Bass-Ass Librarians – Dick Hefton

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Dick Hefton

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts! That’s the title of a book I found, not at the bookstore, but in a short review in the August issue of ROTARIAN. Believe me; I was not looking for a subject for a sequel to my column in April that lamented the disgustingly savage destruction of ancient historical relics of Syrian Aleppo preserved there since the 5th century. “Aleppo,” (recently turned into a political joke by a non-entity POTUS candidate) is virtually a non-entity itself as the mosques, statues and architectural jewels have today been literally pulverized.

The Bad-ass Librarians, on the other hand, are something of a colossal success story in a world where everything sacred is becoming a target for elimination. Timbuktu, a small city in Mali on the edge of the Sahara desert, became the unlikely depository of more than 400,000 manuscripts hidden in that remote town.

Timbuktu in 1500 with a population of 100,000 was continental center of culture and study where scholars from around the world gathered to read law, literature, science and mathematics. They wrote about romance, poetry and science. A Moroccan sultan in 1591 led an invasion of Timbuktu that ended the era of enlightenment affecting worldwide cultural advances. After that, the books remained as a collective memory and became valued but unread hidden assets stored in crude homes of a people living a sub-standard existence. The city has never regained a population above 50,000.

In the late 1990s the efforts of one man began to develop small libraries. As he began to gather stacks of manuscripts through barter his work attracted interest from some large foundations, wealthy individuals and even some national governments looking to fund central consolidated library facilities. Led by the Ford and Mellon Foundations and cultural funds around the world the program thrived. Threatening the designed outcome, however, by 2002 Mali, a central point in the brutal chess game, became infested with Al Qaida styled terrorists groups and the country came under siege. Timbuktu fell on the verge of complete takeover by a group of terrorist Jihadists declaring it an independent Islamic state. But bent on rampant destruction only, terrorists had no understanding of the value of the cache – consisting then of around 300.000 manuscripts

Abdel Kader Haidara, the initiator and developer of the preservation program gravely feared exposure and destruction of the collection. So he set up a network of underground operators to smuggle volumes to safe havens working under danger of Jihadist discovery. His story reads like a fictional thriller which keeps the readers hanging on the edge.

Eventually, France, the historical overlord in the region, with the aid of U.S. airlift and refueling tankers, sent military to force the jihadists out of Mali and restore Timbuktu and its treasured library facilities. While French troops cleaned out most of Mali’s terrorist elements they were merely chased into Morocco, Libya and Yemen and other parts of the Middle East. And France did not stay on to assist the ever weakening Mali government which exacerbates incursions by Jihadist attacks persisting in all the neighboring – equally weak nations – in the Middle East. So it is problematical whether the long term preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts can be assured.

Nevertheless, the some 400,000 historical records escaping the tragic iconic losses seen elsewhere in the region offers hope other antiquities can survive and maintain our bridge with the past.

The author’s illuminating detail has not been without critical acclaim but gives the reader a noteworthy vignette of the imponderables the world faces in the fractious Middle East.

2 Comments for : Bass-Ass Librarians – Dick Hefton
  1. Reply

    As a librarian I love the title of the book that describes this incredible effort to preserve the history and heritage of the region. Culture keepers fight daily battles against poor environmental conditions, light, pests, and chemicals. The other major enemy is ignorance and those who want to change the past to match the views of the present day.

    • Dick
    • November 25, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Haidara was beginning restoration on a formal program. That stopped while the invasion came.
    Hope you will recommend to readers!

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