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  • Between Quandary and Squander: A Brief and Biased Inquiry into the Preservation of West African Arabic ManuscriptsThe 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.

Key words

Arabic manuscripts, West Africa, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, description, preservation digitization, digital libraries


The introduction of Islam and its linguistic vehicle, Arabic, to the Saharan and Sub-Saharan regions between the eighth and thirteenth centuries CE had major consequences for the history of West Africa and its relationship with the rest of the continent and the outside world. As a spoken language, Arabic became the lingua franca of commercial and diplomatic activities across and beyond the great desert, while its writing system provided a cogent and innovative method for preserving and transmitting various types of knowledge (religious, traditional, practical, etc.) in the new language as well as in a number of indigenous African languages, such as Fula, Hausa, Songhay, Tamasheq and Wolof, which started to be written using a modified version of the Arabic script (‘ajamī). This form of cultural ascendancy, combined with the respect and power accorded to writing in Islam, resulted in the growing circulation of books and the development of a “collecting culture” among the spiritual elites of Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. [End Page 399]

Today, the contents of most manuscript libraries in the region may be determined and assessed to some extent, assuming they are accessible, minimally processed and preserved, and accounted for in some fashion (hand lists, catalogues, etc.). However, their inception and evolution over time are far more difficult to fathom, the main obstacles being the lack of documentary sources of information and the mercurial nature of oral tradition. A few published works refer to book ownership and scholarship in precolonial times. Leo Africanus, writing in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, mentions manuscripts imported from the Maghreb as being the most profitable goods traded in Timbuktu; and both the Ta’rīkh al-sūdān and the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh, the two main chronicles of the Songhay Empire, contain references to manuscript copying, selling, lending, and bequeathing among the scholars of Timbuktu. Based on these and other documents, as well as on information gathered from individual manuscripts, we may assume that libraries typically originated with scholars who purchased, copied or commissioned books, either at home or in the course of trips that combined commercial, diplomatic, religious, and scholarly purposes. Following their owners’ death, these collections either remained in their families, or were left in trust to mosques or madrasas. Sometimes, as a result of natural hazards, military conflicts, or other disrupting circumstances, they changed hands or were consolidated for practical or political reasons. At the dawn of the colonial period, hundreds of private or institutional libraries with holdings ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand items, could be found in ancient oasis towns located at the intersection of major trans-Saharan routes (Wādān, Shinqīṭī, Tidjikja, Tīchīt, Walāta), or in larger trading centres in Mali’s Niger Bend (Djenné, Gao, Kano, and Timbuktu), but also in Niger, Chad, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria.

Colonial interest in these manuscript libraries—and in West Africa’s written and intellectual traditions in general—was twofold and largely contradictory, consistent with the fundamental ambiguity of the colonial enterprise itself. On the one hand, libraries were looted in the course of military operations, used as pawns in the diplomatic game between colonial administration and local communities, or secured and scrutinized as intelligence sources. On the other, a number of colonial administrators with or without formal training in the social sciences developed a keen scholarly interest in the indigenous cultures in their respective jurisdictions, which in turn enabled some of them (Maurice Delafosse, Edmond Destaing, Henri Gaden, Albert Leriche, Paul Marty, Vincent Monteil, and others) to acquire considerable specialized expertise and a sound scholarly reputation in the fields of West African linguistics, ethnography, and Islam. [End Page 400]

In the case of French West Africa, the link between military and diplomatic activities in Mauritania and Mali on the one hand, and Orientalist scholarship in Paris on the other, is particularly evident in the work of two prominent Arabists, Octave Houdas and Louis Massignon. Houdas’s edition of the Ta’rīkh al-Sūdān (1898–1900) used a manuscript sent to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by Colonel (later General) Louis Archinard after the fall of the Toucouleur Empire, in April 1890, and the subsequent looting of the library of its founder, Umar Tal. Additionally, Houdas’ translation of the Tadhkirat al-nisyān,1 an eighteenth-century biographical dictionary of the rulers of Timbuktu, was based on a manuscript copy ordered by Captain Henri Gouraud after the capture of Samory Touré (another leader of the opposition to French rule) in September 1898. The latter document reached Houdas through Henri Gaden, a colonial officer whose diplomatic work in the Trarza region of southwestern Mauritania, in 1908–9, was instrumental in producing an inventory of the library of Shaykh Sīdiyya “al-Kabīr” (1775–1868), a prominent Sufi leader from Boutilimit.2 This is the document that Massignon used for his groundbreaking article “Une Bibliothèque saharienne,” which was the first review of the contents of a West African traditional library to appear in print.3

Both Houdas’ copy of the Tadhkirat al-nisyān, and the second of the three manuscripts he used for his edition of the Ta’rīkh al-Sūdān (a copy commissioned by Félix Dubois in Timbuktu in 1896), should remind us that under colonial rule manuscripts were not only destroyed, looted, or collected more or less legitimately, but also produced (i.e. commissioned) or reproduced (copied) as a way to access and preserve oral and written testimonies. This practice occasionally generated entire new collections, as with the Fonds Gironcourt at the Institut de France in Paris, which consists of approximately 800 inscriptions and 150 manuscripts collected by the engineer and agronomist Georges de Gironcourt in the course of two missions to the Niger Bend, in 1908–9 and 1911–12. All but four manuscripts in this collection are copies produced upon De Gironcourt’s request, either from older documents or from oral and mnemonic sources.4

Massignon’s article was followed by a few sporadic assessments published mostly in French colonial periodicals and reflecting a direct examination of partial holdings; notably Edmond Destaing’s “Notes sur les manuscrits arabes de l’Afrique occidentale” (1911), Mokhtar Ould Hamidoun’s and Albert Leriche’s “Curiosités et bibliothèques de Chinguetti” (1950), and Vincent Monteil’s “Les manuscrits historiques arabo-africaines (bilan provisoire)” (1965–66). The latter appeared in the Bulletin of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), of which Monteil was director at the time, [End Page 401] and was followed by what appears to be the first inventory of a manuscript collection held by a colonial research institute in West Africa, Catalogue des manuscrits de l’I.F.A.N. (1966). The same year saw the publication of the Catalogue provisoire des manuscrits mauritaniens en langue arabe préservés en Mauritanie, compiled by Mukhtār wuld Ḥamidūn (a leading Mauritanian scholar) and Adam Heymowski (a UNESCO consultant affiliated with the National Library of Sweden) with funding from UNESCO. Listing approximately 2,000 works by 425 authors, and estimating the existence of about 40,000 manuscripts, it was the first country-wide survey of this kind to be undertaken in a West African country.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the progress towards independence, followed by nation-building efforts with their emphasis on cultural heritage and the value of manuscript sources for historical documentation and research, resulted in the establishment of a number of national and academic libraries, archives, museums, and research and manuscript centers across the region. Some incorporated previous colonial institutions, while others were created from scratch but modeled on their counterparts in London and Paris. In Senegal, the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire became part of Cheikh Anta Diop University in 1960 (changing its name to the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire in 1966). In Niger, the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Humaines (IRSH), originally established in 1940, was transferred to Abdou Moumouni University in 1974 and enhanced with the creation of a 4,000-item strong Arabic and Ajami Manuscript Department. In Mauritania, the government of Mokhtar Ould Daddah established the National Library in 1965 following a report by UNESCO consultant Heymowski, and a decade later the Institut Mauritanien de la Recherche Scientifique (IMRS) and the Institut Scientifique d’Enseignment et de Recherches Islamiques (ISERI). Together, these two research institutes combine several collections, primarily from southwestern Mauritania, for a total of approximately eight thousand manuscripts in Arabic and Hassaniyya. In Mali, the designated repository for Arabic manuscripts, the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba (IHERI-AB) in Timbuktu, was established in 1973 with a grant from UNESCO. Originally named Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmed Baba (after the 15th–16th century scholar Aḥmad Bābā al-Massūfī al-Timbuktī), it provided a response to the recommendations formulated by a group of experts who, following a meeting organized by UNESCO in November-December 1967, called for the creation of regional centers for the documentation and preservation of African written heritage. Over the next three decades, CEDRAB managed to collect approximately [End Page 402] thirty thousand manuscripts, the majority between 1984 and 2002, before upgrading to a new, eight-million-dollar library building designed by two South African firms and officially inaugurated in January 2009. In Nigeria, present-day manuscript collections were developed during the 1950s and 1960s by a handful of academics and librarians based in Ibadan, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Zaria, and are now held primarily at two national and two academic institutions. The National Museum in Jos (established in 1952 by the British archeologist Bernard Fagg of the Federal Department of Antiquities) and the National Archives in Kaduna (created in 1958 as the northern branch of the National Archives of Nigeria) started collecting manuscripts in the late 1950s, and their holdings consist of around 1,500 and 5,000 items, respectively, a large percentage of which are catalogued. Arewa House, at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, dates from the early 1970s when its first director, the historian H.F.C. (Abdullahi) Smith, envisioned a research center concerned with the collection, preservation, and study of documents related to the history of northern Nigeria. Today these documents include about 1,600 manuscripts from four private collections, plus copies of manuscripts from other major Nigerian institutions. The University of Ibadan’s collection of Arabic manuscripts was started in the mid-1950s by Deputy Librarian W.E.N. Kensdale and continued a decade later, when the founding of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies in 1961, and the appointment of lecturers Bradford G. Martin, John O. Hunwick, and F.H. El-Masri, generated a substantial demand for documentary sources to support teaching and research. In 1962 the University hired an assistant librarian, Khalil Mahmud, to develop an Arabic manuscript collection, and a year later Hunwick created the Centre for Arabic Documentation for the purpose of acquiring, microfilming, and researching manuscripts, and documenting such work in a Research Bulletin, whose publication started in 1965 and continued until the 1980s. A similar project involving the borrowing and reproducing, in multiple copies, of manuscripts from local scholars, was undertaken in the early 1960s by Ivor Wilks at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies. (Incidentally, both Wilks and Hunwick would later teach at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where their papers—together with the papers of John Paden, another Northwestern professor who did research in Nigeria in the 1960s—now form the core of the Melville J. Herskovitz Library’s West African Arabic manuscript collections.)

