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Asian Special Collections

The Asian special collections comprise tens of thousands of rare books, thousands of manuscripts, maps, prints, drawings and photographs, and hundreds of archives.

Predominant is the written heritage originating from or dealing with Southeast Asia (especially Indonesia), South Asia and Tibet, and East Asia. The collections contain first and foremost an abundance of native materials, such as palm leaf manuscripts and block prints, documenting the many religions, languages and cultures of Asia in word and image over a period of more than four centuries. But also ship logs, correspondences, research reports, publications, photographs and other source materials have been collected that testify to the presence of European travelers, merchants, scholars, colonial civil servants and institutions in Asia.

Asian Library

The Asia collections – brought together by Leiden University Libraries in the main building at Witte Singel – belong to the most important  collections worldwide, both in quantity and quality. They are made available in the Asian Library, with a newly built study area on the second floor.

Besides the university library’s own Southeast Asia collections the Asian Library contains the collections of the libraries of the Sinology department, of Japanese and Korean Studies, and of the former Kern Institute (South-Asian and Tibetan Studies). 2013 and 2014 saw the incorporation of two important long-term loans: the Heritage Collection of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam and the library of the Leiden based Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). Both are now part of the Asian Library.

The Asian manuscripts, rare books and image materials can be consulted in the Special Collections Reading Room.

European Expansion and Oriental studies

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in order to organize the lucrative trade in spices from Asia efficiently. This enterprise received a trade monopoly,  equipped many ships, built trading posts and fortresses, and obtained large areas in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, trading agencies were established in South Asia and East Asia. At the end of the 1700s the VOC went bankrupt. All debts and overseas possessions were annexed by the Dutch state, who established a colonial administration in the Indonesian archipelago which lasted until 1949.

Shortly after 1600 the library acquired the first written materials from Asia. But the true foundation of the Asia collection was laid in the second half of the nineteenth century, when substantial collections found their way to the library. Among these were the colonial library of the Royal Academy in Delft (1864), the books of the physician and scholar of Japan studies Philipp Franz von Siebold (1881) and the bequest of the linguist and Indologist Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk (1895-1897).

The growth of the Asian collections kept pace with the increasing study of Asian languages and cultures in Leiden. The German scholar Johann Joseph Hoffmann was appointed professor of Chinese and Japanese in 1855. Hendrik Kern professor of Sanskrit in 1865. The State institute for the education of East-Indian civil servants was moved from Delft to Leiden.


Search the online catalogue for descriptions of manuscripts, rare books and other materials; for descriptions of their digitized versions; for general information about the collection they are part of (the collection guides); and for online exhibitions. Romanisation is used for non-Latin script records, but currently efforts are being undertaken to create records in vernacular script. It is possible to refine your search with criteria such as year of publication, material type or language. Use Digital Collections to view digitized items. Several subject guides have been written about the Asian collections, providing a comprehensive overview of reference works, databases, websites and collection guides.

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