Smuggling Timbuktu’s Libraries: Preservation and Protecting Manuscripts Against Human Threats

By Unknown author – EurAstro : Mission to Mali, Public Domain,

Today I’m sharing a short paper I wrote for my preservation class on Timbuktu’s libraries. It’s basically presented here in its original state except for some images that I’ve added. For the class we were instructed to research a library disaster and the response to that disaster in an international setting. After some initial research, I remembered a book that I had wanted to read when it came out a few years ago and never got around to called The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and I decided this was a perfect time to read this book.


In 2012, a collection of manuscripts that had gained international attention for their aggregation and discovery gained attention again, this time in a much more negative way. Jihadi fighters had seized the city of Timbuktu, along with territory that comprised two thirds of the country of Mali (Hammer 2016b). Jihadi fighters promised that the manuscripts would be safe under their regime, but the very fact that they had been mentioned at all was worrisome to librarians (Hammer 2016a). This spurred a daring plan to save the manuscripts by smuggling them out of the city. The story of what happened to save the manuscripts in Timbuktu is dramatic and chronicles a human threat to cultural heritage beyond factors such as environmental conditions and pests. This paper examines the effort to save these manuscripts on both a local and international level and places the event in its socio-historical context. Through this, we can better understand that international assistance from the preservation community during a library emergency is best focused by understanding and adapting to local conditions and encouraging leadership from local stewards. 

By Unknown author – Library of Congress online exhibition : Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, Public Domain,

Timbuktu Library History 

Timbuktu’s literary heritage dates back centuries to the early modern period. For about two hundred years, from the late 14th to the end of the 16th century, Timbuktu had a scholarly Golden Age. Visitors to the region in the medieval period like the famed writer Leo Africanus noted that manuscripts were the most highly valued goods in the city’s markets (Haidara 2003). Singleton (2004) writes that creating and importing books was a high priority at the time, and was an important way to display wealth (p. 3). Books were copied by hand at an extraordinary rate, scribes were “writing an average of 150 lines of calligraphy per day–receiving their compensation in gold nuggets or gold dust” (Hammer 2016a, p. 39). Wealthy scholars amassed huge private libraries, encompassing thousands of volumes (Singleton 2004). At the back of copied books, scribes recorded their names as well as the name of the “proofreader, and vocalizer, a third craftsman who inked the ‘short vowel’ sounds” and often the patron as well (Hammer 2016a, p. 39). This colophon is a great help in cataloging the manuscripts and tracing their origins. These texts were written largely in Arabic script, in Arabic as well as local languages. The manuscripts were written on a huge variety of subjects encompassing everything from religious texts to medicine, science, magic, law, and poetry. Together, they help create a picture of a city that, for it’s time, was tolerant of many different people and viewpoints including more progressive texts on sex and women’s rights. According to the country’s ambassador in 2003, most of the world today perceives Mali as a poor African nation, but the manuscripts show that they are a country rich in cultural resources (Haidara 2003). The rediscovery of these manuscripts pushes back against a western tradition that believes that there was no history in Africa before colonialism by showing a thriving book trade and a lively and largely open and tolerant discourse on all manner of subjects. However, this Golden Age was not to last, and an invasion by Morocco in 1590 drove many manuscripts underground. Haidara (2010) believes that events like this one encouraged the people of Mali to hide their manuscripts, which in turn convinced Europeans who visited in later centuries that these texts simply did not exist (p. 261). Later manuscript seizure by French colonialists and Jihadi movements in the mid 19th century drove these cultural works further underground (Hammer 2016b). Generally there was a fear of external human threats in Mali, and it wouldn’t be until a local prospecteur went out to collect manuscripts from all corners of northern Mali that they would exist together in large numbers once again. 

Modern Preservation Efforts 

Examining the ongoing relationship that Timbuktu has had with human threats throughout its history shows that this threat to cultural heritage is far from unique, while the story of ongoing preservation efforts and challenges shows that the threat to these manuscripts is part of a wider context that encompasses everything from politics to regional climate to changes in archival practice. Abdel Kader Haidara began collecting manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba Institute in 1984, gaining skills as a negotiator and evaluator of manuscripts (Hammer 2016b). Haidara would become one of the most vocal advocates for the Timbuktu manuscripts, including his family’s collection for which he would build a private library with funds from the Mellon and Ford Foundations after the famous African studies scholar Henry Gates showed interest in the manuscripts (Hammer 2016a, 109). Support for the manuscripts continued to grow as the libraries multiplied. In a presentation to the Library and Information Association of South Africa, Minicka (2006) described how South African conservators and librarians were working with librarians and stewards in Timbuktu to deal with extreme local climate conditions (including low humidity, high temperature, termites and ubiquitous dust), training local workers and learning from local craftspeople. Some of the solutions they implemented challenged long-held archival practices when those practices needed to be adapted to local conditions. She describes preservation practices including cleaning and rehousing manuscripts, conservation work, preparing manuscripts for exhibition and using conservation to support the local economy by buying local leather and other goods. International exhibitions, like the one held at the Library of Congress in 2003, helped provide digitization resources as well as generate more interest in protecting the manuscripts (Hoh 2016). These different partnerships represented an international respect for local stewardship of local collections. In times of danger for the collection, this mindset would become more necessary than ever. 

