then, the JRL collections are part of The University of Manchester Library Special Collections. In the early 1980s, the Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts of the Chethams Library were acquired by the University of Manchester Library and added to the collections of the JRL.


The core holdings of the JRL are the Spencer Collection, comprising 43,000 printed books, of which 4,000 were printed before 1501; and the Crawford Collection, comprising 6,000 manuscripts written in fifty different languages. The majority of the Near Eastern manuscripts are found in the Crawford Collection.

A. Near Eastern manuscripts collections (in alphabetical order)

NB : A guide to the collections is available on the JRL Jewish, Near Eastern and Oriental studies webpage, including bibliographies of their respective catalogs. With a few exceptions, the catalogs mentioned here are all viewable and downloadable from the University of Manchester eScholar website. I also recommend F. Taylor’s manual and catalog of catalogs, which dates back to the 1970s, but is still very helpful: F. Taylor, “The Oriental Manuscript Collections in the John Rylands Library”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 54, n°2 (Spring 1972), p. 1-30 [EScholarID:1m2987]. See also C. H. Bleaney & G. J. Roper, “United Kingdom (1990)”, in G. Roper (ed.), World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts, vol. 3, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, 1994, p. 509-512

1. Arabic

900 Arabic manuscripts are found at the JRL and cover roughly 1,000 years. They include numerous Qur’ans (among which is a rare Mamluk Qur’an from the fifteenth century) and cover a wide range of subjects such as history, law, science, medicine, philosophy, geography, cosmography, astronomy, astrology, literature, etc. The JRL also holds a collection of 800 papyri derived from the Crawford Collection and consisting of private letters, tradesmen’s and household accounts, among other records. Most of the dated papyri date to the third/ninth century. The collection also contains 1,500 uncataloged paper fragments in Arabic deriving in most cases from the Genizah Collection. The Genizah Collection is a collection of around 14,000 fragments written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic from the Genizah of the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in Fustat, Cairo between the tenth and nineteenth centuries of the Common Era. It was discovered by Solomon Schechter, among others, and acquired when the JRL purchased the collection of Moses Gaster in 1954. The major part of the Genizah Collection was catalogued and is available in digital form via LUNA.


E. Bosworth, “A Catalogue of Accessions to the Arabic Manuscripts in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 56, n° 1-2 (1973-1974), p. 34-73 (1973), 256-296 (1974) [EScholarID: (p. 34-73); (p. 256-296)].

S. Margoliouth, Catalogue of Arabic Papyri in the John Rylands Library Manchester, The Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1933 [EScholarID: (p. 1-49); (p. 50-143); (p. 144-241); (plates 1-42)].

Mingana, Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library Manchester, The Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1934 [EScholarID: (MSS 1-207); (MSS 208-433); (MSS 434-818)].

This catalog with its index and detailed descriptions is practical and useful, although it sometimes makes attribution mistakes [for instance, Mingana wrongly identifies the author of the two texts in the Arabic MS 374 [349] (Ibn Rushd’s Talkhis Kitab al-Qiyas and Talkhis Kitab al-Burhan) as being al-Farabi. Likewise, he mistakenly considers al-Farabi to be the author of the text in the Arabic MS 375 [403] (Ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Najat on Physics)]. The manuscripts are classified according to catalog numbers followed by their shelfmarks between brackets. In the case of a compendium (majmu‘a), the texts of the latter are not scattered throughout the catalog but remain together in the same description. To avoid any confusion, readers should requests manuscripts by quoting their full numbers, including both catalog numbers and shelfmarks between brackets.

al-Moraekhi & G. Rex, “The Arabic Papyri of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 78, n° 2 (1996), p. 1-232 [EScholarID: (introduction); (Part I); (Part II); (Indices); (References)].

See also LUNA for the online catalog of the Genizah Collection

2. Armenian

22 Armenian manuscripts, on parchment or paper, are found in the JRL. They consist mainly of religious texts. Among them is a Gospel codex, which would be the oldest Armenian manuscript in British Libraries. There is also an abundantly illustrated sixteenth-century Romance of Alexander.


