African Manuscripts - a treasure in danger?

I have worked with manuscripts for over 20 years now; as a librarian, academic and as a consultant helping others to digitise their collections. I have worked in various African countries with many great libraries and archives for over 10 years. I love Africa, I love the people, the culture, the heritage - their manuscript collections, archives and rock art are things of wonder. Not least because Africa is a continent that has been wracked by the three horsemen of the manuscript conservationists nightmares: war, pestilence and natural disaster.

So it is with incredible sadness that I note today the loss of potentially thousands of manuscripts from the New Ahmed Baba Institute building in Mali. The story in the news (see Guardian and Sky) and online (@howden_africa in particular) suggests that:
"Islamist insurgents retreating from the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu have set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, in what the town's mayor described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage. (Guardian 28/1/2013)"

[Note: updates on the situation may be found at the bottom of this blog posting]

Courtesy of Steve Kemper's blog
In 2009, the new building of the Ahmed Baba Institute was officially opened in Mali. It is the product of a bi-lateral agreement between the South African and Malian governments. The building is one of several conditions of the agreement, all of which aim to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage. The new building not only contains "state-of-the-art resources for the proper storage and preservation of the manuscripts, but also has facilities for researchers, including conference rooms and a lecture theatre, a library and accommodation for researchers from abroad".

Courtesy of Steve Kemper's blog

These images show some of the way's the manuscripts were stored and also the conservation and preservation work that was going on at the Institute. Just a few miles from the Niger River Delta in Mali, Timbuktu at first appears as a labyrinth of single-story mud buildings - it is a final outpost before the Sahara Desert. Timbuktu is a cliche used to describe anywhere very remote or hard to reach. But it is also synonymous with heat, sand, dust, conflict and cultural riches. The institute is an essential bulwark against those who would seek to destroy or allow nature to destroy cultural artefacts of great value. Some estimates suggest 30,000 or more manuscripts in the collection. The Institute however is just one of the more than 60 private libraries holding ancient manuscripts, according to The Hidden Treasures Of Timbuktu, by scholars John O. Hunwick and Alida Jay Boye. “The historic manuscripts of Timbuktu,” they write, “are revolutionizing our understanding of Africa, increasing our knowledge of African history and unveiling the mysteries of this paradoxically famous yet almost unknown city.”

There is also a fabulous report from the Ford Foundation that is well worth checking out (Secrets of the Sahara by Christopher Reardon). I quote the end of this report here:
"The institute aims to bridge the gap between scholarship on Islam and scholarship on Africa. Scholars of Islam tend to ignore its development in Africa,Hunwick explains,despite the vast number of Muslims there. Likewise, many Africanists consider Islam marginal to their field. And scholars of religion largely overlook both the study of Islam in Africa and the study of religion in Africa in general. Through publications, symposia and fellowships for African researchers, the institute seeks to show that these fields are more closely intertwined than most scholars recognize.
“We hope, too, to enlighten the general public as to the role that Islam has played in African societies,” Hunwick says, “and to the fact that much of Africa has long enjoyed literacy and an intellectual life—matters that may help to erase some of the unfortunate stereotypes about Africa… [Then] Timbuktu will cease to be seen just as a legendary fantasy, and will be recognized for what it really was—a spiritual and intellectual jewel inspired by the Islamic faith.”
Indeed, the world these manuscripts reveal is one in which a tremendous volume of goods and ideas flowed across the Sahara in all directions—linking Europe, Africa and Arabia. If not for the families who have preserved these texts all these years, this vibrant past might have been lost forever. 

“When we speak, the words disappear,” says Alpha Sané Ben Es Sayouti, who dreams of opening a private library to house his father’s collection. “But what is written should remain for all time.” 

All this just highlights the absolute tragedy of the loss reported today through the burning down of several buildings in Timbuktu that included the Ahmed Baba Institute. War and conflict bring dangers to such collections and the human tragedy that surrounds this cultural tragedy must not be forgotten. In some ways this cultural tragedy may help those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, who live nicely homeostatically balanced lives of safety and relative security, to appreciate the fragility of culture and heritage and of human life. They all only survive because humans care for and value them. Without our attention, our care or our passion then they will die or wither away. Timbuktu teaches this stark lesson in both human and heritage terms.

Digitisation and the Future

Back about 8 years ago I gave some early advice to the Aluka project. They were looking to do work on digitising manuscripts in Timbuktu and I was able to advise on issues of digital camera's, imaging etc in such extremes of hot, dusty environments whether in tent, mud hut, library building or back of a truck. I also explored the idea of using vacuum packing as an affordable and feasible mechanism for storing manuscripts such that they did not further deteriorate in the Sarah regions. The Aluka project team went on to carry out projects in the region and I was happy to see this progress although I'd dearly have liked to travel out there and help in person.

