Digitization as Preservation: Fleeing Mali Rebels Torch Historic Library in Timbuktu

By James Perla, Class of 2015

At the end of January, publications from the Guardian to the New York Times reported the tragic loss of priceless manuscripts dating as far back as the 13th century, the oldest dated from 1204.

Digitization could have allayed this tragedy; precious cultural and historical information would be safely cataloged in servers, firewalled against the elements and potential transgressors. There is so much effort taken to protect individuals from terrorism; books, manuscripts, and letters should not be discarded into the realm of additional or non-essential for language creates and distills culture, destroying the documents that define a region is an act of terrorism against cultural identity.

Rebels were not so much religious-extremists as criminals. They captured the city of Timbuktu and raised a black rebel flag, pirate-style. As French and Mali government forces approached the rebels torched two of the buildings that contained manuscripts.

These manuscripts cover topics ranging from astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. Many of these contained local African languages, as well as texts written in Arabic, preserved unique cultural history of Africa, and gave a counterexample to the myth that Africa only has an oral history. Some of the more peculiar documents included an ancient history of West Africa, letters of recommendation for a German explorer, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction.

Speaking on the reports, the Guardian quoted the chairman of the Timbuktu Manuscript Project, Esspo Pahad, who said: “it’s one of our greatest cultural treasure houses. It’s also one of the greatest houses of Islamic history. The writings are so forward-looking on marriage, on trade, on all sorts of things. If the libraries are destroyed then a very important part of African and world history are gone. It would be a catastrophe if the reports are true.”

Luckily, the reports are not true. The manuscript scare proved to be just that: a close call. The latest report says that around 10,000 manuscripts had been stored in a new building. Additionally, the restoration was taking place, so there were only a few manuscripts being worked on by conservators.

For those who appreciate the unsung efforts of conservators and digitizers alike, the work taken to preserve and arrange these documents has been extensive. Imagine organizing and digitizing unnumbered manuscripts! Scholars painstakingly ordered copious manuscripts, which were initially ordered by repeating the last word of a previous page on each new one. This required the direction of an international team of experts—no room for skipped pages or incorrect numbering here.

The near-miss of the terrorist-attack-on-culture has made the protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region a top priority. Currently, the Ahmed Baba Institute and Tombouctu Manuscript Project work digitizing manuscripts, however only a fraction have been digitized.

These organizations have a different method of digitization than here, at University of Virginia’s Digitization Services. The Tombocutu Manuscript Project focuses on studies of book history and manuscript traditions of Africa, as well as manuscript translation; Digitization becomes an essential tool so that manuscripts can be studied in more detail. The Djenne Manuscript Library is working to digitize 220,000 pages of Djenne’s manuscripts with equipment similar. Furthermore, the Djenne project organizes public seminars on different aspects of manuscript preservation including cataloguing, conservation, calligraphy, and information technology.

As we adjust to our new LCD lights at DigiServ and put the old Tungsten bulbs and white photo-shoot umbrella set up into storage, these Malian scholars work with the equivalent of my desk lamp and DSLR fastened on a yard-stick. There’s a feeling of pride and camaraderie in the preservers-of-the-unseen written treasures of the world. There’s a sense of duty to further research, translation, and understanding of cultural jewels that transcends national, linguistic and budgetary boundaries to bring us together as digitizers. That connection is what makes this manuscript scare, this near miss of catastrophic destruction of culture, this transgression against transnational preservers of the precious so close to being tragic.
The err in reporting becomes a call to action:

In our hyper-paranoid world warring against terror, we send unmanned aircrafts, we listen to phone conversations unasked, we do full-body scans, we draft, we train, we proactively hunt under the umbrella-justification that terrorism is raining down on us. And when it rains; it pours. So, why not digitize? Protect our intellectual treasures. We digitize; we do our jobs, we preserve the precarious kindling-like documents in catalogs (readable-on-kindle). We do our jobs so that the pirates, rebels, criminals and thugs cannot destroy precious cultural items as easily as flicking a cigar into a collection after the last puff before the government officials arrive to do their jobs.