The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts (2016)

Book review by Marina Davis

In what is now the west African country of Mali, a cultural and economic mecca was built at the crossroads of the African salt and gold trades. The city was named Timbuktu. For centuries, taxes on trade financed a thriving academic culture in Timbuktu. The city’s academic and religious authorities created scholarly works and recorded ideas on a multitude of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, history, medicine, and literature. They wrote in Arabic and local languages, such as Tamasheq and Peul. 

This book recounts the hundreds of thousands of handwritten manuscripts that have been endangered many times in Timbuktu’s history. From war to invasion to colonialism and environmental change, these documents are perpetually under threat. Yet a set of citizens of Timbuktu have put their lives in danger to preserve these academic and religious works. The manuscripts were collected, traded, and carefully amassed in private collections and handed down through the generations. Most recently the 2012 Mali coup d’etat and subsequent ongoing war and frequent uprisings against the Malian government, continues to threaten the manuscripts and the whole region's academic and historical inheritance.  

This book shares some of the stories of the people involved in the manuscript’s conservation effort. The book largely focuses on Abdel Kader Haidara (1964-), who has devoted his life to preserving the region’s manuscripts and academic traditions. Al Qaeda's hold on Timbuktu and other parts of the region directly after the coup d'etat in 2012 until their expulsion in 2013, forced the creation of a secret manuscript funneling and hiding organization of sorts which saved hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. Victories often commingled with setbacks, like the burning of 4,202 manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Institute courtyard (A large depository for manuscripts in Timbuktu); yet more than 10,000 were safely stored in the Institute’s basement. Haidara helped to save around 377,000 manuscripts and in so doing saved perhaps the best resource on the precolonial knowledge and life of the region by first hiding the books and then starting the digitizing process which is ongoing.

This book educates about the region's history of conflicts, the manuscripts’ importance and contents, and the individual efforts that culture keepers have made to safeguard precolonial history. The academic tradition of west Africa is not well known or often studied in academia and the struggle to preserve the few resources there are on the subject is one that any historically or academically minded person can appreciate.

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