African Libraries under Threat

eBook vs Buch, e-Reader aus einem Bücherregal ziehenThe Latin poet Horace famously brags that his book of Odes is “a monument more lasting than bronze”. It is certainly pleasant to believe that an author’s ideas can live on in print after his death, according him a certain measure of immortality: the sight, however, of a shelf of crumbling paperbacks is enough to shake the firmest faith in the durability of the book. The digital revolution that has swept through the publishing industry is also something of a double-edged sword: though digitisation offers a defence against the fragility of the medium and allows greater access to library collections, it reduces the value of the physical object, undermining the revered status which has been instrumental to the survival of unique works for over four millennia.

By Alasdair MacKinnon

The last two years have seen tragedy strike two of the greatest African libraries. The power shifts and instability in North Africa and the Sahel first saw the richest library in Egypt, that of Cairo’s Scientific Institute, go up in flames during December 2011’s clashes between democracy protesters and security forces. Then on the 28th of January this year, Hallé Ousmani Cissé, the mayor of Timbuktu, reported that the fleeing militants, who had already destroyed the ancient shrines in the city, had torched the New Ahmed Baba institute, which had been home to many thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts.

For days after the government forces’ recapture of the town, it was impossible to gauge the extent of the damage. The imposition of hard-line Salafist doctrine, which amongst other things rejects the Islamic scholarship that blossomed after the time of Mohammed, had led to the wide-ranging destruction of books throughout Northern Mali; the Ahmed Baba collection, it was feared, was the latest to fall foul of its fierce strictures, with the total loss from the single event suggested to be between 10,000 and 30,000 artefacts. By the Tuesday after the burning, however, some hope had returned: Dr Mahmoud Zouber, founding director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, told Time magazine that, while there had been some losses, the most important manuscripts had been “put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”

It turned out that local citizens and preservationists, shortly before the town’s capture by the militants, had managed to rescue a large portion of the library and send it to the relative safety of the capital. Even after the takeover, the work of saving the town’s heritage continued. Amongst others who risked the savage reprisals of the regime for the sake of posterity was Abba al-Hadi, a guard at the Institute, who every night would fill rice sacks with manuscripts and spirit them through the city’s narrow streets to the banks of the Niger, where they were taken by boat and car to Bamako.

What the staff and allies of the Ahmed Baba Institute were working to save was not just a collection of extraordinary individual texts, ranging from medical, legal and philosophical treatises to poetry and classical works; nor just a testament to the depth of mediaeval learning in Timbuktu. The manuscripts of Mali, alongside those of Ethiopia, are the evidence of vibrant literary tradition pre-dating the colonial period – a historical fact which colonists were all too eager to suppress. The important, much-overlooked story of African writing, and pre-colonial cultural exchange between Europe and the Sahel, East Africa and Asia, is contained in bodies of documents laid down in the mosques of Timbuktu and Djenné, and the monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

War, natural disaster and the ravages of time threaten the very existence of this literature. In Mali, though the manuscripts may have been saved by a hair’s breadth from instant destruction, they are still at risk from neglect, deterioration, and the encroachment of the desert sands. The Ethiopian manuscripts face similar dangers: a 2011 British Library report on the monastic collection at East Gojjam found that the manuscripts were “in danger of being eaten by rats or insects… exposed to damage from rainwater… [stored] unlocked, or locked only with cheap locks, which can easily be broken or forced open.” For centuries, the seclusion of monastery libraries and the isolation of Timbuktu have helped to preserve intact collections that could otherwise have been scattered and lost. However, strategies must now be developed both to preserve them for posterity and to improve access to one of Africa’s precious resources.

To this effect, digitisation programmes have been set up across the Continent. The National Library and Archives of Egypt, founding members of the World Digital Library, became leaders in the field in 2007, setting up a state-of-the-art digitisation centre in Cairo to make some of their materials available online. Elsewhere, the situation is more complicated. With governments pressed to direct limited funds towards schemes that are more obviously in the public’s interest, digitisation has proceeded extremely slowly – only 300 or so of the Ahmed Baba manuscripts had been digitised before the civil war curtailed the project – or with international support. The National Archives of Ethiopia recently entered into a six-year mutually beneficial collaboration with France, where training in modern technology and digitisation was exchanged for access to Ethiopian librarians’ expert knowledge of their national collection. The British Library, on its part, runs the Endangered Archives programme, active across Africa from St Helena to Addis Ababa, whose stated aim is “to contribute to the preservation of archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration world-wide… through the award of grants in an annual competition.”

Such schemes have not always gone unopposed – even though they vastly increase the quantity of educational resources and safeguard the future study of African history. To some, having European libraries involved in making African collections available online smacks of colonialist exploitation or heritage plundering: and where Internet penetration rates are still low, digitisation offers little obvious immediate benefit to the national population. Could African libraries be jumping one step too far ahead? Will digitisation lead to a collapse in the quality of information? How do we share knowledge without being exploited?

The debate is still on: and if you would like to take part in it yourself, eLearning Africa 2013 is the place to do it. EXP17: African Libraries in a Digital Age, includes presentations from a varied panel of speakers and will address the wide-ranging opportunities for public and academic library services in Africa. The role which libraries are playing in contributing to development priorities such as education and health will be discussed in this session, as well as topics such as the digital divide, the accessibility of academic information, and modern librarians’ suitability as curators of Internet resources.

To take a look at the full programme, click here.


  1. Abudukadri T.E.L.

    Whatever we forward-thinking technology people say about digitisation, physical books remain one of the most powerful technologies there is. We have to preserve them.

  2. Tomoki E.

    Google’s initiative to digitalise all the world’s books should be further promoted. There has been a lot of skepticism of Google’s motives but disasters like this should not be allowed to happen. These pages are not just history but a representation of past cultures and the birthplace of our own and that is priceless.

  3. Alyson Fisher

    The loss of the thousands of manuscripts is devastating, why is there so little governmental interest in preserving the knowledge and history these priceless artifacts by digitalising their pages?

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