Needless to say, the creation of institutional repositories does not ensure the physical or intellectual survival of their holdings, manuscript or otherwise, [End Page 403] unless such facilities are designed, equipped, staffed, and maintained in ways that are consistent with modern principles of preservation and conservation. This is the reality that hit institutions like the IMRS and CEDRAB when their prospecting and collecting campaigns resulted in the acquisition of unprecedented numbers of manuscripts, in various stages of deterioration and in urgent need of care and conservation. To address this problem (affecting newly-created repositories and traditional libraries alike), a number of preservation initiatives were undertaken in Mali, Mauritania, and Nigeria from the late 1970s onward with UNESCO, European or North American funding, scholarly expertise and technical support. The inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List of Timbuktu’s mosques, cemeteries, and mausoleums in 1988, followed by Mauritania’s ancient ksour of Wādān (Ouadane), Shinqīṭī (Chinguetti), Tīchīt (Tichitt) and Walāta (Oualata) in 1996, helped raise the level of attention, awareness, and financial support for initiatives of this kind. This, in turn, led to the establishment of local organizations such as the Mauritanian (governmental) Fondation Nationale pour la Sauvegarde des Villes Anciennes (FNSVA), in April 1993, and the Malian (non-governmental) Sauvegarde (SAVAMA-DCI) in November 1996, as well as local manuscript owners’ associations in Shinqīṭī, Tīchīt and Walāta. Acting as local partners, they provided an important, on-the-ground resource and a valuable liaison between local libraries and their project partners.

Typically, when undertaken by historians, linguists, and other contentdriven scholars, these initiatives focused primarily on manuscript inventorying, cataloguing, basic description, and microfilming—the main purpose being to ensure, retain, and enhance access to original content. Conversely, initiatives involving librarians, archivists, conservators, or curators combined cataloguing and preservation reformatting with a multipronged conservation approach focused on stabilization and housing (fumigation, cleaning, remedial treatment, and improving storage conditions by upgrading existing structures or building new and more efficient ones), as well as training local staff. This is the model followed, for example, by a three-year project launched in 1999 by the French Rhône-Poulenc Foundation in partnership with UNESCO, the Mauritanian authorities, and FNSVA. Another such initiative was implemented in 2007–09 by the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, with funding from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and resulted in the training of twelve Mauritanian conservators and the setting up of five conservation laboratories in Nouakchott, Shinqīṭī, Tīchīt, Wādān, and Walāta. A third project of this kind (although far more comprehensive, far-reaching, and ambitious than the previous two) was the [End Page 404] Timbuktu Manuscripts Project (2000–08), which will be discussed later. Regardless of their goals or presumed models, most initiatives envisioned inventorying or cataloguing as a first step towards the implementation of an electronic database (an obvious and sensible approach); however, only a couple of them actually produced substantial results in this area, while the others consumed their resources in the attempt to come up with a suitable and sustainable preservation plan.


The removal of brittle manuscripts from a dusty mud house in Sub-Saharan Africa to one of the best libraries in the world may indeed result in better conservation and preservation opportunities, but it does not necessarily make these documents easier to access or discover. On the contrary, their relocation may hinder their visibility and impair their cultural significance, as the vicissitudes of the Umar Tal library suggest.

The French colonial and military authorities, and Archinard in particular,5 had had Ségou in their sights for some time. It was the capital of the powerful Toucouleur Empire, the jihad state founded thirty years before by Umar Tal (Al-Ḥājj ‘Umar b. Sa’īd al-Fūtī al-Tūrī), as well as the seat of Ahmadu Seku (Aḥmad al-Kabīr), Umar Tal’s son and current ruler, and his fabled treasure. After the capture of the town, Archinard had it confiscated and evaluated, but le trésor proved to be worth far less than the estimated twenty million francs, although it contained approximately eighty kilograms of gold, 160 tons of silver and jewelry, as well as Ahmadu’s library, formerly belonging to Umar Tal and consisting of four trunks full of manuscript and printed documents in Arabic, Fulfulde and French.6

Ségou’s “treasure” was eventually shipped to Paris,7 where the books sat for a couple of years in a colonial warehouse before going to the Bibliothèque nationale, where between 1898 and 1901 they were bound and made available to researchers as part of the Fonds Arabe des Manuscrits Orientaux. A quarter of a century later the French orientalist Edgard Blochet, Curator of the Library’s Manuscript Department, included a preliminary inventory of the “Fonds Archinard” (as the collection became known and is still referred to) in his catalogue of recent Arabic manuscript acquisitions.8 Blochet’s view of African Islam as peripheral and derivative emerges from his introduction and is further confirmed by his inventory, which is mainly focused on juridical and theological works from North Africa and the Middle [End Page 405] East, and ignores or understates texts from or about Sudanic Africa. A more thorough and sympathetic inventory was compiled in 1947–50 by Georges Vajda, a Budapest-born French specialist of Judeo-Islamic studies, who described close to fifteen hundred items. Vajda published an excerpt in 1950 (in a journal article where he also noted, in explicit terms, the summary character of his predecessor’s work),9 and three years later incorporated the inventory in his Index général des manuscrits arabes musulmans de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris;10 but the stand-alone catalogue appeared only a quarter of a century later.11

A different corrective to Blochet’s view came in 1959, when H.F.C. Smith published a partial list, in English and Arabic, of “literary works from the Segu Collection bearing on the History of the Western Sudan.”12 Smith’s article on the collection he carefully, if not polemically, avoided calling the “Fonds Archinard,” was the second of two contributions based on a trip he made in July–August 1958 to visit “leading museums and libraries in England and France for the purpose of surveying Arabic documentary material bearing on the history of the Western Sudan and recovering a number of these documents in photocopy for preservation in the library.”13 Of the Ahmadu’s/Segu library, he noted that

the collection is … a very large one indeed. It numbers as many as 509 volumes out of the total 6,000 odd volumes of Arabic manuscript which have been collected for the Bibliothèque Nationale from all over the Islamic world during the past 150 years.14

He also pointed out that the manuscripts “have been lying there, virtually unused, for over half a century,” a fact which prompted the further observation that “to this day the great importance of the books of Segu has received no proper recognition in the world of learning,” and, more broadly, that

[t]he scale on which source material, both in the written documents and in the archaeological fields, has been removed to Europe continues to raise obstacles to the proper development of West African historical studies. … Somehow or other the use of such material must be recovered for West African students of history.15

This mirrors, in somewhat ironic terms, Vajda’s claim that his examination of the collection

a permis de préciser et d’enrichir les renseignements fort maigres dont on disposait jusqu’à présent sur la littérature de langue arabe au Soudan occidental.16 [End Page 406]

A third inventory, compiled by Noureddine Ghali and Sidi Mohamed Mahibou, was published in 1985 under the auspices of the “Project for the Conservation of Malian Arabic Manuscripts,” a preservation initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) with additional support from Michigan State University and Yale University Library.17 While relying heavily on Vajda’s inventory, it identified and described two hundred more items. In April 2009, it became the first bibliographic document related to the Archinard collection to be made available on Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale’s digital library, followed by Vajda’s typewritten inventory (uploaded in August 2012) and some fifty manuscripts (most of them added in September of the same year).18

This is more than can be said of the manuscripts in the so-called “Petit fonds Archinard,” a collection of objects, watercolors, and hand-written materials donated in 1946 by General E. Réquin, Archinard’s nephew, to the Musée de la France d’outre-mer and later transferred to the Musée du quai Branly. Fewer and of unclear provenance, these manuscripts might have been taken at Ségou or at Bandiagara, a town farther east which the French captured in May 1893. The latter hypothesis is suggested by a passage in Archinard’s report,19 resurfacing in General Réquin’s biography of his uncle.20 Except for an inventory published in 2000,21 no attempts to analyze, describe, preserve, publish, or make these manuscripts available (other than to researchers who visit the museum in person) seem to have been made to date; and their contents, like their provenance, continue to remain largely unknown.