Aluka reports this about The Timbuktu Manuscripts Collection:
In 2005, Aluka began a dialogue with members of library and scholarly communities, expressing its interest in helping to solve some of the challenges faced by libraries in Timbuktu. In January 2007, after a series of meetings and discussions in Cape Town, New York, and Timbuktu, Aluka entered into a formal partnership with SAVAMA-DCI (L’organisation Non Gouvernmentale pour la Sauvegarde et la Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Defense de la Culture Islamique), a Timbuktu-based NGO whose mission is to help private manuscript libraries in Mali safeguard, preserve, and understand their intellectual treasures. As part of this project, Aluka also partnered with two academic groups, Northwestern University’s Advanced Media Production Studio (NUAMPS), led by Mr. Harlan Wallach, and the Tombouctou Mss Project at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Historical Studies. The first phase of this multilayered project is Aluka’s commitment to provide SAVAMA-DCI with the resources to catalogue 600 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara and Imam Essayouti Libraries in Timbuktu and to digitise 300 of these manuscripts.

300 manuscripts - that's all that has been digitised. Out of the thousands lost only 300 have been imaged by Aluka and maybe a few more hundreds by other means.

We have a task to do here. We have to be aware of the risk and rewards in digitising these manuscripts. I have helped to design and deliver the digitisation of hundreds of projects and millions of objects. I worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls digitisation. But it has to be said, it is these forgotten treasures that really stir my heart.

Africa has been badly served by digitisation in the past, often it has been the subject of Western cultural imperialism of the worst and most unhelpful kind. Michelle Pickover, curator of manuscripts at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, argues that ’Cyberspace is not an uncontested domain. The digital medium contains an ideological base – it is a site of struggle.’ The real challenges in collection digitisation in national memory institutions, she argues, are not technological or technical but social and political. Librarians and archivists are ‘agents of social change’ who, through their appraisal, selection, arrangement and retention of material, are able to become active participants in the production of social memory, and who, by the nature of their work, cannot help but ‘privilege certain narratives and silence or marginalise others.’
(M. Pickover, ‘Negotiations, Contestations and Fabrications: The Politics of Archives in South Africa Ten Years After Democracy’, Innovation, 30 (2005), pp. 1–11.)

As Rebecca Kahn and I state in our forthcoming book chapter "Building Futures – An Examination of The Role of Digital Collections in Shaping Identity in National Collections in Africa" for the SCOLMA 50th Anniversary book:
Digital curators also have to labour with the understanding that, in young technological environments, many projects are funded because they are in the interest of a handful of people – often those individuals who are able to argue for funding for a particular project when the link between digitisation and ‘the public good’ is easily made. In reality this means that often a national-level information and knowledge-sharing strategy sets a precedent, and in these cases it is likely that the types of material that support this strategy become those types of material , be they  continue to be the focus of digitisation projects. History tells us that in a new technical environment – in the period before something becomes ‘business as usual’ – it is the passionate, the visionary, the expert and the collection owners who tend to define and decide what gets digitised. This can leave the beneficial stakeholders being ‘told’ what good digitised content is. In many countries with new and growing digitisation activities, the first materials produced become ‘digital icons’; because these are often the only digital content available, they become the sole version of the ‘truth’. However, these items are actually simply the result of a series of circumstantial choices and may only represent one perspective. It is, however, extremely difficult to change the precedent and trajectory set by past digitisation. As a result, it is often useful, when considering the relationship between digitisation and nation-building, to look at what activities are not taking place and what material is being left out. This can help to suggest a direction for digitisation and the projection of national identity in Africa...

African libraries have a unique opportunity to build digital collections that reflect an indigenous African identity, not an imagined Westernised one. It is essential, though, that even as opportunities are opened up, we remain pragmatic about the constructed nature of these identities, or risk repeating the myth-creation of preceding generations. 

Africa deserves better. We can save peoples lives with our money and our attention. We must also save the things that people have made over the centuries. The digital domain is an opportunity for the whole world to understand the sheer wonder and wealth of culture and heritage that Africa has. In the end we must make decisions about what we value. What we don't value and protect will be starkly apparent by what we lose - such as these manuscripts in Timbuktu.

PS. Update: This article in the Economist predicted the possible destruction in Timbuktu last year.

