“French tanks were closing in on this storied caravan city on the night of Jan. 23, when the al Qaeda-backed militants who had governed Timbuktu since April left a departing blow. They broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves. Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world,” the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. This, after months of ruination, including the demolition of many sites central to Mali’s cultural heritage.

But thanks to a mix of old- and new-school preservation tools and strategies — donkey, the old “hide ’em under the floorboards” trick, and digitization — most of the 30 to 40,000 manuscripts survived. Prof. Abdoulaye Cissé and security guard Abba Alhadi told the Journal that “an estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart.” “[T]he people of Timbuktu have a centuries-old tradition of protecting and preserving their manuscripts,” the BBC reported. As South African researcher Mohamed Mathee explained to reporters, Malians “think on their feet when faced with these challenges… They take the documents to family homes and store them safely.” Plus, since the Ahmed Baba Institute was founded in 1973, Timbuktu has grown a network of official places of refuge — both physical and virtual — for its manuscripts, where the documents are preserved and digitized.

Last year Chris Bentley, a student in my Archives, Libraries & Databases graduate seminar, wrote a fantastic paper on Timbuktu’s Mamma Haïdara Commemorative Library. While we certainly celebrate the role that these preservation and digitization efforts have played in averting recent disaster, we also can’t ignore the complicated politics of such internationally-funded efforts. Chris, who served for two years in the Peace Corps in Mali, writes:

I found it difficult to balance the potential value the manuscripts may yield to scholarship with the internationally funded institutional practice of swooping in, building tangible monuments to donors’ generosity and skipping town – a tactic foreign aid and development organizations have mastered… While this is an improvement over the colonial practice of removing cultural artifacts from occupied regions, it is still a display of power and wealth that removes the manuscripts from their previous associations (with the descendents of the historian who started the collection) and places them in a sterile, secure, new environment that greater resembles Western methods of organization than Malian.

You can read the full paper here.

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