Friday, February 8, 2013

30th Year Reflections/33: Timbuktu

“One week after Islamic militants fled Timbuktu under French bombing strikes, preservationists are deeply uncertain about how to continue protecting the city’s priceless ancient documents — a conundrum that cuts to the heart of how treasures are safeguarded through political upheaval in places where locals have little trust in government.” -- Vivienne Walt, Time Magazine

When I was much younger I occasionally would hear someone utter a mysterious phrase: “from here to Timbuktu.” I never quite understood what the phrase meant, except that Timbuktu was a place far, far away. If someone told me they were going to kick me “from here to Timbuktu” (not that such a thing ever happened) then chances were good that I was hightailing it out of there before they had the opportunity to execute the first kick. It was not until much later than I learned that Timbuktu was a real place, and later still when I finally located it on a map. The last and greatest disclosure about Timbuktu came to my ears sometime around 1998, perhaps through the pages of the National Geographic or the PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. However it was that I heard the news, I was stunned and excited to hear about so rich a cache of manuscripts and the efforts being made to preserve them.

Then came the news that the manuscripts had been destroyed by Islamic militants during their occupation of the city, followed by other news that contradicted the first: the majority of the manuscripts had been saved by the thirty or forty families who have held private custody for generations, hiding them now and again from invading forces. This little tidbit was then followed up other accounts, including the one in Time, that Timbuktu families were reluctant to part with the manuscripts in favor of government ownership; that the government was not stable enough, or trustworthy enough to gain custody of the manuscripts. Even the United Nations seems puzzled with how to achieve long-term preservation of the manuscripts. We may, indeed, be witness to the destruction of another piece of the world’s culture. There is at least one project in place, the Tombouctou Manuscript Project, that offers some hope in the other direction.

And we have seen this happen before. One only needs to go back a short distance in time to recall stories on the destruction of books and manuscripts at the Institut d'Égypte in Cairo in 2011, the Iraq National Library and Archive in 2003, or the National and University Library in Sarajevo in 1992. (An article on Wikipedia contains a fuller list.) Libraries and archives, by their very natures, can become cultural, political, or military targets. Outside the rule of law or a democratic tradition, these cultural repositories may occupy unstable ground. But even within our own society we can point to a destruction of libraries or archival collections through natural disasters (e.g. Katrina), inept management (Ruskin College), or even by an act of government (burning of the Library on Congress by the British in 1812, or the University of Alabama Library by Union forces during the Civil War). Some destruction may be well-intentioned or part of a regular schedule. I have few concerns about the latter, but some hesitancy about the former. Even in some of our public institutions (e.g. schools) it might be argued that our libraries are disappearing (or perhaps becoming invisible) because school districts so often target librarians and media specialists as the first to be dismissed during a fiscal crisis and spend little to no money on library resources (arguing, as many have, that the public library will meet the need).

You may know of other examples of archival or library destruction. I’m not crying out that it is time to rush to the barricades in defense of all things bibliographic or archival. But what I am asking for is some sort of eternal vigilance that makes this an unending concern for the profession.

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