Kiwrtean, “A Short Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library Manchester”, in Sion, vol. 49 (1975), p. 199-259.

Nersessian, A Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the British Library Acquired Since the Year 1913 and of Collections in Other Libraries in the United Kingdom, British Library, London, 2012

3. Hebrew

The JRL comprises a collection of about 400 Hebrew manuscripts, Torah scrolls and marriage contracts dating between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Common Era. It includes prayer books, commentaries, treatises on various subjects, letters, marriage contracts, liturgical poetry (piyyutim), and thirteen scrolls of the Law. There are, in addition, around 10,600 fragments (generally very small) in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic coming from the Genizah Collection (see A.1). One can find there various autograph fragments of Maimonides, including one folio from the Guide of the Perplexed. The JRL holds also a collection of 377 Samaritan manuscripts derived mostly from the Gaster Collection; see A.1)


Samely, “The Interpreted Text: Among the Hebrew Manuscripts of the John Rylands University Library”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 73, n° 2 (1991), p. 1-20 [EScholarID:1m2267].

See also LUNA for the online catalog of the Genizah Collection.

NB: A catalog of the Hebrew manuscripts is in course of preparation.

4. Persian

The JRL Persian manuscripts collection comprises over 1,000 volumes dating from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries CE, including many illuminated codices. They cover subjects such as theology, Quranic exegesis (tafsīr), Sufism, lives of holy men and prophets, poetry, romances, chronicles and fables, calligraphy, lexicography, grammar, philosophy, medicine, natural history, geography, cosmography, occult sciences, astronomy and astrology. They include encyclopedias and volumes on the history of India and the Mughal Empire.


Kerney, Bibliotheca Lindesiana: Hand-List of Oriental Manuscripts, privately printed, 1898, p. 107-237.

Kerney, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts belonging to the Earl of Crawford, not published, n. d. (1890?). Can be consulted at the Library. (This catalog can be consulted at the Library and online.

W. Robinson, “Some Illustrated Persian Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 34, n° 1 (1952), p. 69-80 [EScholarID:1m2002].

5. Syriac and Karshuni

The JRL holds 70 manuscripts and fragments in Syriac and Karshuni (among which there are three manuscripts in Turkish Karshuni and one manuscript in Armenian Karshuni). The Syriac manuscripts consist of copies of the Old and New Testaments, psalters, liturgical texts and prayers, hymns, books of catechism, lives of Saints, theological treatises, a Syriac-Arabic lexicon, a treatise on amulets, several treatises of Bar Hebraeus (among which a book containing the first nine books of The Cream of the Sciences on logic), a corpus of writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and the Rhetoric of Anthony of Tagrit.


Coakley, “A Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library”, in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 75, n° 2 (1993), p. 105–208.

6. Turkish

The JRL Turkish manuscripts collection consists of 195 items, dating from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century. Most manuscripts are in Ottoman Turkish, but twelve of them are written in Çağatay and one is a Latin transcription of a compilation of Turkish and Armenian texts. J. Schmidt published a catalog of the entire collection in 2011, which details the wide range of subjects that it contains, including anthologies of poetry, narrative poetry, guides for dervish novices, fables and stories, commentaries, grammar books, letters (among which, a number of Ottoman official documents), biographies and biographical dictionaries, dictionaries and vocabulary lexicons, travelogues, library catalogs, texts on religious ethics, jurisprudence (fiqh), history, medicine, geography, cosmography, astronomy, mathematics, and music.


Kerney, Bibliotheca Lindesiana: Hand-List of Oriental Manuscripts, privately printed, 1898, p. 241-268.

Kerney, Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts belonging the Earl of Crawford, not published, 1892. Can be consulted at the Library.

Schmidt, A Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the John Rylands University Library at Manchester, Brill, Leiden-Boston, coll. “Islamic Manuscripts and Books”, vol. 2, 2011.

