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Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory, Illustrate Need for Libraries

April 12, 2010 12:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Work is ongoing to restore and maintain Timbuktu’s ancient texts, calling attention to past scholarship in sub-Saharan Africa, and to book restoration efforts around the world.

Restoration Could Bring Needed Income to Timbuktu

Timbuktu is in the midst of a crucial effort to restore ancient books. Those living in the Mali city see “economic opportunity” in preservation and displaying of the texts, Karin Brulliard explains for The Washington Post. But researchers and residents also hope to maintain physical evidence of a sub-Saharan Africa of centuries past, one whose role “as a vibrant hub of scholarship” is little-known by the outside world.

Brulliard reports that “hundreds of thousands of privately held manuscripts” have withstood extreme weather and termites, despite being etched into “fragile paper or lambskin.” Most of the books were written in Arabic at a time when scholars and visitors were descending on Timbuktu, then “a crucial trade junction” and home to a “university of 25,000 students.”

Libraries Built and Being Built in Timbuktu

Global Post offers a photo slideshow that includes images of Timbuktu’s Sankore Mosque, formerly Sankore University in the 14th century, and of the Ahmed Baba center, which has been partially funded by South Africa and will hold approximately 100,000 ancient manuscripts when completed.

In an accompanying article for Global Post, Nicolas Brulliard discusses Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library, which sees around 5,000 visitors per year and “employs 15 people.” Constructed in 1999, the library was one of the first to gather and display ancient texts, and serves as an example for private citizens’ libraries sprouting up in Timbuktu. The assistant director of Mamma Haidara, Mohammed M. Toure, tells Global Post that he hopes to preserve the manuscripts, and to eventually make them available online.

Brulliard met with a Timbuktu resident that owns more than 2,500 ancient family manuscripts that “act as a written record of centuries of Arab and North African culture.” The man is in the process of building a library for his texts, but needs more funding to complete the project.

Background: Ahmed Baba center

The official Web site of the Ahmed Baba center, a collaboration between the Mali and South African governments, describes the library’s goals: to conserve Timbuktu’s historic manuscripts “through the provision of training, technical support and assistance for the development of conservation facilities.” A training program involving “conservation and repair to manuscripts” is in place at institutions in South Africa. 

Documentary Explores Timbuktu's Ancient Manuscripts

Filmmaker Sharron Hawkes recently completed an hour-long documentary about Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts, with particular focus on astronomy. Hawkes told Zisanda Nkonkobe of the Daily Dispatch that she’d hoped to provide evidence “that astronomy was being done in the 1400s.” Hawkes’ team also discovered while making the film that Islamic people used astronomy to determine praying times. “They used a very tricky trigonometry,” she explained. According to Nkonkobe, Hawkes hopes to create a program that allows students to “learn the secrets of the manuscripts” and continue with the research she performed.

The official site of the film, “Scribes of Timbuktu,” discusses ancient astronomers, features a promotional clip of the film and has information on how to purchase a DVD featuring extras. Hawkes hopes to produce “short educational films directed at young learners,” encouraging them to study math, science and African history. Study guides would accompany the films.

Related Topic: Ancient books in Pakistan, China

In China, preservation of ancient texts is almost revered. Only a few very competitive universities offer programs in ancient book restoration, according to Kitty Bu and Hanna Rantala for Reuters. China’s National Library, which houses 2 million books, had nearly 100,000 books in need of serious restoration in May 2009, when the Reuters story was published. Rare books researcher and so-called book doctor Du Weisheng tells Reuters he isn’t curing the books, but rather prolonging their lives. Digitizing the texts is the only way to ensure they’re not lost.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari
discussed this week “the need for preserving the cultural heritage of the country,” namely by building a new museum that will include an archaeological wing for “diverse collections and rare books.” In addition, an “interactive museum-learning” program for students will be created, according to Dawn News.

More Libraries Around the World

FindingDulcinea’s feature on the “World’s Greatest Libraries: Past and Present” includes the largest, the oldest and the most technologically advanced libraries, as well as those with unique collections, architecture or locations. Included among the libraries are the Library of Alexandria, founded in 228 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Yunju Temple of 7th century China.

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