Preserving Endangered Archives on Ismailism and Central Asian Cultural Heritage at Semyonov’s Library in Tajikistan (EAP936)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to investigate the potential to digitise the endangered archives at Semyonov’s Memorial Library for a future major project. The initiative to preserve these valuable sources on Central Asian cultural heritage aligns with the University of Central Asia's (UCA) mission to help the different peoples of Central Asia to preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future. The custodians of traditional knowledge in Central Asia are aging and with limited resources, this knowledge is under threat from several forces including scarce resources, migration, and outside influences. The University's Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit (CHHU) is advancing that mission by preserving and promoting the unique and diverse cultural heritages of the region through research, documentation, archiving, and support of regional scholars. CHHU actively works to preserve and generate knowledge on the cultural heritages of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Its past initiatives have included audio-visual records of Kyrgyz cultural traditions such as death customs, funeral laments, cemeteries, semi-nomadic life of contemporary Kyrgyz herders, and komuz music. In Tajikistan, CHHU supported fundamental works of Tajik senior scholars on the musical arts and archaeology of the Pamir region.

During this project, the project team will make a detailed review of materials that are located at Semyonov’s Memorial Library in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. While travelling across Near East and Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Professor Semyonov and other Russian Oriental scholars collected valuable materials about the history and culture of the Ismaili people and, therefore, made a significant contribution to the study of Islamic philosophy, theology, and anthropology. Being one of the smallest Islamic sects, the Ismaili people are not well known to many researchers and wider audiences and are often misunderstood both in terms of their religious tenets and historical background. The rare collections at Semyonov’s Memorial Library shed light on the rich culture and history of the Ismaili people, including their early stages of development in the pre-industrial periods, and provide invaluable materials for scholars and students of Ismailism, Islam, and Muslim cultures. The proposed project is part of UCA’s broader efforts to preserve the cultural traditions and practices of the Ismaili people, some of which are at high risk of being lost as a large number of Ismailis have emigrated from their countries of origin in Central and South Asia and East Africa to North America and Europe.

Semyonov’s Memorial Library has been operating since 1958 within the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography named after A. Donish under the Academy of Science of the Republic of Tajikistan. Physical conditions of the materials differ according to their age. Overall, the physical condition of the whole collection of Semyonov’s Library is becoming progressively worse because of inadequate care. Manuscripts located at the library are mainly from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Newsletters, periodicals, and other publications are from the early 20th century. A large number of materials are in exceptionally vulnerable conditions and in danger of perishing if not digitised and properly cared for.

Since the independence of Tajikistan from the Soviet Union in 1991, Semyonov’s Library has not received sufficient funding to modernize its facilities (e.g. to change window frames to prevent accumulation of dust and dirt inside the building). Manuscript cleaning and treatment technologies are outdated. None of the materials at the library have been properly digitised; the staff scanned some materials using regular office scanners, but the scanned copies are of poor quality. Moreover, some manuscripts have been badly eaten by insects and are damaged around the edges because the library cannot afford to buy special insect repellents. In addition to insufficient government funding, less attention was paid to the rare collections at Semyonov’s Library by donor agencies despite the fact that the collections are an important cultural, historical, and intellectual heritage.

About 35-40% of the entire library collection is expected to fulfill the criteria of being ancient, endangered archives. UCA aims to fully document and preserve such archival materials, and the proposed pilot project will be the first step towards achieving this goal.


Due to the research carried out by the project team, the University of Central Asia and Semyonov’s Memorial Library within the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan, have signed an agreement to work together to preserve the endangered archives of the library. The project provided a unique opportunity, for the first time, to develop and organise a catalogue of books, manuscripts and other collections that the library possesses, and make the catalogue available to researchers and readers.

Over the course of the project the team have developed an electronic catalogue for the library, which comprises of 8611 library holdings - valuable books, manuscripts, guides, dictionaries, encyclopaedias on Central Asian cultures and languages, articles and monographs. From the total holdings of the library, 396 books are in Arabic and Persian; 112 manuscripts; 284 lithograph; 413 books in English; French and German. The holdings in Russian, 7802 items, have been also catalogued, which consist of 6021 reference books, dictionaries and brochures; and 1781 journals. The team also organised the library’s holdings, re-shelving, labelling, cleaning and in addition partly repaired 2170 books. It has become possible, for the first time, to develop an electronic catalogue for the full collection of the library, many of which are rare and valuable books and manuscripts, due to the support of the project. The catalogue is divided into three separate catalogues: in Russian, Persian and English.

Catalogue translated from Persian and Tajik (PDF document 613KB)

Russian catalogue (PDF document 7,871KB)