The seizure of the Umar Tal library and its removal en masse to Paris, there to become the Fonds Archinard at the Bibliothèque nationale, certainly deprived West Africa of a significant portion of its cultural heritage. However, Malian manuscript owner and advocate Abdel Kader Haïdara reminds us that under French colonial rule manuscripts could—and did—also disappear from public view without going very far:

There is no doubt that, in the past, manuscripts were hidden away for certain periods of time. This explains why most European travellers who visited the Niger River Bend, during the colonial period and soon after, did not report the existence of manuscript libraries in the area. It is not that they failed to notice or pay attention to them, but simply that their owners carefully kept them out of European sight. … It is worth mentioning the factors that caused the disappearance of manuscripts at a certain time and their reappearance later. First and foremost were the tensions and conflicts [End Page 407] between Muslim scholars and colonial authorities, who soon after their arrival started to seize manuscripts and take them to France. … To prevent further expropriations and thefts, West African scholars started to hide their manuscripts or conceal their repositories. Some buried them underground in leather bags, while others took them to far away locations in the desert, stored them away in abandoned caves, or simply walled off the doors of their libraries. In this way, manuscripts remained hidden for a century or longer, until after the independence (1960), when people started to revisit and reopen their manuscript caches, although cautiously at first, and with some apprehension for what might happen to them.22

However, the pattern of manuscript disappearance and reappearance is more complex and ambiguous than may be guessed from Haïdara’s account. For instance, episodes like the cooperation between the Mauritanian leader Shaykh Sīdiyya Bābā (Shaykh Sīdiyya al-Kabīr’s grandson) and the French resident commissioner in Boutilimit, Henri Gaden,23 show how, under French colonial rule, manuscripts were disclosed as much as they were concealed, for politico-diplomatic reasons of course but also for intellectual interests and scholarly pursuits. Moreover, Haïdara draws our attention to the disappearance of manuscripts during the colonial period and their reappearance after the independence, but he does not mention the more recent phenomenon of manuscript appearance, in suspicious numbers and under questionable circumstances, when European, North American, or Middle Eastern funding became available for safeguard and preservation purposes. We should also mention the fact that thousands of Malian manuscripts newly disappeared—under threat of destruction—as a consequence of the civil war that ravaged the northern regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu in 2012–14.24 Their reappearance in the near future, as a publicly accessible library of properly preserved documents, appears to be as uncertain as the ceasefire that allegedly ended the conflict in February 2015.25

Haïdara’s account of the disappearance and reappearance of manuscripts, like his genealogy of Timbuktu’s historical libraries, is difficult to corroborate because it relies heavily on the oral tradition and lacks documentary evidence. Nevertheless, it is indicative of the peculiar risks, difficulties, and complications involved in the long-term preservation of, and access to, cultural heritage in a volatile region. This, in turn, may provide a different perspective and a valuable benchmark to assess the goals, the accomplishments, and the shortcomings of a number of preservation initiatives undertaken so far; the purpose of this exercise being, hopefully, to come up with a more [End Page 408] clear-sighted and realistic set of priorities for projects of this kind, together with concrete and sensible recommendations on how to implement them in the future (and, no less important, how to evaluate their outcomes).

The reappearance of manuscripts was, like their former disappearance, a direct consequence of Western interest in their actuality (as tokens of Islam’s political and intellectual influence in the region) and potentiality (as sources of information about such influence). What changed since the independence was not so much the nature of this interest as its forms and motivations. The predatory approach, à la Archinard, was replaced by a participatory process of rediscovery, revaluation, and reappropriation of Africa’s past as documented by its own cultural heritage. This process started earlier and was more prominent in former British colonies, such as Ghana and Nigeria, where the new realities of self-determination and the consequent changes in the higher education curriculum resulted in a growing need for documentation to support the study of African history. In Nigeria, this new demand was met by the establishment of the National Museum in Jos and the National Archives service (with three branches in Ibadan, Enugu, and Kaduna) in the 1950s, as well as by the creation of academic departments and lectureships in African History, Arabic and Islamic Studies, and related documentation centers. In the early 1960s, both the University of Ghana and the University of Ibadan, through their Institutes of African Studies, established programs to collect, microfilm, analyze, and publish Arabic manuscripts from their respective areas. At Ibadan this initiative was implemented through the Centre for Arabic Documentation, started in 1963 by John Hunwick (then a lecturer in the newly founded Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies), and followed a year later by a semestral Research Bulletin edited by Hunwick with Murray Last (of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria), M.A. Al-Hajj (University of Ife), F.H. El-Masri (adjunct lecturer in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies), and Khalil Mahmud (recently appointed to develop an Arabic manuscript collection). In addition to articles, research notes and book reviews, the Bulletin featured “analytical lists” of accessions to the Centre’s microfilm collection (with occasional notes on how certain manuscripts were acquired or borrowed),26 and bibliographical references to peer publications, such as the University of Ghana’s Research Review (started in 1965) and the interim reports of the Northern History Research Scheme at Ahmadu Bello University, established by H.F.C. Smith in 1963.

The December 1968 issue of the Bulletin contained Hunwick’s translation (from the French) of the report of the “UNESCO Meeting of Experts on the utilization of written sources for the History of Africa, held at Timbuktu [End Page 409] from 30 November to 7 December 1967,” which he had attended with other twenty participants, both Africans and European.27 The second of two meetings organized in 1967 by UNESCO “for the special purpose of technical examination of the problems of every order posed by the collection, critical study and publication of sources,” it was devoted to manuscript sources and, like the earlier one (held in September at Niamey, Niger, and focused on the oral tradition as historical evidence) it recommended the establishment of “a properly equipped scientific institution [to] ensure the basic task of rescue as well as the evaluation of this rich cultural heritage.”28 In Timbuktu, this institution was officially opened in 1973 and, following the experts’ recommendations, took the form of a center for documentation and research, and was named after a prominent sixteenth-century local scholar, as the Centre de documentation et de recherche Ahmad Baba (CEDRAB).

Despite the lack of adequate funding and trained personnel, as well as the suspicious and non-cooperative attitude of private owners, the new center managed to collect approximately one thousand manuscripts by the end of the decade. This, in turn, created an urgent need for basic preservation measures as the center could neither implement nor support these independently. Consequently,

[i]n late 1976, following a research field trip by [David] Robinson to Mali, Yale University Library organized a consortium of university libraries to fund a small microfilming project designed primarily to photograph historical materials. This project was called the Malian Arabic Manuscript Microfilming Project (MAMMP). Material was filmed in Bamako, Segou, Mopti, and Bandiagara, and William A. Brown of the University of Wisconsin kindly offered to donate to this project films he had made in Macina and Timbuktu in the 1960s. Xerox paper copies of film copies of all material photographed were deposited in CEDRAB as well as in the libraries of the consortium members: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Princeton, St. John’s (Minnesota), Wisconsin, Birmingham, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.29

Out of MAMMP came a more ambitious Project for the Conservation of Malian Arabic Manuscripts, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for an initial two-year period (1978–80), and managed by Moore Crossey, Curator of the African Collection at Yale University Library, with the assistance of researchers Louis Brenner and David Robinson, [End Page 410] and John Hunwick acting as a consultant. The main goal was to inventory and microfilm Arabic manuscripts in private libraries around the country (and eventually elsewhere in West and North Africa, as well as in Europe); soon, however, the Malian government decided to change its policy regulating cultural heritage, and this put an end to the initiative, except for the compilation of the above-mentioned inventory of the Fonds Archinard.

In Mauritania, two microfilming projects started between 1979 and 1987 led to the development of separate online databases that remain, to date, the only web-based, publicly accessible resources of this kind. During several field trips funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) between 1979 and 1997, Rainer Oßwald, Ulrich Rebstock, and Tobias Mayer photographed over 2,500 manuscripts (or 134,000 pages of text) from more than two hundred private libraries in Mauritania. The resulting microfilm, copies of which are preserved at the Institut Mauritanien de Recherche Scientifique (IMRS) in Nouakchott and the University of Freiburg (Rebstock’s home institution), were eventually scanned and made available in the early 2000s through OMAR (Oriental Manuscripts Resource), an online database jointly developed by the Orientalische Seminar and the Institute of Computer Science, University of Freiburg (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg), in cooperation with the Center of Informatics of the University of Tübingen.30 Notwithstanding its weaknesses (such as the low legibility of digital images due to the poor quality of the microfilm, rudimentary search and display options, unattractive interface, and general lack of user-friendliness), some of which could and some could not have been avoided at the time of its implementation, OMAR was the first online database to make a large sample of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa publicly available in digital format, full-text, and with basic descriptive metadata. All of its 2,603 entries are cross-listed in Rebstock’s Maurische Literaturgeschichte,31 which draws upon three catalogs resulting from the German team’s work in Mauritania.32

In reviewing the third of these works, the American scholar Charles C. Stewart observed that “the criteria used for selecting the 260 private libraries from which items were filmed, much less the particular items that were filmed in each library, are not entirely clear. One of the largest private libraries, for instance, at Boutilimit, seems to have escaped the notice of the project.”33 It is possible that the large, private library in Boutilimit “escaped the notice” of this project, as Stewart suggests, although it is more likely that the omission was intentional, considering that the Shaykh Sīdiyya family library had been drawing the attention of Western scholars since the early [End Page 411] 1900s, when Massignon had first reviewed its contents in a French Orientalist journal. Such attention increased consistently from the late 1960s onwards, when Stewart himself, then a graduate student at Balliol College, Oxford, started visiting the settlement (and the library) founded by the Mauritanian savant to do research for his doctoral dissertation.34

Stewart’s research trips helped him develop a relationship with the descendants of Shaykh Sīdiyya, and this eventually bore its fruits. In 1986, the great-great-great-grandson of the renowned southern Saharan savant contacted Stewart, now a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with the request to “undertake a project to microfilm the collection … with a view to beginning a regional archive … based on the family’s library and papers.”35 With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Illinois, between 1987 and the end of 1989 Stewart and his team filmed the contents of the Shaykh’s family library and archives, committing more than 100,000 pages of text to one hundred reels of microfilm.

