Apr 262015


Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovitz Library of African Studies holds an important collection of Arabic Manuscripts, including the intact library of Nigerian scholar-trader ‘Umar Falke (1893-1962). Falke’s collection of over three thousand original 19th– and 20th-century manuscripts was collected on his travels through Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. The documents span all aspects of Islamic learning, and provide a unique opportunity to study the tradition of manuscript production during this time period in Western Africa.   Very little has been recorded or published about the material history of this tradition, or the practices of scribes and copyists who created these documents.

During a recent survey of the Falke collection, a single instance of the yellow pigment orpiment (As2S3) was identified. While some literature states that yellows in manuscripts of this time and location were made exclusively with locally sourced yellow ochres (various iron-oxide and –hydroxide pigments), it is possible that orpiment was still in use, consistent with the practices of earlier centuries. Conservation Fellow Graham Patten is currently undertaking a research project that focuses primarily on the yellow pigments, as well as the binding media used to make the inks.

The main questions raised at the outset of the research are: what are the identities of the pigments and binders, how did they come to be in Western Africa, why were specific pigments chosen for various specific uses in the texts, and what can these issues tell us about the nature of trade and manuscript production during the time period in question? These ideas will be addressed in terms of their social, religious, and economic contexts.

In order to determine how commonly yellows occur in the collection, locate examples for chemical analysis, and aid future research on other colors, Graham made a visual survey of all colors used in the collection, looking at a random sampling of about one-third of the collection. His survey predicts that approximately 4% of the manuscripts contain yellow pigment, a finding consistent with the earlier preservation needs assessment survey.

Currently, Graham is conducting Raman spectroscopy on the pigments at Northwestern University’s Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experiment Center (NUANCE) to identify the particular yellow colorants used. Raman spectroscopy is well suited to the study of minerals and other inorganic materials, and has been used successfully in recent years for the identification of artists’ pigments. One aspect of this technique that is particularly attractive for library and archives materials is that analysis can be performed in-situ without the need for destructive sampling. The results of this analysis will add a great deal to our knowledge of materials used in this relatively undocumented tradition, and bring us a step closer to answering some of the questions we have about this unique collection.

Apr 232015


The ‘Umar Falke Collection is the largest of the four Arabic manuscript collections held by the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies and consists of over 3,000 items, the majority of which are 19th and early 20th century manuscripts written in a wide variety of inks on single unbound sheets of paper. The collection, which is housed in traditional leather wrappers, represents the intact library of ‘Umar Falke, a prominent Nigerian trader, scholar and author, and contains manuscripts on all aspects of Islamic learning and protective medicine. The collection is particularly strong in works on Sufism and in almost all the branches of Islamic sciences as well as Maliki law and jurisprudence, theology, literature, and grammar.


An example of a manuscript page with colored inks

The Falke Collection was chosen for an extensive preservation needs assessment survey. The purpose of the survey was to gather a complex range of information about the condition of paper, inks, and housings that would impact the conservation and digitization of such a large manuscript collection. A subsequent pilot project included repairing and digitizing selected manuscripts to determine treatment protocols and guidelines for image capture. At the 2014 conference of The Islamic Manuscript Association held at University of Cambridge, Scott Devine, Marie A. Quinlan Director of Preservation and Conservation, and Chief Conservator Tonia Grafakos presented a paper about the history of the collection, results of the survey, and potential for new research initiatives.

The uniqueness of the Falke Collection, coupled with growing scholarly interest in the intellectual history of West Africa, make it a prime candidate for both scholarly research and digitization. Ongoing work with the collection is underway, including a rehousing project and the development of research initiatives related to materials analysis. NUL’s Conservation Fellow, Graham Patten, is currently analyzing the yellow pigments found throughout the manuscripts; details of this investigation will be featured in upcoming posts.

Treatment documentation of losses

Treatment documentation of edge repairs