Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Timbuktu's Old Books (5): The Moral for Libraries

Bryan Campen, writing on the Long Now blog, draws an interesting moral from news of the survival of old manuscripts in the private possession of Timbuktu families:

It is interesting that that so many families were able to preserve these manuscripts for so long. What caused this culture of long term preservation?

Consider the Library of Alexandria, which Stewart Brand covers in Clock of the Long Now. It experienced at least four fires, two from “collateral damage” by Ptolemy VIII (88 B.C.E) and Julius Caesar (47 B.C.E.), and two from religions on the rise (Christianity and Islam).

The ability to preserve these books over many centuries so far rests with families intent on honoring and adhering to requests from ancestors, a rather small and fragile model compared to the infrastructure needed to build a great library. Yet it is possible that a family with instructions from ancestors is, in some sense, a better library than a library itself.

Six hundred years ago, Timbuktu was packed with university students (at about 25,000, the size of a modestly large mid-western university these days) and a constant flow of merchants. It was a nexus of trade and intellectual life on the continent which then slowed. Perhaps because it did not intersect with the dramatic tension between three continents, like Alexandria, it was less prone both to collateral damage *and* the request by military or religious leaders to dispose of books not relevant to the prevailing winds. In any case, this slowing may well have ensured greater preservation over time.

It’s also confirmation that a library in the middle of a continent–away from the intersection of countries, military conquests and ascendant religious movements–is a really good idea. With “ancient-book fever” now in Timbuktu, some combination of library and family models will have to preserve them

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