Wednesday, 30 January 2013

'Every time an elder dies, a library burns with him.'

by Joanna Godfree

A legal opinion on the rules for buying and selling goods
(source: via

'Every time an elder dies, a library burns with him.' (West African saying)

Of course to a librarian the burning of a library is the extreme opposite of all that we stand for, that is, the preservation and free dissemination of information and ideas of every sort. So it is with horror that we hear that, as well as the bloodshed, two libraries of world importance were burned on Saturday 26th January by Al Qaeda allied fighters in Timbuktu, Mali, as the insurgents fled from the city before the arrival of French troops and the Malian army. Thus the detailed and fascinating records of thousands of lives and of a rich and ancient culture may well have been destroyed, an inheritance which was recognised formally in 2009 by the building of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research Institute - named after a Timbuktu scholar of the 18th century - to conserve and study these ancient and fragile scrolls.

According to Luke Harding in The Guardian, Monday 28th January:

'The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries. The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights….

Some of the most fascinating scrolls included an ancient history of west Africa, the Tarikh al-Soudan, letters of recommendation for the intrepid 19th-century German explorer Heinrich Barth, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction. A large number dated from Timbuktu's intellectual heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries … By the late 1500s the town, north of the Niger river, was a wealthy and successful trading centre, attracting scholars and curious travellers from across the Middle East. Some brought books to sell.

The burning of books (biblioclasm) has always been a powerfully symbolic act, a physical and spectacular expression of rejection by one group of the strongly-held beliefs of another.  Ray Bradbury enshrined a prophetic vision of a state-run system of official book-burning in his 1953 fable 'Fahrenheit 451' (as Bradbury understood it, the burning point of paper). This is how the book opens:

'It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history…Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Over the course of the story Bradbury charts the tentative efforts of Montag the fireman to identify the source of his own inner desolation in the midst of this dystopian world; later in his painful journey he comes upon a group of men seated round a bonfire, sharing the stories they have made their own, and in a moment of epiphany he realises that the fire 'was not burning; it was warming! … He hadn't known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take.'

There are reports that a number of the Timbuktu manuscripts had already been taken away and hidden in various locations around the town, in anticipation of possible attack. We can only hope that this is indeed the case; the international outrage that has greeted the burning may at least shine a light on the value of these irreplaceable treasures so that we can better preserve what remains.

For further reading:

More on the  conservation project:

Book Burning, 213 BC–2011 AD:


1 comment:

  1. Excellent summary of a cultural tragedy. Unfortunately, it's not just Islamist insurgents who are destroying libraries. About 600 public libraries across England have reportedly closed due to local and central government cuts.

    John Sadden


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