Timbuktu and the Death of One Library

My childhood image of Timbuktu appeared on maps of Western Africa as small black dot on the ochre-colored southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Timbuktu was far away in my mind’s eye; the sort of place about which old Vermonters might say: “Ya can’t get there from here.”

It turns out that Timbuktu has long been a stopping point on the caravan route across the Sahara, a city-sized caravanserai. The 1911 Encyclopaedia calls it “the port of the Sahara in the Sudan.”

In the 1990s, thanks to the rise of the world music phenomenon (and the ubiquitous Ry Cooder), I became aware of the music of Ali Farouk Touré, a mesmerizing Malian guitarist, now deceased.

But still I knew little of the Mali and Timbuktu.

In 1999 a “peculiar kind of postmodernist,” named Paul Auster, wrote a novel called Timbuktu.

For many years I thought that Timbuktu must be the dog on the cover of all the editions of the book that I had ever seen only to discover that Timbuktu actually refers to beautiful place in the afterlife. The dog is Mr. Bones.

But now Timbuktu is in the news for other reasons, this time for sad and disturbing reasons. In April of last year Islamic militants overran Timbuktu as well as the northern half of Mali, imposing sharia law and destroying great parts of the city.

In the past week the news media has reported the destruction of the Ahmed Baba Library in Timbuktu. On Sunday, January 27 and Monday, January 28, in the face of attacking French and Malian armies, Islamic militants as they withdrew from the city of Timbuktu destroyed the library and many manuscripts.

Timbuktu, designated as a World Heritage Site, was for many centuries the seat of Islamic learning. While reports vary, the library may have contained as few as 20,000 manuscripts or as many as 100,000 manuscripts, some of which date back to the 13th century.

The destroyed Library was quite new, built in 2009 with funding from South Africa and UNESCO. Photographs of the building online suggest a modern building built very much in a historic style.

While it remains too early to have a complete accounting of the destruction beyond that of the building itself, the Voice of America reports that 3,000 manuscripts were destroyed.

The Ahmed Baba Library unfortunately, is not the first major library to be destroyed in the wars of the late 20th and early 21st century. A mere 20 years ago the National and University Library in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, was destroyed by Serbian shelling in August of 1992. When I visited the city in 2006 the old building was completely destroyed, leaving only the walls standing.

I will most likely never get to Timbuktu to see what’s left of the manuscripts. Some were in the process of being digitized. Google points out that in the digital world, 70% of all information remains unavailable, locked behind the paywall; even worse, these manuscripts, a part of the heritage of mankind, are now lost forever.

Not only the loss of information, unique though that might be, but the destruction of libraries saddens me greatly.

One can think of the library in a variety of different ways: the library as collection, the library as a bundle of services, the library as archive, or even the library as publisher. But perhaps most important is the library as place, the place where the community of readers can join together, a physical union of the collection and the people who serve the community of readers and scholars.

Even in the digital age, the notion of the library as place remains a potent image, one whose destruction brings over me a dark, sad, pall.

Carl Yirka