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.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Timbuktu's Old Books (4)

The Washington Post has an update (see our previous posts here, here, and here) about the efforts to collect and preserve Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts, which have been preserved in private family collections (see article for excellent pictures; see also the different discussion by Nancy Mattoon on Book Patrol).

Although the books began to resurface in the 1970s, when Mali created the Ahmed Baba Institute, efforts to preserve them have gained momentum in recent years. South Africa has been a key player. The nation's scholarly former president, Thabo Mbeki, viewed the manuscripts as a tool for addressing "an urgent need to rethink Africa . . . an urgent need for Africa to define herself," as he said in a 2008 speech.

Early this year, archivists and curators trained by South Africa will take up residence at the Ahmed Baba Institute's new building. The 30,000-volume collection -- complete with a 17th-century Koran written on the skin of a gazelle -- will move into its climate-controlled rooms.

There is space for 100,000 books. Haidara said he is trying to persuade families to ensure their books' protection by selling them to the library, but it is a difficult task.

"This is the family heritage. You don't give it away," he said. "We are trying to raise their awareness."

... The effort has been slow going. Travel warnings about Islamist insurgents in the area have deterred tourists. And most of the books remain in private hands and will probably stay that way: Many owners refuse to part with their books on the instructions of ancestors, but they struggle to raise funds to restore or display them

The story here is not only about efforts to preserve Timbuktu's literary heritage, but also about the rival claims of private and public ownership. We have observed that conflict over ownership of iconic texts in many parts of the world (for other posts about this, click the label "ownership" at left).

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