What sets this project apart from previous microfilming initiatives in West Africa is the simultaneous creation of a bilingual (English-Arabic) computerized finding aid, for which Stewart engaged Kazumi Hatasa, a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Illinois. Using software called ARABDOS, which enabled the computer to handle both languages and came with a word processing software (ARABRITE), Hatasa first took advantage of a newly-released database management system, dBase II, then switched to the more flexible general programming language Turbo Pascal 3.0, which had been released only a couple of years before. The resulting Arabic Manuscript Management System (AMMS) made it possible to add, between 1989 and 2008, the records of the Shaykh Sīdiyya Library,36 as well as those of other West African manuscript collections which had previously existed in print, such as those of the Institut Mauritanien de Recherche Scientifique (IMRS) in Nouakchott;37 the Ghali-Mahibou inventory of the Fonds Archinard; the CEDRAB/IHERI-AB in Timbuktu; four collections from Ghana and northern Nigeria held at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University; the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Humaines (IRSH) in Niamey; and twelve private libraries catalogued by Rebstock and Ahmad ould Muhammad Yahya in Shinqīṭī and Wādān.38 In 2002, all of the 19,778 records were migrated to a Windows platform, with a redesigned interface and the addition of a search engine, and finally, in November 2006, the entire database was transferred to a new, web-based platform hosted by Northwestern University Library. In Stewart’s words, the AMMS [End Page 412]

is, purposely, a low-tech, simple program designed to be easily accessible by users who may not have either sophisticated machines or detailed knowledge of (or concern with) refined transliteration systems. The principle at work here is that once enough data have been entered about specific manuscripts, it should be possible to establish comparisons across the database and resulting identifications or likely identifications with like words, thanks to a powerful search engine.39

Because of this, it could represent the “beginning for a universal, online resource for Sahelian Arabic-script manuscript identification.”40 In fact, Stewart and Bruce Hall later used the resources of the database to identify a “core curriculum” for Islamic West Africa. Working on the assumption that “the extant copies of manuscripts that appear in the largest numbers across representative libraries from the Atlantic to northern Nigeria are a good indication of the most widely studied subjects and texts across the Sahel,” they assess “the distribution and number of copies held in the libraries documented in AMMS, and/or its citation among foundational works by a chronological and geographical cross-section of four West African literati that have been chosen to represent a chronological and geographical cross-section of Sahelian scholarship.”41


A 1992 report prepared by the Joint Task Force on Text and Image for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) stated that

[t]he most promising strategy for saving the intellectual and artistic content of endangered volumes is to transform or convert it to a different medium—by copying it to film or digital electronic form.42

Less than three years later, the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group created a Task Force on Digital Archiving with the purpose of investigating ways to ensure “continued access indefinitely into the future of records stored in digital electronic form.” The final report, released in May 1996, contained sections on the “fragility of cultural memory in a digital age,” the “challenges of archiving digital information,” the “integrity of digital information,” and the “limits of digital technology,” and stressed migration as a desirable strategy “to preserve the integrity of digital objects and to retain the ability for clients to retrieve, display, and otherwise use them in the face of constantly changing technology.”43 [End Page 413]

At the time of these reports, microfilm was still the standard strategy for preservation reformatting of print material; but in the next few years things started to changed rapidly and at an ever increasing pace. So much so that in the early 2000s a number of national and international cultural heritage organizations either publicly endorsed digitization as a preservation strategy, or started issuing technical standards and guidelines for the digital conversion of library materials. One of the first and most explicit endorsements came from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which in 2004 released an official statement (“The Association of Research Libraries endorses digitization as an accepted preservation reformatting option for a range of materials”)44 followed by a number of appendices comparing different reformatting technologies (microform, printed, and digital facsimile), exploring the benefits of digitization as a preservation reformatting option, and listing standards and best practices in digital reformatting.

By the time the ARL issued this endorsement, UNESCO had released a set of digitization guidelines based on the work of a group of experts on behalf of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the International Council on Archives (ICA),45 as well as a Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage focusing on selection, protection, access and—most significantly perhaps—continuity.46

The above-mentioned statement from the 1992 CLIR report may serve as an epigraph to most if not all “preservation and access” projects concerned with the manuscript heritage of West Africa, especially those inspired by multiple ambitious goals, such as the much publicized, high-profile, yet ultimately low-performing Timbuktu Manuscripts Project. Following a series of planning meetings that took place in 1999 and 2000 at Northwestern University, the Ahmed Baba Institute (IHERI-AB), and the Universities of Bergen and Oslo, the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched on October 15, 2000.47 It consisted of four integrated components: 1) research and higher education; 2) physical conservation; 3) electronic document management and access; and 4) tourism, outreach, and dissemination. The overall objective of the Electronic Document Management (EDM) component was to “develop a comprehensive electronic document management system for the IHERI-AB collection in Timbuktu which would qualify IHERI-AB as a service provider for private collectors” (i.e., local owners of manuscript collections), and its primary goal was to preserve “images of texts which are important to scholarship through the use of electronic technology for image capture, storage, retrieval, and networked access.”48

A pilot phase, called AREMALT (Archivage Electronique des Manuscrits de Tombouctou), started in October 2000 with funding from the Norwegian [End Page 414] Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the Ford Foundation, and continued for a period of five years with additional funding from the Government of Luxembourg. Its implementation plan consisted of three main areas. The first was to photograph and scan each page of the approximately eighteen thousand manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute, for an estimated total of ca. 700,000 pages, before and after restoration (the pre-restoration images being intended to document the conservation process; the post-restoration images to serve various scholarly purposes). The pre- and post-restoration digital images would then become part of a relational database linking them to electronic records from the catalogs of the same Institute and other repositories in the Timbuktu region. Finally, a website would be developed to provide access to the before-mentioned catalogs and to full-text articles, transcriptions and translations of individual manuscripts, as well as allowing users to order CDs with digital images of manuscripts, or download them directly from the Web. Storage and backup of digital files was to be implemented through a system of multiple (mirrored) hard disk drives kept in “special fire and water resistant cabinets at the Ahmed Baba Institute (with an extra copy in Bamako).”

A May 16, 2012, progress report listed the visit of a representative of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme; the involvement of a former staff member of the BnF Digitization Lab to plan and organize the training, in Lyon, of two Malian technicians from the Ahmed Baba Institute and the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and Technologique (CNRST) in Bamako; and the recruiting and training of project assistants to catalogue and digitize one thousand manuscripts. The same report explained that the development of a database had been postponed temporarily due to the lack of sufficient funds to hire consultants and the unavailability of good trilingual (Arabic, French, and English) software compatible with Macintosh and Windows operating systems. While describing the Ahmed Baba Institute as being “very well equipped to carry out basic digitization and electronic archiving, electronic cataloguing and consultation of manuscripts and rudimentary desktop publishing,” the report further expressed the need “for additional hardware and software to assure a more effective electronic archival system including more flexible capturing options (e.g. digital cameras), storage management options (e.g. a juke box for CD management), appropriate software for developing databases (e.g. Filemaker Pro), and an HTML editor (e.g. Dreamweaver).”

The next report, dated January 1, 2003, described the project as funded by NORAD and executed by the Centre for Development and the Environment/Senter for uvtikling og miljø (CDE/SUM), University of Oslo, in cooperation [End Page 415] with the Ahmed Baba Institute, the CNRST, UNESCO (through funding from the Government of Luxembourg) and the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) at Northwestern University (founded in 2000 by John Hunwick and R. Séan O’Fahey, of the University of Bergen, with funding from the Ford Foundation). It identified three phases of implementation over a ten-year period (a Planning and Pilot Phase, 1999–2002; a Development Phase, 2003–07; and a Capacity Embedding phase, 2008–10), and listed the members of each of the three main working groups, the largest being the Research and Education group, led by Hunwick and O’Fahey. The EDM group—consisting of representatives of CNRST, the Ahmed Baba Institute, UNESCO, the universities of Oslo and Bergen, and the École nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques (ENSSIB) in Lyon—was responsible for “manuscript digitisation, transfer and storage of images, database development, implementation of a LAN and its link to Internet through a Web site, training of Timbuktu staff in computing, desktop publishing, and database management essential to the project operations.”