Smuggling Manuscripts

The Al Qaeda aligned Jihadi groups in the region rose concurrently with the rediscovery and championing of the manuscripts in Timbuktu. Haidara, worried about the potential for both looting and deliberate book burning, decided that the manuscripts had to be saved, and began an operation to pack the libraries’ contents into metal lockers and scatter them throughout the city. The boxes were packed with short content lists, the first time anything like a full catalog had been attempted for these texts. Haidara’s and others fears for the manuscripts seemed to be vindicated by the destruction of Sufi saint burial sites throughout Timbuktu, and they began to smuggle the boxes out of the city to the capital of Mali, Bamako–facing danger at every checkpoint. Remarkably, they didn’t lose a single manuscript. There are differing estimates on the amount of manuscripts saved by Haidara and his team, ranging from 200,000 (PBS 2018) to 285,000 (Kottoor 2013), but Hammer (2016a) claims that nearly all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts were saved (p. 422). This number may or may not include about 1000 digitized manuscript files that were also smuggled out of the city on a hard drive (English 2014).  About 4,000 manuscripts that were awaiting repairs were burned by the Jihadis in one of the last acts of their regime. Sadly these were not catalogued, so we’ll never know exactly what was lost, but remarkably the Jihadis never ventured to the institute’s basement where over 10,000 valuable manuscripts were safely stowed in the vault (Hammer 2016a, p. 420). This local, low tech endeavor that utilized metal lockers and donkeys, trucks and boats was supported by financing from the international community. This support now continues in the form of conservation efforts in Bamako. 

Ongoing Conservation

In 2018, the situation in Timbuktu was still not safe enough to return the manuscripts to their rightful places in the city (PBS 2018). The manuscripts had been consolidated in Bamako, and dehumidifiers were helping control the humidity in the much wetter region. According to a PBS News story (2018), by this time international aid had helped local staff digitize 20% of the saved manuscripts. Some of the books are still in hiding in Timbuktu, which means they are not getting the conservation care that they may need. Russo (2017) wrote that the collections’ transport to Bamako in metal chests and their deposit in inadequate storage facilities meant that preservation was urgent, and gained international attention (41). She writes that the main activities being carried out by various staff members were inventorying, urgent preventative conservation, digitizing, reconstructing or refurbishing library buildings, and improving access to the collections (Russo 2017, p.42). She argues that special collections ultimately require more mediation than regular library collections, but that special collections can become more socially inclusive places to share and access knowledge (p. 47). To this end, the University of Cape Town and one of the major German funding contributors, Gerda Henkel Stiftung, partnered to create the Tombouctuo Manuscripts Project, which works to train young researchers from a variety of disciplines who are interested in the collection to improve their language, writing, and research skills along with other outreach and conservation efforts. Russo (2017) explains how German aid has been used to build up local leadership and knowledge, further advocating for a partnership between countries that has been evident throughout the modern history of the documents. This aid and partnership will continue to be essential for the preservation of the manuscripts.


Centuries of human threats to the manuscripts means that the survival of these texts has been hard won. Immense local efforts and international financing has helped realize the potential of these documents to rewrite the history of Africa as a place with a thriving literary history long before colonial rule. Human threats in the form of ideology and theft constitute a huge risk to cultural artifacts, especially in countries with unstable governments. The international preservation community came together in 2012 and continues to provide aid and encourage local agency over these documents. Life and limb was risked to protect these precious documents, and through ongoing preservation and research, they will finally be able to tell their stories.


English, C. (2014, May 23). The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali’s ancient manuscripts were saved. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Haidara, A. K. (2010). An overview of the major manuscript libraries in Timbuktu. In G. Krtli & G. Lydon (Eds.), Trans-Saharan book trade : Manuscript culture, Arabic literacy and intellectual history in Muslim Africa (pp. 241-264). Leiden: Brill.

Haidara, A. K. [Library of Congress]. (2003, September 3). Timbuktu manuscipts (sic) and the efforts to maintain the desert [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hammer, J. (2016a). The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts [eBook edition]. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hammer, J. [US National Archives]. (2016b, April 25). The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hoh, A. (2016, October 24). 333: A film on the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

Kottoor, N. (2013, June 4). How Timbuktu’s manuscripts were smuggled to safety. BBC Magazine. Retrieved from

Library of Congress. (2003). Ancient manuscripts from the desert libraries of Timbuktu. Retrieved from

Minicka, M. (2006, June 15). Safeguarding Africa’s literary heritage: Timbuktu rare manuscripts project [PDF document]. Retrieved from

PBS News Hour. (2018, June 27). Preserving the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu [Video file]. Retrieved from

Russo, M. L. (2017, January) Contemporary librarianship and special collections issues: a case study in manuscript collections of Timbuktu and other Malian cities. 8(1), 39-49. doi: 10.4403/

Singleton, B. (2004). African bibliophiles: Books and libraries in medieval Timbuktu. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 39(1), 1-12.

Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. (n.d.) Projects. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from

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