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Religion Collections in Libraries and Archives: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia

Library of Congress: Asian Division

Introductory Information

Library of Congress: Asian Reading Room

Address: 10 First Street SE, Thomas Jefferson Building, LJ 150, Washington, DC 20540-4810

Telephone number: 202-707-5426

Contact information

Online catalog

Collection overviews

Digital collections

Access Policies

Hours of service

Open to the public: Yes

Interlibrary loan: Yes

Reference policy: Reference requests are accepted in person and by Ask a Librarian or phone.

A Library of Congress Reader Registration card is required to use Library of Congress reading rooms. To obtain a registration card, applicants must be 16 years of age or older and present photo identification bearing a verifiable permanent address. Please see Reader Registration and Access to Library of Congress Reading Rooms for more information.

Background Note

From its beginnings with an 1866 deposit of Malay manuscripts and early printed books by the Smithsonian Institute, the Asian collections housed at the Library of Congress have grown to more than 4 million physical items, representing one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian-language materials in the world. Available by request, both online and in-person at the Asian Reading Room, the collections include most subject fields, covering a geographic area ranging from the South Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Korea as well as the Asian diaspora. Complementing these collections are important materials related to Asian countries and languages in other areas of the Library. These include legal materials, films, manuscripts, maps, music, ethnographic recordings and photographs maintained in other reading rooms. In addition, extensive Western language materials on Asia are part of the Library's General Collection and accessible through the Main Reading Room.

The Library’s Asian collections also include a growing body of electronic resources. While many of these resources can be accessed from anywhere, hundreds of Asian studies subscription databases and in-copyright digitized resources are only accessible in the Asian Reading Room and on the Library of Congress campus. Users not able to visit in-person can explore the Library's growing digital collections, curated web archives, and freely available online resources on Asian studies through the Asian Reading Room website.

Collection Highlights

As of May 2022, there are 817 titles under the Library of Congress Subject Heading “China—Religion” and 3,128 titles under “Philosophy, Chinese.” The Chinese collection has a number of subscription databases and e-resources that provide numerous full-text books and serials relevant to Chinese religion and philosophy. Information about Chinese religions is also available in the Chinese collection's extensive holdings of cong shu (collectanea) and fang zhi (local histories).

The Chinese Rare Book Collection has some rare items on religion such as the Dunhuang manuscripts, namely, Chinese Buddhist manuscripts from the Tang period (618-906 A.D.). It also has Buddhist sutras from the Song and Yuan periods (960-1368 A.D.), such as, the Sutras of the Heart of Prajna from the Thunder Peak Pagoda (Incomplete volumes, printed in 975 A.D.) and an 11th-century Buddhist scroll of the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra. Another highlight is the illustrated book of Life and Activities of Shakyamuni Buddha Incarnate (1486). Volume I of the book depicts the life of Gautama Buddha through the period of enlightenment; volume II his ministry; volume III the spread of Buddhism to China; and volume IV the reception accorded to this religion by Chinese emperors and officials of various dynasties. Many works on Chinese religions are available through the Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection.

The Asian Division’s collection of 2,780 Naxi (Nashi) manuscripts is the largest collection outside of China. It has pictographic manuscripts on religious practices and shamanism from the Naxi tribe in Yunnan province (view selections of this collection online). The William Gamble Collection includes 120 reports and other items from Christian mission hospitals, presses, and other institutions at Ningbo and Shanghai, ca. 1800-1858. It also contains Chinese translations of 19th-century Christian tracts and scriptures.

The Japanese collection contains extensive holdings of monographs, periodicals, and rare books relevant to the study of religion. Topical coverage is especially strong for schools of Buddhism that developed or originated in Japan, Shinto and various forms of kami worship, and the history of Christianity in Japan. Studies on the early history of Buddhism in South Asia as well as Buddhist traditions across East Asia are also well represented. Most of these works were published from the mid-twentieth century onward, although a smaller but still significant number date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Periodicals range from scholarly journals to publications from particular religious organizations or communities; they include both original issues as well as reprinted multi-volume sets of rare or out-of-print titles.