Further updates on the project activities are nested in the CDE/SUM annual reports for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007, where the project is said to be “scheduled to terminate in 2008.” They consist of a couple of paragraphs, repeated almost identically from one report to the next, and mention radio and television broadcasts and other media coverage, study tours and training sessions (mostly in France), photographic exhibitions, a conference,49 a richly illustrated book,50 a project website (hosted by the University of Oslo) and “other activities”; the latter included a “catalogue database,” allegedly in the process of being developed in cooperation with the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (IRHT-CNRS) in Paris. No further mention, however, is made of the integrated relational database or the actual digitization of manuscripts (whether in pre- or post-restoration stage), and to my knowledge no other official document exists which describes in any detail whatever has been accomplished in either area, and what is the current state of affairs (especially in regard to digital preservation, if applicable).51

Considering the extent to which this and other projects were driven by scholars and conservators, it is not surprising that their most tangible results consisted largely of short-term preservation and research activities and promotional events. To find more relevant examples of the “most promising strategy for saving the intellectual and artistic content of endangered volumes,” one should look for projects that are far more limited in scope and areas of implementation. One such initiative is the Library of Congress’s [End Page 416] digital collection of Islamic manuscripts from Mali, a Global Gateway website launched in December 2005 and linked to the online exhibition Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu. The physical exhibition, originally planned in conjunction with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival,52 led to a cooperative project with the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, which eventually resulted in the microfilming, scanning, and online presentation of approximately thirty manuscripts from this library and that of Shaykh Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, both in Timbuktu. Based on a limited number of items from two repositories and one location, the collection is hardly representative of the Arabic manuscript heritage of Mali, let alone West Africa. Nevertheless the site features simple search (by keyword) and browsing (by title or subject) options; basic descriptive metadata; single-page view (without scrolling or zooming, or the option to preview, view or download individual items, as thumbnails or PDF documents); no transcriptions and no full-text searchability. In other words, it is a resource shaped—and limited—by its origin as an online exhibition (although the very first to provide open access to color reproductions of entire manuscripts from a particularly underrepresented written culture), and therefore intended for the general public rather than for researchers and scholars.

By the end of the decade, the same thirty-one manuscripts were added to the World Digital Library (WDL), an initiative sponsored by the Library of Congress and UNESCO to make “available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.” Launched in April 2009, the WDL website provides a richer description, display and view options than Islamic Manuscripts from Mali, and it allows faceted searches by Place, Time, Topic, Subject, Type of Item (manuscripts, books, and maps), Language, and Institution. The subject list is slightly shorter (forty-three vs. fifty-one entries) and a comparison with the Global Gateway site reveals a number of obvious overlaps (Arabic language, Astrology, Astronomy, Asceticism, Diseases, Grammar, Health, Islamic law, Poetry, Rhetoric, Science, Seasons, Slavery, Social matters, Songhay Empire, Tiyanīyāh), but also many interesting differences. Instead of more historical topics (Allexandri, Early years of Islam, Muslims and non-Muslims), geographic and ethnic names (Bornu, Kano, Mali, Nigeria, Fulani, Hausa) and broad philosophical categories (Belief, Ethics, Faith, Prayer), the WDL list shows a more “current” selection of subjects and issues (Charity, Children, Conflict management, Construction, Contracts, Government officials, Muslim children—Conduct of life, Muslim women—Social conditions, Non-violence, Pacifism, Politics and government, and Women). [End Page 417]

At the time of writing this article (end of 2015), the only initiative that provides access (although restricted to affiliates of participating institutions) to a large amount of digitized Arabic manuscripts from West Africa is Aluka, an “international, collaborative initiative building a digital library of scholarly resources from and about Africa.”53 Its digital library, launched in 2007, contains materials contributed by member institutions and organized in two content areas, “African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes” and “Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa.” Timbuktu is one of the two Malian landscapes featured in the former area (the other is Djenné), which contains hundreds of materials in four media types: documents (digitized manuscripts and printed books), images, 3D models and geospatial materials. The Timbuktu manuscripts component, consisting of over three hundred items from the Mamma Haidara and Imam Essayouti libraries, is the outcome of a formal partnership Aluka entered into with the Malian non-governmental organization Sauvegarde et la Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique (SAVAMA-DCI), Northwestern University’s Advanced Media Production Studio (NUAMPS), and the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town. The manuscripts were scanned over eighteen months in Timbuktu (where NUAMPS image specialists set up a “complete high-resolution digital photography studio” and trained local staff), and made available online by the end of 2008. The digital library offers viewing and downloading options that are as advanced as those of the World Digital Library; although metadata are less functional and user-friendly than this other resource, and not as thorough or detailed as Stewart’s Arabic Manuscript Management System (which provides author’s full name, common name and nisba, dimensions, and basic information about the conditions of the manuscript, its provenance and any translations or publications).

Further evidence that (small) size and (narrow) focus matter, in the successful implementation of a digital project, is provided by the Old Kanembu Islamic Manuscripts, one of the digital collections in the SOAS Digital Library. Consisting of more than six thousand folios corresponding to 178 items, both handwritten texts and related visual materials (photographs and videos), it documents the evolution of “one of the earliest written sub-Saharan languages … written in Arabic script [and used as] a language of Qur’anic interpretation in the ancient Borno Sultanate.” Because of the nature of its contents and its sophisticated search and view options, faceted browsing, and usage statistics, it is arguably the most cogent and advanced (in terms of user experience) initiative of this kind implemented so far. [End Page 418]


Whether in Timbuktu or in Bamako, the “ever present dust” presents a constant threat, not only to manuscripts but also to protective materials and reformatting equipment. Elsewhere, when it does not present a serious problem, dust is still regarded as a symbol of deterioration and neglect. Books that are not read or consulted are said to collect dust—their complex, multidimensional nature, as physical objects and intellectual content, reduced to plain and simple surface. These days the trope is more likely used in regard to electronic data and information that is generated, processed and stored away, without ever reaching the stage of public access and fruition. This is often the case with ambitious, multi-phase projects that include the creation of an electronic bibliographic database or a digital library (or both) for the purpose of long-term access to content which is otherwise difficult to reach. For a number of reasons (lack of adequate planning, drying-up of funds, technical and infrastructural problems, etc.), their accomplishments are always inevitably partial and do not extend to more “technologically demanding” phases such as database design or digitization (typically seen as “advanced” and therefore “supplementary” or even “secondary,” because of the particular know-how involved); or if they do venture into either of them, they tend to act without proper planning and adequate resources, almost as an afterthought and not without a certain cavalier attitude.

Digital dust is not difficult to create, although it may be costly to maintain. As many half-baked or aborted projects show, the creation of digital files by scanning volumes of text or images is a relatively simple process—even in a harsh Sub-Saharan environment—requiring but a couple of pieces of equipment and technicians trained to operate them. What is far more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive is the development and support of a technical and administrative infrastructure to ensure the successful implementation of the project and its sustainability over time. In a document released in 2009 by the U.S. Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI), digitization is defined as

a complete process that broadly includes: selection, assessment, prioritization, project management and tracking, preparation of originals for digitization, metadata collection and creation, digitizing, quality management, data collection and management, submission of digital resources to delivery systems and into a repository environment, and assessment and evaluation of the digitization effort.54 [End Page 419]

The point is made even more explicit in a recent set of guidelines prepared by IFLA’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, which states that

[t]he creation of a digital collection is much more than scanning or creating digital surrogates. In fact, scanning is the easy part. The entire process requires advanced planning, a great many activities, and collaboration across many library units.55

Both documents identify and describe, with different levels of detail, the processes and activities involved in a digitization project. The FADGI outline breaks them down in four main phases—planning, pre-digitization, digitization, and post-digitization—and provides detailed descriptions for each of them, ending with a brief yet eloquent section on IT infrastructure needs to store, manage, and provide access to digital files and corresponding metadata.56 More limited in scope and purpose, the IFLA guidelines cover the same ground more briefly, with eight chapters devoted to project design; materials selection (and related issues such as copyright); digital conversion, including preliminary activities and “post capture image processing and system ingest”; metadata (bibliographic or descriptive, structural, technical and administrative); display (presentation formats and persistent access solutions); dissemination and promotion; evaluation; and long-term digital preservation. For instance, the section on “Display” reminds us that

[u]sers are looking for open and free access, easy discovery through common search engines, unproblematic interaction and display using standard web browsers and plugins, viewing options (including two-page display and zooming capabilities), tagging functionality (especially for later retrieval), individualized annotation capabilities, printing capabilities, and the ability to download, reuse, and combine.57

Users and user experience are central to a project’s evaluation. This may be quantitative, considering

the number of books/objects digitized, the number of visits to portal pages, the number of times a digital object is viewed and/or downloaded, the number of times it is cited or linked to, etc. … More important and difficult, however, is qualitative analysis, which often requires feedback from users. Consider the following questions: [End Page 420]

  • • How faithful is the surrogate to the original? Is the image an effective substitute for the original, or does the researcher need to see the original at least once to accomplish his objectives?

  • • Is the product readable and usable?

  • • How well does the technology fulfill the research needs?

  • • How is the resource being used, and by whom?

  • • How is the resource being reused or repurposed?