7. Other Languages

The JRL also holds collections of around 1,100 Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets dating from the third and second centuries BCE, over a thousand Coptic items, and smaller collections of Armenian and Ethiopian manuscripts, as well as Egyptian papyri.

The library holds a collection of more than one hundred manuscripts from Southeast Asia, partially catalogued, in ten different languages.

B. Archival Collections

The JRL hosts various archives of notable documents related to the history of the Middle East. The most important one is without any doubt the Archive of the Guardian (formerly Manchester Guardian), which was established in 1821 by John Edward Taylor (1791-1844). The editorial correspondence and dispatches from its reporters constitute a rich source of information on the history of the Middle East in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The collection contains important material on, for instance, the founding of Israel, the later Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as the Suez Crisis. The Papers of Samuel Alexander (1877-1938) are also of importance since they include, for example, a correspondence between the latter and the Zionist pioneer Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the first President of Israel. See also the Military Papers of Major General Eric Edward Dorman O’Gowan (1926-1969) and Field Marshal Auchinleck (1919-1971), who was commander-in-chief of the British forces in the Middle East (1941-1942) and India (1943-1947). A downloadable digitized catalog of the Guardian Archive is available on the JRL website. Other catalogs can be searched online via ELGAR, such as the Catalogue of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society Archives.


A view of the historic reading room.

Research Experience

People conducting research in the Special Collections work in the Elsevier Reading Room (4th floor), as the Historic Reading Room (3rd floor) is used for readers’ own private work. In addition to the main staircase, an elevator serves every floor of the Library building. I had the opportunity to work for several days in the Elsevier Reading Room, and I can say that the conditions there are very comfortable. The Library’s staff is conscientious and very reliable. The controlled climate and secure environment provide a quiet atmosphere. No matter how dark the sky, the light is always sufficient. In daytime, the room is enriched by a soft light coming from a generous bay window that overlooks Spinningfield and Deansgate. The work tables can accommodate up to twenty-two people and are equipped with two electrical sockets each. Many other facilities are provided: adaptors for laptops, a set of magnifying glasses, an easy-to-use fiber-optic light sheet to analyze watermarks, a ruler and a microscope are at the readers’ disposal. A stock of pencils is provided as well as pencil sharpeners and several erasers. Manuscripts and books must be used on book-rests. It is asked that the reader give advanced notice of at least 24 hours to guarantee every item he of she asks for is ready. There is no limit to the amount of requested items. Several items can be consulted at the same time if the reader provides valid reasons for doing so. In the Elsevier Reading Room, the presence of three computers connected to the Internet will prove useful for searching the webpage of the JRL and The University of Manchester, but not for other use. Basically, only members and students of The University of Manchester are allowed to do so on their own computers, as well as people who have registered at Eduroam. The Library is planning to provide Wi-Fi access to external users in the future.


The JRL is situated on Deansgate, Manchester. In order to access the collections, it is important that the reader first make an appointment by e-mail (see Contact Information) or by phone. On that occasion, he or she can also pre-order one or several manuscript(s) or document(s) using the appropriate lists, inventories and catalogs of the JRL. On the day of his or her arrival, he or she must present a proof of address, a photo-ID (including signature), as well as a letter of reference. Note that original documents are required, not photocopies.

After entering the Library, the reception staff helps new readers to find their way in the library. Before going to the reading room, readers are asked to deposit their coats, bags, umbrellas, sleeves, pens and laptop computer carry-cases in the lockers in the basement (for which a £1 coin returnable deposit is necessary). Clear plastic bags are at their disposal to carry their work material and belongings with them (more information is available on the webpage “Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library”; see Resources and Links). The reader is then invited to go to the Readers Reception on the 4th floor to fill a registration application, in which he or she is asked to describe briefly the purpose of his or her visit and the topic of research. If the reader plans to come back the day after or during the days following his or her last visit, it is recommended to specify whether consulted materials should be reserved for future use. Without explicit notice from the reader, the documents will be returned to secure storage and it may take several hours to have them back again.