Among the more than 6,000 items in the Japanese Rare Book Collection, which primarily contains works created before 1868, are several hundred works pertaining to the various religious traditions described above. One special collection of note is the grouping of ofuda votive slips and other ephemeral religious literature collected by scholar Frederick Starr (1858-1933) at shrines and temples during his travels across Japan.

The Korean collection’s holdings are extensive and emphasize Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism, including sacred texts in the vernacular, commentaries on these texts, and secondary sources. One example is Kŭrisŭdo sinmun, a Protestant newspaper founded in 1897 by H.G. Underwood. This newspaper published domestic and international news and religious content in addition to various articles on practical scientific technology and cultural news in agriculture and industry. The Korean collection has issues on microfilm from 1897 to 1902.

The Korean Rare Book Collection comprises some 700 titles in over 3,700 volumes, including valuable pre-19th century publications printed on mulberry paper in traditional Chinese characters. Among the rare materials is the Chikchi (Jikji), a collection of Korean Buddhist documents, one of the oldest extant examples of printing in the world. One will also find photoreprints of the first book in the world to be printed with movable metal type, which was created in 1377. The collection also contains Sinyak chyŏnsyŏ (= Korean enmun New Testament) from 1900, which is the first edition of the Korean translation of the New Testament. The Library’s first edition is signed by H.G. Appenzeller (1858-1902), a pioneer of Methodist missionary efforts in the Korean peninsula. The Korean rare books on Christianity can be searched via the site: Han'guk Ch'odae Kidokkyo Munsŏ (Library of Congress). Two highlights related to Buddhism are Yenyŏm mit'a toryang ch'ambŏp from between 1469-1494 and Myobŏp yŏnhwagyŏng, Tripitaka from 1559.

The Mongolian Buddhist tradition is well represented in both rare and modern editions, including the canonical collections of Mongolian Kanjur and Tanjur, bilingual Tibetan-Mongolian texts, modern commentaries, and works on Mongolian shamanism. The rare collection includes many 18th – 19th c. xylographs of Buddhist sutras, such as the Ocean of Parables (Uliger-un dalai), Sutra of the Golden Light (Altan gerel-tu), Collection of Sutras (Gzungdui), and the Mongolian translation of the Diamond Sutra, as well as an elaborately illustrated manuscript of the Mongolian translation of the Sutra of the Great Liberation, acquired by William W. Rockhill. The Mongolian Kanjur is a complete reprint edition of the Buddhist canonical texts in 108 volumes, published in New Delhi, 1973-1974 by Dr. Lokesh Chandra. This edition was photoreproduced from the Imperial Red block-print edition of 1720, which in turn was based on the rare handwritten Ligden Khan Kanjur produced in the early 17th c. The Mongolian Tanjur is available as a set of photographic enlargements made from a microfilmed copy of the extremely rare Urga Tanjur in 1956-58 by Professor Raghu Vira. This edition was translated from Tibetan into Mongolian under the director of Lcang-skya Rol-pa’I rdo-rje in the mid 18th c. The democratic changes of the 1990s in Mongolia resulted in a revival of publishing of Buddhist texts and works on Buddhist studies and shamanism, which are all well represented in the modern collection.

The Library of Congress has a wide variety of materials pertaining to all religious traditions of South Asia. Between the Library’s General Collections and the Asian Division, there is an expansive collection of reprints, critical editions, and translations of the sacred works of Hinduism (e.g., Vedas, Upanishads), Jainism (e.g., Kalpasutra), and Sikhism (e.g., Guru Granth Sahib). There are also numerous works on South Asian Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, including primary sources produced by South Asian communities and secondary works analyzing these religious traditions from scholarly perspectives. A notable strength is the collection of materials on South Asian religious traditions in approximately 100 vernacular languages, including some publications, contemporary and retrospective, that are only available in North America through the Library of Congress. Contemporary publications are particularly strong after the establishment of the overseas offices in India (1962) and Pakistan (1965).