  • • What is the impact on the use of the physical collection?58

Long-term digital preservation “can be accomplished in-house, out-sourced to vendors or service organizations, or accomplished using a distributed, consortium model.” However,

[a]t minimum, a library should maintain their digital collections in high resolution on regularly backed-up network servers and have processes and systems in place to monitor the integrity of the digital files over time. Storing multiple copies in geographically dispersed locations is also an accepted preservation strategy. A process should be in place for regularly evaluating the need to migrate the collection or emulate software functionality.59

These few examples give a basic idea of the variety and complexity of the issues involved—especially in the later, post-digitization, phases of a project—and, consequently, of the careful and far-sighted long-range planning that is necessary for a project to be successful and sustainable. Unfortunately, most initiatives for the preservation of and access to West African Arabic manuscripts have shown only a vague and limited awareness of these issues, and hardly any ability to address them in a serious and satisfactory manner. If detailed reports were available for most, if not all, projects (which is not the case), we would be able to distinguish between those whose initial plans to develop a database or a digital collection never materialized, and those for which these plans were drastically downsized or cut short (usually for the same reasons, involving poor planning and short-sightedness), and their partial results consequently shelved to collect digital dust. In reality, such a distinction is largely irrelevant since, whether the digital component of a project was dropped or only partially accomplished, the causes tend to have a common origin. This is the fundamentally ambiguous scope of large-scale, diversified projects inspired by a holistic approach linking cultural heritage (manuscripts as well as visual, decorative and performing arts) to the community, and viewing the preservation and promotion of the former as a way to improve the social and economic conditions of the latter [End Page 421] (the catalyst usually being tourism).60 With different combinations, variants and overlaps, multicomponent projects usually present a sequential order which progresses from context (the preservation environment) to container (the physical object) to content and to community. This last is commonly seen as the physical location in which context, container, and content exist, although it could include, more plurally and pluralistically, the various communities of users and beneficiaries, both near and far, who are drawn to the content and its container, and may be favored or not by the context in which these are preserved. In practical terms, these multiple components typically involve the creation of a suitable storage and preservation environment, either by upgrading existing structures or by building new and more efficient facilities; the implementation of adequate conservation and preservation measures (collection care, restoration, protective packaging, monitoring and maintaining environmental control); the inventorying and cataloguing of content items (more often using relatively low-tech solutions, such as common word-processing or spreadsheet applications, rather than specialized software); the reformatting of selected manuscripts for preservation purposes (with or without an online publication plan); the training of local staff, usually in conservation techniques and descriptive cataloging; and a variety of dissemination activities including publications, conferences and seminars, but only rarely and briefly considering the creation of a digital library. For example, the Research and Higher Education component of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project envisioned training,61 descriptive cataloging, editing and translation of texts, the publication of a journal, the exploration of Arabic manuscript collections and libraries in and around Timbuktu, and “other dissemination activities” such as the revival of the Timbuktu copying industry, the production of hard copies and online versions of manuscript catalogues, and the publication of translations and research articles.

Inevitably these “holistic projects,” with each of their multiple components calling for specific sets of resources, competencies and skills, tend to follow a fragmentary pattern of realization, according to which some components are fully accomplished, others partially so, and yet others postponed or dropped entirely. Since most projects are conceived and headed by scholars and conservators, the phases that are more likely to be realized are those dealing with conservation, description, and dissemination through journal articles and professional meetings. If properly implemented, these activities may improve the preservation conditions of manuscripts, and enhance user awareness of their existence and meaning; but they will hardly expand access to their content beyond the limited number of local users, or [End Page 422] the even fewer scholars who can afford a field trip to, say, Shinqīṭī, Walāta, or Timbuktu (an option that may now be out of the question for security reasons, as it has been in northern Mali for the past couple of years).

A far more effective user-centric way to expand access to manuscripts (and help preserve their content) would be to turn the current model around and start with digitization first. This would involve three main phases: pre-digitization (selection, preservation review and preparation); digitization (image capture and processing, file naming, directory structure, file formats for archiving and for presentation, metadata creation and collection, etc.); and post-digitization (transfer of digital objects to delivery systems for online access, submission of digital objects and related metadata to long-term digital repository, preservation review of originals to assess any damages incurred during digitization). The main results and benefits of these activities would be the creation of high quality archival images (and their safe storage, possibly in multiple locations), for the purpose of providing long-term access to their content in a variety of ways, including online digital libraries and facsimile editions (electronic as well as printed).


The projects described above perform, in different ways and to various degrees, one or more of three basic interconnected functions. They use preservation reformatting techniques (microfilming or digital scanning) to “retain content, enhance access, and protect the original from excessive wear;”62 they provide electronic access to bibliographic databases of manuscripts from several collections; and/or they make bibliographic databases and digital surrogates of the items they describe available online through a variety of discovery features and tools. Earlier initiatives, such as those undertaken at the universities of Ghana and Ibadan in the 1960s, the NEH- and DFG-funded Malian and Mauritanian projects of the late 1970s and 1980s, and even the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project launched in 2000 (and partially continued by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project based at the University of Cape Town), focused primarily on reformatting and bibliographic description, with AMMS and OMAR bringing their results to a successful electronic and online fruition. More recent projects, such as the Library of Congress’s Islamic Manuscripts from Mali and Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, the World Digital Library, Gallica and Aluka, instead build on the capabilities of the Web to expand and enhance [End Page 423] access, thus making this important cultural heritage more widely known and (potentially, at least) better understood and appreciated than it could possibly be if access were limited to the physical items (whether in Boutilimit, Timbuktu, or Paris).

As a whole, these initiatives illustrate the remarkable path of discovery that brought West African manuscript culture from the colonial era of despoliation and denial to the age of digital discovery, content delivery, and linked data. One hundred years separate Massignon’s account of the Shaykh Sīdiyya library from the online debut of AMMS (the database which started as a project to microfilm and catalogue the same collection), and the concurrent launch of Aluka and the World Digital Library, which together provide access to high-quality digital surrogates of hundred of manuscripts from Timbuktu. Yet if much has been done to document, describe, and preserve thousands of manuscripts63 scattered over a region the size of Europe or the continental United States, recent events in Mali and northern Nigeria (and their consequences for these countries’ cultural heritage, as well as for scholarly communities worldwide) should serve as a reminder that much more remains to be done, and much of it needs to be done sooner rather than later. It should also provide an opportunity to reflect on what could have been done, or done more thoroughly and effectively, but instead was not for reasons such as those mentioned above. With almost 300,000 manuscripts lying in limbo between Bamako and Timbuktu, it is important, indeed essential, that any future projects, regardless of their objects and scope, build on what has been done already, consider what could have been done better (and understand why it wasn’t), and combine the lessons of the past with a clear and realistic vision for the future. For instance, much more could have been achieved in terms of long-term content retention and access, had the option of digitization been pursued independently of other project components (or, in some cases, had it been considered at all). A plan to produce pre- and post-restoration images of almost one million pages (as the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was hoping to achieve) is simply unrealistic if not misguided, and obviously doomed to fail in most circumstances, let alone in Sub-Saharan Africa.64 What is urgently needed now, before any other care and conservation projects are implemented—at least in a concurrent and coordinated manner—is a bold and ambitious mass digitization initiative to prevent any further loss (or disappearance) of content, as well as to ensure its long-term preservation for the purposes of perpetual access, duplication, and migration. If properly and fully implemented, such a project will create the capacity to build digital libraries centered on specific [End Page 424] collections, repositories, or locations (including, eventually, entire regions or countries), while at the same time providing conservators and cataloguers with surrogates that can be used for the purpose of identification, inventorying, description, and basic analysis. However, to be truly useful to current and future researchers and scholars (that is, to eliminate their need to consult physical manuscripts and to provide them with enhanced discovery and analytical tools), these libraries will need to combine the functionality of data-based—and data-driven—resources such as AMMS and OMAR with the web-based applications and tools of which Gallica, Aluka, and the World Digital Library are good examples. If a successful integration of data sets, discovery tools, and display options has yet to be achieved in regard to online resources featuring Arabic manuscripts from West Africa (and is barely showing appreciable results in other, “older” manuscript areas), it is largely due to the different nature and origins of the various components involved, as well as to the communities of practice who are mainly responsible for their conception, realization, evaluation, and fruition.