PPS. New updates:

  • Some hopeful news coming out of Mali. There will still be a huge loss but maybe some of the most valued items are safe. We will see.
  • British Library press release on the situation.
  • Dan Howden in the Independent 30th January 2013:
    And yet little has shocked the previously tolerant population as much as the violent assault on their multicultural history. Elhadj Djitteye, a resident who once made a living from guiding foreign visitors through the city’s great mausoleums recalled the confusion caused by the militants’ alien doctrine: “Many great powers like the Moroccans have dominated this city but these were the first people to tell us that our saints were blasphemy...They tried to break the heart of Timbuktu.”
  • Latest news from the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (31st Jan 2013):
    "By Monday night we finally managed to contact our colleague, Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institue, now based in Bamako. He heard much the same reports that we heard. However, he added that the majority of the mss. of the Institute was still stored in the old building – opened in 1974 and on the other side of the town, from the new building.  He told us that the latest news about the new building, as of eight days before the flight of the Ansar Dine, was that the building had not been destroyed. He said that around 10,000 mss had been stored in the new building since there was no more space for the mss in the old building.  They were placed in trunks in the vaults of the new building.  Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place and boxes were made there were only a few mss.  After seeing Sky News footage, he says that the images were of the few mss upstairs waiting to be worked on by the conservators.
  • However, by Tuesday morning, Dr. Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs and founding director of the Ahmad Baba Institute, told Time, that before the rebel take-over the manuscripts: “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”


  1. Whilst, much UK overseas aid goes to essential life saving programmes there is a distinct lack of 'digital' outside some skills and infrastructure programmes. Perhaps a smarter use of limited funds would be to direct some of this effort towards enabling grant programmes that could do more than one thing. For example, provide tools, skills and the ability to capture and present local content to a global audience with cloud or other preservation solutions in place. One for DEFRA perhaps?

    1. I agree. That's why I run the Digital Futures workshop at ICADLA. See:

  2. Africa is not a country, but I get what you're saying here.

  3. Michelle Pickover is correct to state that the digital medium is a highly contested area. In my own experience in South Africa it's the narratives of the current regime which are favoured above all others when it comes to funding from abroad. I would argue that a more balance approach is necessary if a skewed view of history isn't the one we want to preserve.

  4. billcohen11@ca.rr.com29 January 2013 at 19:24

    If some of the manuscripts were digitized are they available outside Mali?

    1. Yes, if you navigate to the links in the blog you will find some digitised content.

  5. I wanted to share this comment on a mailing list with the blog:

    Onderwerp: Re: [Arcan-l] Destruction of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu

    One of the unfortunate aspects of this, of course, is that the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
    I asked a ethnographer friend who has worked in Mali in the past and he forwarded this message (dated May 8, 2012) from the email list of the Mande Studies Association:

    Note that Stephanie indicates "the vast majority of manuscripts" were hidden in "private collections in the desert." That is neither "secure nor sustainable," but it is also, as I understand, where they were stored for centuries. Certainly makes one wonder about the boundaries of the archive...

    French readers may find this news site of interest:

    We know that cultural heritage transcends national boundaries, that it plays an extremely important role in government and power, and that threats to cultural heritage come from more than armed conflict and natural disasters.
    And yet, faced with catastrophe, we can only ask assistance from the governing entities that seek to manipulate and control cultural heritage for their own agendas. I have no idea what it would look like, but a new paradigm must be found.
    Otherwise, we can only expect the "ruling class" to express sadness and disbelief about yet another tragic loss of records, and conveniently overlook the fact that these "non-state actors" are attempting to employ the same kind of cultural hegemony that nation-states have used for centuries.

    As always, these opinions are my own, not those of my employer.


    Creighton Barrett
    Dalhousie University Archives
    Tel: 902.494.6490 | Fax: 902.494.2062

  6. A little bit more on the subject by my colleague, Harvey Morris, on IHT Rendez Vous blog,
    It does seem that much has been saved, thankfully.

  7. As a Librarian and an African, it is painful to read that such important material might have been destroyed just to prove a point by the militants. While war is definitely one of our worst nightmares for any reason, indeed it has also contributed to the gaps in documentation about our history and contribution to history in general. Since a lot of history was oral (passed from generation to generation through story telling), it is admirable for a country to own written documents and to have preserved them so well in spite of the challenges faced with digitizing it all in such conditions.

  8. Great explanation of what could have been done to save these cultural heritage resources. As a digital librarian working in Kazakhstan, I'm trying to use digitization projects as a way to both preserve local history and cultural and to provide greater access; however, it's definitely hard to find funding and resources.

    I found your blog through the DIGLIB listserv, and will definitely be following regularly from now on!

  9. It is a pretty noticeable problem and I think that we should take some necessary steps to save the precious and ancient asset of the South African country.

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