Celebrating Sub-Saharan Arabic Manuscripts


page of west-African manuscript

This is a page from Professor Stewart’s manuscript collection.

In April, the University Library celebrated the preservation of the Charles Stewart Mauritanian Arabic manuscripts, which is the most extensive collection of Sub-Sahar manuscripts in North America. Prof. Charles served for 35 years in the Department of History, and for half of that time held administrative posts as Director of African Studies, Associate Chair, then Chair of History, Executive Associate Dean in the College of LAS and Interim Associate Provost for International Studies, before his retirement in 2006.

According to Stewart, the collection has 10,000 manuscripts, and it covers topics such as jurisprudence, devotions, science, Quran, history, langaugestics, Sufism, politics, and economics.

The celebration of the collection also had an exhibit that was created by Atyeh (Ati) Ashtari and an online LibGuide created by Lauryn Lehman.

Laila Hussein Moustafa, Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern and North African Studies Librarian

The Exhibition

panels about the west-African Caliphate

Panels about the Caliphate are on display in the IAS Library through mid-May.

“Working on an exhibition to showcase Caliphate of Hamdallahi exposed me to many challenges. In order to create a successful exhibition, you need to come up with highly visually pleasing graphics to make the intended audience interested in the work. However, this particular topic did not have any easily accessible visual materials such as photos, images and manuscripts. Therefore, we had to spend hours digging up the relevant information. Moreover, we had to be very innovative to come up with ways of visualizing the gathered data in a way that is both interesting as a text and much more fascinating as a graphic. This is very well indicated in our poster presenting the challenges of studying the Sokoto Caliphate. We wanted to convey that the two most challenging part of this study was that the material was diffused all over the world and that the data was in many different languages. To visualize these amazing facts, we ended up building layers of graphics on top of a world map to depict such challenges.”

Atyeh Ashtari, Graduate Research Assistant for Urban and Regional Planning

The Online LibGuide

screenshot of library guide about west-african manuscripts

This library guide will be available online soon from the International and Area Studies Library.

This semester, we have been in the process of developing a library guide to aid researchers in locating West African Arabic and Arabic-script resources to use in their research. The initial focus was on finding as many open-access resources as were available, though the scope has expanded outwards to include any relevant resources that could be found. We were able to successfully locate a number of digitization projects that have made resources openly available, as well as an extensive list of physical archives, both domestically and internationally, that researchers may visit. Additionally, we are in the process of creating an interactive map, to further aid in the finding of resources. We look forward to adding new materials as further projects make them available.”

Lauryn Lehman, master’s candidate for African Studies and Library and Information Sciences

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Timbuktu Manuscript project and Promoting Libraries on Mass Media

In one of our previous blog posts, we introduced the plight of Timbuktu ancient manuscripts in Mali during the ongoing war.[i] As recent report says, after being rescued from the Islamic fundamentalists, these materials were relocated to South Mali, which has caused new threats to them. Now they are facing preservation issues caused by humidity in their new home. This area is much more humid than Timbuktu, which is very arid. After being moved to South Mail, these manuscripts are still kept in footlockers, which are not moisture proof. These manuscripts are printed on rag paper and are very fragile to the humidity. Some manuscripts are already damaged by the moisture,[ii] showing signs of mildew and rot.[iii] The damage will become more severe if these manuscripts are not better preserved by mid June, the rain reason of Mali.x

In order to gain outside help rescuing these manuscripts, Timbuktu librarians launched a campaign to raise funds for preserving these materials. Approximately 7 million dollars are needed to purchase archival boxes and humidity traps to keep these manuscripts before they can be returned to Timbuktu. In view of the time limit, Timbuktu librarians used multiple approaches to seek outside help. This effort has been promoted in a variety of ways, including CNN news channel, Facebook, twitter, and Reddit. All of them are gaining considerable attention.  An Indiegogo channel was created to collect donations. As of the close of the campaign, on June 20, 2013, $67,446 was collected out of the $100,000 asked for.[iv] You can still contribute to the manuscripts cause through a Pay Pal account linked from the T160K website.