Both AMMS and OMAR started as microfilming projects in the late 1970s and developed into online databases thanks to a collaboration between humanists and computer scientists (i.e., academic scholars and programmers), with the former providing content, vision and leadership, and the latter technical expertise and support. This model may have worked at the time of their implementation (1980s–1990s), but it is largely outdated today because of the significant changes in the information industry over the past two decades. These changes include, but are not limited to, such phenomena and trends as: the growth of the Internet (in terms of users, resources and their geographic provenance) and the increased impact of Information Technology on the knowledge economy; the rise of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and User-Centered Design (UCD); developments in web browsing, web design, and web usability; the advent of Web 2.0 technologies such as user-generated content (UGC), blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking, crowdsourcing, online collaboration, etc.; the growing impact of user experience, usage statistics, and web analytics; significant changes in the way information is accessed, consumed, generated and disseminated over the web; the quantitative and qualitative growth of digital content, and its impact on teaching and research; the implications of Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, and the lure of Digital Humanities as an academic field concerned with organizing, structuring, and analyzing data using new computational and representational methods such as text-encoding, digital scholarship, geospatial analysis, network analysis, etc. [End Page 425]

At first glance, Digital Humanities (or Humanities Computing, as it was originally called) seems to evoke the old humanist–computer scientist partnership,65 but the particular conditions, characteristics and complexities of online access and digital consumption call for a wider spectrum of professional skills and competencies. I would like to suggest that this wider spectrum is largely—although not entirely—represented by librarians, especially “next generation librarians” (including preservation librarians of a new, computer-savvy and digitally-enhanced persuasion). In today’s knowledge economy, librarians or “information professionals” operate in a highly collaborative, rapidly evolving, technology-driven environment defined by multiple interdependent practices, competences, and skills. Such a complex, composite, and essentially comparatistic professional figure differs significantly from the scholar, the conservator or the technologist (especially the IT specialist with programming and analytical skills), whose work remains largely solitary even when teaching, collaboration or teamwork are involved. Pussadee Nonthacumjane, in a paper delivered at the 2011 World Library and Information Congress, identifies three sets of skills and competencies that “new generation” information professionals should have. These are: personal skills (analytical, creative, technical, flexible, reflective, able to deal with a range of users, detective-like, adaptable, responsive to others’ needs, enthusiastic and self-motivated); generic skills (information literacy, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, ethics and social responsibility, problem solving and leadership); and discipline-specific knowledge (metadata, database development and database management system, user needs, digital archiving and preservation, collection development and content management systems).66 And Roy Tennant (one of the authors cited by Nonthacumjane) further links the ability to acquire new professional skills (such as imaging technologies, Optical Character Recognition, markup languages, cataloging and metadata, indexing and database technology, user interface design, programming, web technology and project management) to specific personality traits which one should seek in a digital librarian, including flexibility, skepticism, “skill at enabling and fostering change,” an “abiding public service perspective” (i.e., to be able to understand user needs, since “[m]any of those currently building digital libraries do not have a public service background, and it often shows in complicated and obtuse interfaces”). To these we should probably add the ability to interact, coordinate, liaison between multiple parties, playing various roles and representing different stakeholders and constituencies of use, both inside and outside the unit or the organization. These key professional skills, competencies, [End Page 426] and traits represent the meeting ground and missing link between content-specific (i.e., what is being digitized and whatever editorial or curatorial apparatus is added to it) and technology-specific expertise (whatever it takes to create a digital infrastructure that is sustainable and suitable to the particular content that is being digitized). And it is only through a full recognition and involvement of this meeting ground that appropriate and effective initiatives—such as full-fledged, comprehensive, and multifunctional digital libraries—can be implemented to ensure the survival of West African Arabic manuscript heritage through permanent and extended access to its content.

Graziano Krätli

Graziano Krätli is a Digital Projects and Technology Librarian at Yale University Library. A native of Italy, he holds a bachelor’s degree in Art History and Stage Design from the Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti in Turin, and a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Dominican University, Illinois. With Ghislaine Lydon, he edited The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Arabic Literacy, Manuscript Culture, and Intellectual History in Islamic Africa (Brill, 2011). His research interests focus on the material, technological, economic, and cultural aspects of book production and preservation in non-Western societies. He also works as a literary translator and editor.


1. Kitāb Tadhkirat al-nisyān fī akhbār mulūk al-Sūdān, trans. O. Houdas (Paris: E. Leroux, 1901).

2. See “Sidiyya al-Kabir al-Nitisha’I,” Dictionary of African Biography, ed. Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 375–376.

3. Louis Massignon, “Une Bibliothèque saharienne; la bibliothèque du Cheikh Sidia au Sahara,” Revue du Monde Musulman 8, nos. 7–8 (July–August 1909): 409–18. Among other things, Massignon’s analysis shows that the library did not consist exclusively of manuscripts, but included a significant number of printed books as well.

4. See Mauro Nobili, Catalogue des manuscrits arabes du fonds de Gironcourt (Afrique de l’Ouest) de l’Institut de France (Roma: Istituto per l’Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2013).

5. Cfr. Louis Archinard, Le Soudan Français en 1888–1889 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1890), 16.

6. Hamidou Magassa, Une autre face de Ségou. Anthropologie du Patronat Malien (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011), 123.

7. “[L]e 12 novembre 1892, quatre caisses contenant plus de cinq cents kilos d’une « collection d’objets de Ségou » adressées à la Bibliothèque Nationale par le colonel Louis Archinard (1850–1932) étaient déposées au Cabinet des manuscrits.” G. Vajda, “Fonds Arabe. Introduction historique.” Catalogue de manuscrits arabes. Deuxième partie: Manuscrits musulmanes. Tome II: Nos. 590–1120 (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, 1978), xxix.

8. Edgard Blochet, Catalogue des Manuscrits arabes des nouvelles acquisitions (1884–1924) (Paris: Leroux, 1925).

9. “Blochet a traité assez dédaigneusement ces documents et s’est dispensé d’en fournir une description détaillée, laissant même complètement de côté une bonne partie d’entre eux.” Georges Vajda, “Contribution à la connaissance de la littérature arabe en Afrique Occidentale,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 20, fasc. 2 (1950): 229.

10. Georges Vajda, Index général des manuscrits arabes musulmans de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1953).

11. G. Vajda, “Catalogue des Manuscrits de la Bibliothèque d’Aḥmadou,” Guide des Sources de l’Histoire de l’Afrique au Sud du Sahara dans les Archives et les Bibliothèques françaises. Volume II: Bibliothèques (Paris: UNESCO, 1976), 699–804.

12. H. F. C. Smith, “Arabic Manuscript Material Bearing on the History of the Western Sudan: The Archives of Segu,” The Historical Socierty of Nigeria, Supplement to Bulletin of News 4, no. 2 (1959): 1–20. [End Page 427]

13. Khalil Mahmud, “The Arabic Collection of Ibadan University Library,” Libri 14, no. 2 (1964): 98. The first of Smith’s two articles focused on “223 Arabic manuscripts collected by the archaeologist Georges de Gironcourt in the course of an expedition to the region of the Niger bend in 1911.” See H.F.C. Smith, “Source Material for the History of the Western Sudan,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 1, no. 3 (December 1958): 240.

14. Smith, “Arabic Manuscript Material,” 2.

15. Smith, “Arabic Manuscript Material,” 2.

16. Vajda, “Contribution,” 229.

17. Noureddine Ghali and Sidi Mohamed Mahibou, Inventaire de la bibliothèque Umarienne de Ségou (Paris: Éditions du Centre nationale de la recherche scientifique, 1985). For a description of the project, see Louis Brenner and David Robinson, “Project for the Conservation of Malian Arabic Manuscripts”, History in Africa 7 (1980): 329–32.

18. Although some of the manuscripts described by Vajda and Ghali-Mahibou are now available (in black and white) on Gallica, where visitors may view or download them, nothing in their description indicates that they once formed the library of Umar Tal, or that they were later reclassified as part of the Fonds Archinard. (On the contrary, their provenance is given as Bibliothèque nationale de France!) Consequently, they cannot be retrieved collectively (i.e., as, for example, “Bibliothèque umarienne de Ségou,” “Bibliothèque d’Ahmadou,” or “Fonds Archinard”), but only individually using their catalog number (e.g. “arabe 5147”), if known.

19. “Dans la maison d’Ahmadou, une assez grande salle cependant était aussi en bon état d’entretien; c’était la bibliothèque où quantité de volumes assez richement reliés à la mode indigène étaient rangés en piles. Un factionnaire fut placé à la porte et, avant que la demeure de son frère ne fût remise à Aguibou, le lieutenant-colonel Deporter passa de longues heures à tout examiner. La plupart des volumes n’avait aucune importance et n’étaient que des copies du Coran ou d’ouvrages arabes déjà connus; quelques livres d’histoire furent cependant conservés par le lieutenant-colonel comme encore inédits et pourront, je l’espère, avec l’histoire chronologique du Macina dont j’ai déjà parlé en rendant compte de la mission du lieutenant-colonel Deporter, jeter quelque lumière sur le passé encore si obscur de toute cette région.” Renseignements coloniaux et documents publiés par le Comité de l’Afrique française. Supplément au Bulletin du Comité de l’Afrique française (janvier 1896), 26.

20. “[L]e lieutenant-colonel Deporter examina, dans la maison abandonnée d’Ahmadou, une bibliothèque restée en assez bon état, mais contenant peu des livres intéressants. Il y préleva seulement quelques ouvrages d’histoire encore inédits et susceptibles de jeter un peu de lumère sur le passé obscur de cette région.” Édouard Réquin, Archinard et le Soudan (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1946), 144.

21. Jillali El Adnani, “Inventaire des manuscrits du Fonds Archinard de la Bibliothèque du Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie,” Islam et societés au sud du Sahara, nos. 14–15 (2000–01): 154.

22. Abdel Kader Haïdara, “An Overview of the Major Manuscript Libraries in Timbuktu,” in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, ed. G. Krätli and G. Lydon (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 261–62.

23. In 1908–09, when Boutilimit was the staging area for the “pacification” campaign in the Adrar, Gaden was able to access various manuscript collections (including the Sīdiyya’s family library), while at the same time fulfilling the local marabouts’ demands for books from Paris.