Reader Service Opening Hours

The Reader Service is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 to 17:00 (until 19:00 on Thursday). It is closed on Sunday and public holidays. The Library is closed over Christmas and New Year (check the library’s website for up-to-date information).


The University of Manchester Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC) can provide digital images of most items in the JRL for research and publication, subject to the physical condition of the item. Images are available in several formats: JPEG (72 dpi, c.1mb), small TIFF (300 dpi, 5-10mb) and large TIFF (600dpi, 60-80mb). The JPEG format is for research purposes only and the most suitable for researchers. It is also possible to obtain photographic and paper prints. All orders are subject to a £10 administration fee and VAT (where applicable). JPEG reproductions (per page, not per folio) cost £3 each up to 10 photographic exposures. If more than 10, the price is £100 (1-50 images), £200 (1-100 images) and £300 (1-200 images). Above 200 images, the price is £100 per 100 images. Authorization from the JRL is needed if the requested images are to be used in a publication. To place an order, complete the Imaging Service Application Form and return it to the CHICC Imaging Service office. The CHICC Imaging Service prices and the Imaging Service Application Form are displayed on the “Order an image” webpage, as well as other useful pieces of information (see Resources and Links). Reproduction orders can be made remotely. Payment is requested in advance of an order being processed.

NB: Highlights from the collections kept at the JRL, including Rylands Collection, Rylands Genizah Collection and Rylands Papyri Collection, are freely available at the University of Manchester Image Collection website. For instance, the manuscript Arabic MS 378 [372], which contains Ibn Sina’s Kitāb al-Shifā’, is entirely available there in digitized high-definition form.


A view of the new entrance to the library.

Self-Service Photography

Self-service free of charge photography is allowed in the Elsevier Reading Room for private research purposes only. For each document, one should fill out an application and hand it over to a member of the staff at the desk. Pay close attention to the list of rules listed on the reverse of the form. Many items in the JRL are covered by Copyright Law, which includes unpublished manuscripts.

Transportation, Food and Other Facilities

Reaching the JRL is quite easy. When in Manchester city center, simply use the free Metroshuttle lines 1 or 2 and get off at the Deansgate (John Rylands Library) stop. You will find the Library in front of you, on the other side of the street. You can download a map of the Metroshuttle lines in PDF format on the following webpage:

Breakfast and lunch are served daily at Café Rylands inside the JRL building for a reasonable price. It is opened every day of the week (Monday to Friday from 8:30 to 16:30; Saturday from 9:00 am to 16:30; Sunday from 11:00 to 16:30). There are many other restaurants and cafés in the vicinity of the library as well.

There is a book and souvenir shop inside the main entrance of the JRL building.

Contact Information

The John Rylands Library,
150 Deansgate,
M3 3EH

E-mail addresses: (general and reader enquiries), (visitor and event enquiries).

Telephone: 0044 161 275 37 64 (general and reader enquiries), 0044 161 306 05 55 (visitor and event enquiries).

Resources and Links (in alphabetical order)

ELGAR: Electronic Gateway Archives at Rylands

Guardian (formerly Manchester Guardian) Archive

Guide to the Special Collections of the JRL

Jewish, Near Eastern and Oriental Studies


Order an image

Manchester eScholar Services

Near Eastern and Oriental Studies

The John Rylands Library website

The John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

The University of Manchester Image Collection (The Rylands Collection; Rylands Genizah; Rylands Medieval Collection; Rylands Papyri; Arts, Histories & cultures Repository)

Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library


I would like to thank Elizabeth Gow, Manuscript Curator and Archivist, for the detailed information she offered me on the JRL as I wrote this article.

Teymour Morel is a PhD candidate at the University of Geneva and EPHE, Paris, and a full time collaborator to the European Research Council project “PhiC” (Philosophy in Context: Arabic and Syriac Manuscripts in the Mediterranean), directed by Maroun Aouad (Research Director at CNRS, Paris – Centre Jean Pépin – UPR 76).

Citation: Teymour Morel, “John Rylands Library”, HAZINE, 27 Nov 2014,

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