This campaign is a perfect illustration of using Internet to promote library activities. Internet spreads information much faster than the traditional library outreach approaches, such as poster, departmental collaboration, exhibits, etc. The funding Timbuktu library gets on Indiegogo increases exponentially day by day.  It also collects a much larger audience. This campaign gets supporters from Facebook users, Twitter users, CNN followers, and Reddit readers. Other libraries can learn this experience for their own outreach. Despite of some limits of mass media promotion for library activities and fundraising, such as less targeted user group and some security issues, it does bring a faster and more influential option to future library promotion. Also, other online resources could also be used to collect user experience information and other feedback to improve library services and increase our influence all around.

For more information on the manuscript rescue, listen to the interview of Abdel Kader Haidara on BBC Outlook: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b19d6.

[i] Denise Rayman. (2013) The Timbuktu Library Burnings and the Importance of Library Disaster Planning. http://publish.illinois.edu/iaslibrary/2013/03/01/the-timbuktu-library-burnings-and-the-importance-of-library-disaster-planning/

[ii] Timbuktu Libraries in Exile. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/timbuktu-libraries-in-exile

[iii] Saved from Islamists, Timbuktu’s manuscripts face new threat. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/28/world/africa/timbuktu-manuscripts/index.html?iref=allsearch

[iv] Timbuktu Libraries in Exile. Indiegogo. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/timbuktu-libraries-in-exile

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The Timbuktu Library Burnings and the Importance of Library Disaster Planning

Overview: A Tragedy Dodged

On Saturday the 26th of January, Islamic rebels set fire to two Timbuktu libraries of ancient manuscripts as they fled from incoming French and Malian troops [1]. Initial articles in the media reported it to be an enormous loss of ancient knowledge, uncounted numbers of ancient Islamic manuscripts, some dating back to the 11th century, gone in one day [2].

However, a few weeks later the librarians and Timbuktu citizens came out with happy news: prior to the burnings the majority of manuscripts were surreptitiously removed from the libraries in 2012, put in cataloged metal boxes, and stashed “beneath mud floors, into cupboards, boxes, sacks and secret rooms, into caves in the desert or upriver to the safety of Mopti or Bamako, Mali’s capital” [3]. It had been done quietly, and “a few hundred” manuscripts left behind, so as not to alert the terrorists to their actions [3]. Some manuscripts have been lost, but the traditional form of conservation practiced by the local family guardians of these manuscripts, simply hiding them, in combination with modern digitization efforts that have been going on for the past two years, has prevented a tragic loss of global heritage. UNESCO has also pledged to help with recovery efforts [4].

Mathematical manuscripts from the Timbuktu collections. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If you would like to view some of the digitized manuscripts for yourself, check out the The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project website, and search through their database.

Library Disaster Planning

The Timbuktu manuscripts were saved because there was effective, unique disaster planning in place for them. While most archivists would not consider hiding their holdings in the houses of local families, for the Timbuktu manuscript guardians, who were used to unstable governments, it was the most effective available option.

While disasters present a threat to all librarians, the majority of libraries do not have irreplaceable manuscripts, and the majority are also not under threat from terrorists. However, all libraries need disaster plans. Fire, water, and natural disasters (such as tornadoes and earthquakes) are the biggest threats to the majority of library collections. Water presents the most obvious damage to anyone who has dropped a book or magazine in the bath, but it presents a second threat of mold if the book is not dried properly. Fire presents the first damaging effect of burning the paper, but the use of water-based fire-suppression systems adds the damage of water and mold.

Library disaster plans outline what should be done in the case of damage to buildings and materials, and how collections should be triaged and made stable for later conservation processes. Our own library has a detailed disaster plan which outlines what is to be done the case of disaster with all types of materials we hold, from Albumen Prints to Vinyl Records. (The library’s disaster plan is not available to the public for safety reasons.)

In the wake of the world’s increasing globalization, the importance of protecting heritage documents has become an international, and not just local, concern. Blue Shield, “the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross,” is a group working to create internationally coordinated responses to threats to cultural heritage, such as the terrorist threats to the Timbuktu manuscripts, and they are also working to protect the cultural heritage of Syria during its current political unrest.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning about the manuscripts housed at the Timbuktu library and the Islamic manuscript tradition, check out these resources:

If you’re interested in the particulars of how libraries put together their disaster plans, check out these resources:

Continue reading

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