24. In the spring of 2012, less than three years after the completion of the new Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research (which cost $8.36 million and was meant to house ca. 20,000 manuscripts), the building was seized and looted by militant Islamist groups during their ten-month-long occupation of Timbuktu and northern Mali. In July, immediately after UNESCO decided to inscribe Timbuktu on the List of World Heritage in Danger, militants set fire to the mausoleums of three Muslim saints, and fears about the fate [End Page 428] of the manuscripts were raised by various international groups and fanned by media reports from the area. Only after French and Malian troops retook control of northern Mali at the end of January 2013, was it revealed that the majority of the manuscripts had been smuggled out of Timbuktu into Bamako, there to remain stored, indefinitely, in several temporary locations around the city. The nature of the operation, conducted over several months and involving donkeys and metal trunks, let alone the precarious conditions in which the salvaged manuscripts were being kept, illustrate the precarious-to-high-risk conditions to which cultural heritage continue to be exposed in the region.

25. See Dmitry Bondarev and Eva Brozowsky, Safeguarding the Manuscripts of Timbuktu: A Report on the Current Situation and a Proposal for a Larger Preservation Project (Hamburg: Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, 2013).

26. For example, the Accessions to the Microfilm Collection for January 1965 says that “[i]n August, 1964, Mr. Ibrahim Mukoshy made a tour of the Sokoto area, during which he was able to borrow a total of 143 manuscripts which he brought to the Centre of Arabic Documentation for microfilming.” Research Bulletin 2, no. 2 (January 1965): 48.

27. “Report of the UNESCO Meeting of Experts on the Utilisation of Written Sources for the History of Africa, Held at Timbuktu 30 November–7 December, 1967,” Research Bulletin 4, nos. 1–2 (December 1968): 52–69. A previous meeting, attended by a small group of representatives of the Universities of Ghana and Ibadan (plus Vincent Monteil of IFAN and the Czech scholar Ivan Hrbek), had focused on “all material relevant to the history of West Africa, wherever it was located and with all documents written in Arabic script, whether in the Arabic language or in African languages.” Hunwick, one of the participants, had produced a “Summary of a Report on a Conference on Arabic Documents Held at the University of Ghana, 26 and 27 February, 1965,” Research Bulletin 1, no. 3 (July 1965): 8–25.

28. “Report of the UNESCO Meeting of Experts, etc.,” 63.

29. Brenner and Robinson, “Project for the Conservation,” 330.

30. Matthias Brückner and Paul-Thomas Kandzia, “OMAR: An Oriental Database for Oriental Manuscripts,” in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting: Cultural Heritage and Technologies in the Third Millennium, ed. D. Bearman and F. Garzotto (Milan: ICHIM, 2001), 401–5.

31. U. Rebstock, Maurische Literaturgeschichte, 3 vols. (Würzburg: Ergon, 2001).

32. U. Rebstock, Rohkatalog der arabischen Handschriften in Mauretanien, 3 vols. (Tübingen: n.p., 1985); U. Rebstock, R. Oßwald, and A. Wuld ‘Abdalqadir, Katalog der arabischer Handschriften in Mauretanien (Beirut: In Kommission bie Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden-Stuttgart, 1988); U. Renstock, Sammlung arabischer Handschriften aus Mauretanien: Kurzbeschreibungen von 2239 Handschrifteneinheiten mit Indices (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1989).

33. C.C. Stewart, review of Sammlung arabischer Handschriften aus Mauretanien, Journal of the American Oriental Society 112, no. 4 (October–December 1992): 712–13.

34. Indeed, one of the first mentions of Stewart’s interest in the subject which would inform his dissertation, as well as his first book, Islam and Social Order in Mauritania: A Case Study from the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), is a letter he sent to the Centre for Arabic Documentation in Ibadan, expressing his research interest “into the role of the Qadiriyya tariqa in the dissemination of Islam in West Africa in the period, roughly, from the mid-eighteenth century through the first quarter of the nineteenth century.” The letter was duly published in the January 1967 issue of the Research Bulletin (p. 53).

35. C.C. Stewart and Kazumi Hatasa, “Computer-Based Arabic Manuscript Management,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 404.

36. C.C. Stewart, Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts among the Ahl Al-Shaykh Sidiyya, 4 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1994). [End Page 429]

37. C.C. Stewart, Sidi Ahmad ould Ahmad Salim, and Ahmad ould Muhammad Yahya, General Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts at the Institut Mauritanien de Recherche Scientifique/al-Fihris al-‘āmm lil-makhṭūṭāt al-Mūrītānīyah, al-qism al-awwal, al-Ma‘had al-Mūrītānī lil-Baḥth al-‘Ilmiī. TMs (photocopy), 5 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1992–93).

38. U. Rebstock and Ahmad ould Muhammad Yahya, Handlist of Manuscripts in Shinqit and Wadan (London: al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1997).

39. C.C. Stewart, “A West African Arabic Manuscript Database,” in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: CODESRIA/HSRC, 2008), 323.

40. Stewart, “A West African Arabic Manuscript Database,” 321.

41. B.S. Hall and C.C. Stewart, “The Historic ‘Core Curriculum’ and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa”, in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, ed. G. Krätli and G. Lydon (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 115.

42. Council on Library and Information Resources, Preserving the Illustrated Text. Report of the Joint Task Force on Text and Image (April 1992), n.p.

43. Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group, Preserving Digital Information. Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information (May 1, 1996), iii.

44. ARL Preservation of Research Library Materials Committee, Recognizing Digitization as a Preservation Reformatting Method (June 2004), n.p.

45. International Federation of Library Associations, Guidelines for Digitization Projects for Collections and Holdings in the Public Domain, Particularly Those Held by Libraries and Archives (March 2002).

46. “Continuity of the digital heritage is fundamental. To preserve digital heritage, measures will need to be taken throughout the digital information life cycle, from creation to access. Long-term preservation of digital heritage begins with the design of reliable systems and procedures which will produce authentic and stable digital objects.” Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage, adopted at the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO (17 October 2003), 2.

47. Officially Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba (IHERIAB), formerly CEDRAB.

48. The information about the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project is from a detailed outline of the AREMALT component and two progress reports, dated May 16, 2002 (and covering the period Oct. 15, 2000–May 15, 2002) and January 1, 2003. Like many other documents related to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, these three reports were available on the Web site of the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment until circa 2012, but have been since taken down.

49. “Chemins du Savoir: Journées d’Etudes sur les Manuscrits de Tombouctou,” held on June 14-19, 2005 at the National Library in Rabat, Morocco.

50. John O. Hunwick and Alida Jay Boye, The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Rediscovering Africa’s Literary Culture (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

51. The Web site mentioned in the annual reports appears to have been replaced by a brief presentation of the “Timbuktu Manuscripts Project for the Preservation and Promotion of African Literary Heritage,” one of the research projects listed on the site of the University of Oslo’s Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (IKOS). According to this presentation, the project “aims to preserve and to improve access to public and private manuscript collections in northern Mali,” with the “ultimate goal … to preserve and promote wide access to the invaluable cultural and literary heritage held in both public and private collections of manuscripts in the Timbuktu area.” Nonetheless, the description focuses largely on the “national Ahmed Baba Institute (IHERI-AB)” and its “capacity to provide services to [End Page 430] private collectors and owners.” This, and the failure to mention the international community of researchers and scholars (who would benefit most from having “wide access” to such “invaluable cultural and literary heritage”), may perhaps be construed as a sign of the project’s shortcomings in the areas of database development and digital delivery.

52. The actual manuscripts were displayed at the Thomas Jefferson Building from June 24 through September 3, 2003.

53. See Kevin Guthrie and Tom Nygren, “Aluka: Building A Digital Library Of Scholarly Resources From Africa” (January 2007), available at (accessed December 2nd, 2013).

54. Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, Digitization Activities: Project Planning and Management Outline (November 2009), 4 [hereafter, FADGI].

55. IFLA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, Guidelines for the Digitization of Manuscripts and Rare Books (August 2013), 3 [hereafter, IFLA].

56. FADGI, 14–22.

57. IFLA, 13.

58. IFLA, 14.

59. IFLA, 15.

60. See, for example, the “feasibility report” (Étude de faisabilité d’un projet de developpement communal a Chinguetti) submitted by the Italian nongovernmental organization Africa ’70 in June 1998, discussed in G. Krätli, “Camel to Kilobytes: Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Trans-Saharan Book Trade,” in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, ed. G. Krätli and G. Lydon (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 335–36.

61. More specifically, the training of “both Malian and international researchers in (a) the identification, description and cataloguing of manuscripts, (b) the editing and translation of manuscripts, and (c) presentation and publication of research studies in the fields of History, Literature, Islamic Law, Sufism, etc.”

62. Arthur et al., cit., n.p

63. Which, however, represent but a fraction of the total amount estimated to survive in West Africa.

64. In fact, the 2013 IFLA-RBMS Guidelines distinguish between creating digital collections for access and preservation, focusing on the former since “[p]reservation imaging might call for different processes and standards,” 3.

65. In fact, Hall and Stewart’s use of the AMMS database to identify a “core curriculum” for Islamic West Africa is a Digital Humanities project, although limited in its methodology and purpose.

66. Pussadee Nonthacumjane, “Key Skills and Competencies of a New Generation of LIS Professionals” (paper presented at the World Library and Information Congress: 77th IFLA General Conference and Assembly, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 13-18 August 2011), 6–12. [End Page 431]

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