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Between Quandary and Squander: A Brief and Biased Inquiry into the Preservation of West African Arabic Manuscripts: The State of the Discipline


Starting during the colonial period, the process of discovering, assessing, and describing Arabic manuscript collections scattered across West Africa helped debunk the myth of a continent steeped in oral tradition and ritual. This, in turn, paved the way for a growing number of initiatives from the 1960s onwards, particularly in manuscript-rich areas in Mali, Mauritania, and northern Nigeria. Mainly focused on bibliographic description, content analysis, and preservation, these initiatives employed storage and reformatting technologies (microfilm and digitization), database management systems, and the Internet, to develop computerized catalogs and finding aids, create surrogate copies of selected manuscripts, and eventually make these resources available online, thus ensuring or expanding access to a wealth of previously unknown resources for the study of African history and culture. Considering the harsh environment, the problematic nature of the materials and their storage conditions, and the limited human, technological, and financial resources involved, it is remarkable how some of these projects managed to survey large swaths of the West African manuscript landscape, often making the results of their work permanently available. At the same time, a review of their accomplishments and shortcomings will help understand how many such initiatives failed to meet the expectations of their intended and potential users. Only by understanding these evolving trends and realities, and engaging information professionals with the appropriate knowledge and skills, will new initiatives to preserve and document West African manuscripts succeed in providing access to both intellectual content and material culture, rather than simply generating new digital dust.