"I come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy."
Hiram B. Otis in Oscar Wilde, "The Canterville Ghost” (1887)
There are considerable collections of manuscripts in Arabic script at institutions in the US and Canada. Since these collections are accessible to scholars, it is salient that, in general, they receive little attention in teaching and research. On the one hand, few manuscripts in American collections are listed in the bio-bibliographical reference works by Carl Brockelmann (1868–1956), Georg Graf (1875–1955), and C. A. Storey (1888–1967). Their poor showing reflects the catch-22 that unpublished collections are invisible to scholarship. Even though American private collectors, as well as universities, museums, and public libraries, had been actively acquiring manuscripts in Arabic scripts at least since the second half of the nineteenth century, it took some time until private and institutional collectors first managed to catalog their new possessions and then to arrange for the publication of printed finding aids. On the other hand, research in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is driven by textual scholarship, which focuses on seminal works by renowned authors, so that the scholarly value of a manuscript collection is usually perceived to be the number of particularly old or otherwise rare manuscript witnesses for canonical authors and their works. Even though American collections include a fair number of exceptional manuscripts,they appear as rather undistinguished, if their holdings are compared to the fabulous riches of Islamic manuscript collections in Turkey, Iran, and India. Consequently, American and European scholars maintain research networks in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, as it seems counterintuitive to search for Islamic manuscripts in the US or Canada.
Against this backdrop I argue that the American collections of manuscripts in Arabic script are an untapped resource for research on book production and the book trade in Muslim societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. American collections were largely formed during the last phase of the Islamic manuscript tradition. Individuals and institutions started libraries from scratch, when the professional production of manuscripts slowly ceased to be commercially viable in Muslim societies; luckily some Americans had the means to buy by the box, and not just piecemeal by the codex. This bulk acquisition strategy created Islamic manuscript collections that provided snapshots of the manuscript trade in Muslim societies about a century after the adaptation of printing technology to large-scale commercial book production in the early nineteenth century.