Book Watch
by Fran Haraway

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
by Joshua Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu gifts us with the information that written history is vital, and those brave people (in this case, librarians in Timbuktu, Mali) went to tremendous lengths to make sure that evil (in this case, Islamic militants invoking Sharia Law on innocent citizens) did not win.

Until recently, a common conception concerning Africa's intellectual history was, “There is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.” Not so! Timbuktu, for example, was, “a sophisticated, free-thinking society” that had thrived while much of Europe was trapped in the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages.

In the 1300's, Timbuktu was already a repository of scholarship, protecting not only Islamic writings but also translations of Greek thinkers – Plato, Aristotle and others including a polyglot of written wisdom. As Mali was taken over by various foreign powers, manuscripts were secreted in family hideyholes, and the writings gradually became unknown to all but the families who hid them.

Abdel Kadar Haidara's father, Mamma Haidara, a famous local collector of manuscripts, was dedicated to preserving ancient Arabic writings. To his complete dismay, when Mamma died, Abdel Kadar was named custodian of the family library. He was then persuaded to search out hidden manuscripts from all over the area, and he worked with such enthusiasm that, “In the first year of work...he managed to acquire as many manuscripts as the previous team of eight prospectors had collected in a decade.”

Fast forward to 2012. Timbuktu now had 45 libraries and some 377,000 manuscripts, and Al Quaeda-backed jihadists were poised to destroy them all. Quick-thinking Abdel Kadar used his own Ford Foundation grant money to save the manuscripts, and, with the help of other librarians in the city, he smuggled them, all of them, to the safety of Bamako, Mali's capital city. Reading how this fantastic enterprise was accomplished almost stops the heart.

To learn more about this and other books, visit the Boulder City Library at 701 Adams Boulevard, 293-1281,

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