This article is a preliminary discussion of the circulation of textual material in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Zanzibar. Three main contentions are made in the article. First, that this corpus of texts constituted a public sphere that was intimately connected with the western Indian Ocean, primarily Arabia, but with branches to Egypt where much of the material was printed. Second, that the transition from manuscript mode of transmission to printed texts upheld the same principles for circulation. Finally, the article also points to how the use of this scriptural material as a basis for Islamic learning was expanded into new types of reading, reference, interpretation and copying. The article examines cases from Zanzibar, both manuscripts and printed books, from the point of view of the lifespan of the texts.