“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” by Joshua Hammer – a book about scholarship and preserving ancient texts

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer has one of the best titles of books read this year. Unfortunately, it might encourage you to anticipate that this book would be fast paced and full of action which it isn’t. Don’t let that put you off though because this book is absolutely fascinating and an introduction to areas of African history which I didn’t know at all.

Timbuktu is in Mali and for many centuries it has been at the centre of Islamic scholarship in the continent. Held in the city and surrounding countryside are thousands of extremely rare and beautiful texts which are the treasure of the family holding them. The problem has been, however, that these manuscripts have been deteriorating because they have been held in less than ideal conditions and also that because they were held privately they have not been available for historians and scholars to study. For years institutions, mostly funded with money from America, have worked with local communities to gather these texts and preserve them. The people who have done this are already respected within their communities and often have inherited collections of their own. This book particularly concentrates on a successful librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara.

All was going well until Al Qaeda forces invaded Mali and took over the government of the area around Timbuktu. Their theology and beliefs do not honour scholarship and especially not the collection of manuscripts which may have different interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history than those they consider to be the truth. The libraries were in danger of destruction and the librarians in danger of death. A life’s work of collection and preservation was in jeopardy.

Believing that they needed to preserve these ancient texts the librarians and other committed people risked their lives to ferry 350,000 manuscripts out of the danger area and to safety – again funded by Western money. The librarians and their allies used many different ways of concealing and transporting the documents – by river, by truck, stored in cases, hidden in jars. They bribed guards and crossed checkpoints and stored manuscripts in their own homes. Many of those doing the smuggling were younger people who risked their lives.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I didn’t know about the rich heritage of scholarship in Mali and the manuscripts that document it. I thought that the situation was horrendous and what the librarians did was heroic I was particularly fascinated by the hidden manuscripts in families and personal libraries in the country. The book is well written and very interesting.

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