October 17, 2018
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Joshua Hammer, “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts.” Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017

By: Berniece Owen
July 20, 2018
Book Review

People generally think that librarians know everything. It is not true, but I like to foster the myth.  What is true is that librarians know how to find information. We can look it up. I was chagrined recently when I had to look up Timbuktu. I always thought it was a romantic and imaginary place like Shangri-La. It is not. Timbuktu is an ancient city of over 50,000 people in the northeastern African country of Mali.

For hundreds of years Timbuktu-Mali has been a center for book collecting and manuscript preservation. The collections are full of beauty and fine art in traditional Middle Eastern style.  People in the country-side and the city have the same reverence for the books which in turn foster their efforts to save the material. Unfortunately, the people’s methods did not include a good understanding of a hand-written book or rolled-up manuscript’s fragile nature.

However, the librarians of Timbuktu did have the place and the skills to preserve the irreplaceable and beautiful documents that represent so many years of collecting. One of them, an archivist named Abdel Kader Haidara, spent years travelling around the province in an old and battered four-wheel drive vehicle visiting out-of-the-way villages to collect the materials.  He had to convince the present owners that the books and manuscripts would be restored and protected in Timbuktu.  

At the same time, he must avoid the suspicious eye of al Qaeda. Ancient physical monuments had been attacked and ancient books and manuscripts had been targeted as well.  

Mali is a Muslim country, but the books and manuscripts include science and law and philosophy with illustrations that do not follow strict Muslim precepts. The content includes science, history, philosophy and poetry. The texts have been finely crafted for style and beauty, rather than close following of Muslim law. Hence al Qaeda’s urge to destroy these blasphemous materials. 

The first couple of chapters of the book detail the travels of Abdel Kader Haidara who was determined to save the treasures that the people of Mali have been saving in barrels and mattresses and hidden caches of all kinds. Then comes the equally large task of removing the material from the libraries where they were no longer safe. Haidara recruits fellow librarians in Timbuktu to move the treasured collections to southern Mali, where fanatical jihadists had not yet set up their rule.  

Meanwhile al Qaeda works on recruiting its terrorist army. Author Hammer tells tales about the terrorist activities and kidnappings in juxtaposition to the librarians’ struggle to move hundreds of fragile books and manuscripts secretly through rough desert roads.  

Hammer brings his reporting skills to the front to create a credible picture of both sides of the story. He also includes information about U.S. diplomatic and military machinations in Mali during the years immediately following the September 11 attacks in New York and various other attacks world-wide.

And all the while the Timbuktu librarians focus on their specific and successful goal for preserving cultural treasures while deliberate destruction of some of those treasures goes on all around them. This is a nice spot of good news in a bad news part of the world.

Bernice Owen is a retired librarian and resides in Rohnert Park.