The South Asian Rare Book Collection has the following the strengths with regard to religion: the Indo-Aryan Ms. series of mostly Sanskrit manuscripts (browse titles on research guide); the Albrecht Weber collection, purchased in 1904, which includes more than 50 manuscript transcriptions of Sanskrit texts; Urdu manuscripts in the Naqvi collection including works related to Shia Islam; the Oscar Terry Crosby collection of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscript fragments that date to approximately 1100 CE; and a 2,000-year-old scroll from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara (view the manuscript online).

The Library of Congress has a wide variety of materials pertaining to Southeast Asian religious traditions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, and syncretic or folk beliefs. Most material—sacred works, critical editions, religious history, theological debates, interpretations of religious laws—is located at the Asian Division, General Collections, and Law Library.

Besides contemporary publications, the Library has rich holdings of rare Southeast Asian texts at the Asian Division and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, which date back to the 1500s. The Rare Book Division has the Doctrina Christiana, a Catechism in Spanish and Tagalog (both in romanized and the indigenous Baybayin scripts), the oldest extant book printed in the Philippines and Southeast Asia in 1593. This division also has custody of the Cathechismus pro ijs, qui volunt suscipere baptismum in octo dies diuisus. Published in 1651, this work by Father Alexandre de Rhodes was among the first works printed in a new script invented by Jesuit priests. A phonetic romanization of the Vietnamese language, the script evolved into quốc ngữ, the national written script of Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection at the Asian Division has the first Christian work in Malay printed in England, published in 1677, and a strong collection of Bibles and Christian missionary texts in various Southeast Asian languages: Malay, Bisaya, Bugis, Burmese, Javanese, Karen, Mon, Thai, Shan, Vietnamese and Tagalog, among them. The collection has a large number of Balinese Hindu manuscripts, many of which touch on religious rituals, mantras, magic spells, and stories about religious figures. It also has holdings of Batak calendars used for divination. It has a strong collection of Buddhist manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam which includes Pali works, the Tripitaka, popular Buddhist texts, related astrological works and non-canonical religious texts. This includes the first printed edition of the Tripitaka in Thai script, which was donated to the Library by King Chulalongkorn. See further the Tai manuscripts guide. For Islam, the collection has Malay and Bugis examples of Islamic history, religious traditions and popular works. And for Confucianism, the collection has an important set of Vietnamese Nôm works.

Religion is central to Tibetan culture, and the Asian Division has especially strong holdings of Tibetan Buddhist and Bonpo literature. Included are the canonical collections of Kanjur and Tanjur, in both original 18th-century xylographs and reprint editions, as well as extensive commentarial texts by Tibetan scholars. Individual xylographs of Buddhist texts, primarily 18th to 19th c., are included in the rare collections acquired by William W. Rockhill, Berthold Laufer, and Joseph Rock, 1900 – 1945. Current reprint editions and modern scholarly studies and commentaries are also well represented and have been acquired by the New Delhi Office since the 1960’s. Among the collection’s unique holdings are:

(1) The Bon-po Kanjur, 1st and 3rd reprint editions, and Bon-po Katen in 380 volumes - scriptures of Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion.
(2) The Derge Kanjur – 103 volumes, acquired by Rockhill at the Derge monastery in eastern Tibet in 1908.
(3) The Narthang Tanjur – 226 volumes, printed in the 18th century at the renowned Narthang monastery, taken to Beijing by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1908, and later acquired by Laufer.
(4) The Choni Kanjur and Tanjur – 317 volumes, acquired by Joseph Rock in 1926. These xylographs are especially rare since the printing blocks at Choni were destroyed in 1929 during conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Gansu province.