True Story – Librarian on a Mission Saves Timbuktu’s Manuscripts but Doesn’t Stop There!

by Naomi House, MLIS

True Story – Librarian on a Mission Saves Timbuktu’s Manuscripts but Doesn’t Stop There!

Librarian as a position in the United States is usually a job you seek out and get trained for through a university degree program, but in Mali, in the ancient region around Timbuktu, it is a lifetime appointment. ‘Abdel Kader Haidara was 17 years old when he took a vow, honoring his family’s legacy, to protect the manuscript collection in Timbuktu.’ He compiled and oversaw a collection of manuscripts handed down by a group of families as was tradition, and founded the Mamma Haidara Library.  National Geographic did a wonderful in-depth story on Dr. Haidara a few years ago in which they explained how the library came to be and the history of Dr. Haidara’s family’s part of the collection:

Abdel Kader Haidara’s father, Mohammed Haidara, nicknamed Mamma, was born in the town of Bamba on the Niger in 1897, in the early years of French rule. A self-taught scholar, he amassed a large quantity of rare handwritten books.

“Since the 16th century our ancestors had been acquiring manuscripts,” Haidara told me. “They had built up a library in Bamba, and my father added to it. He traveled all over Africa, bringing back manuscripts from Chad, Sudan, and Egypt.” He also helped augment the manuscript collection of the Ahmed Baba Institute, created by UNESCO in 1967 with the objective of preserving the region’s rich written history.

Dr. Haidara and a piece of manuscript

Dr. Haidara and a piece of manuscript

I came to know Dr. Haidara through Dr. Stephanie Diakite, a lawyer and book preservationist who has worked for years in Mali with Dr. Haidara to rescue, preserve and crowdfund for projects to save and share the Timbuktu manuscripts as they have come to be called.  We were speaking on community building and libraries at a conference in South Africa in February 2014, where she was Keynote speaking on the rescue and preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts, when she mentioned her role crowdfunding using Indiegogo for the daring rescue and preservation of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to Bamako, the capital of Mali.  She envisioned a new crowdfunding platform for African patrimony projects, which became, and of which I am a co-founder and CMO.  All because we met at a Library Conference!

Dr. Haidara is a HERO!  Risking his life, he and other librarians smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu and the besieged northern part of Mali, and got nearly all of them, 400,000+ to safety in the capital of Bamako.  Another great article is the one for Outside magazine about the rescue called, The Real Rebels of Timbuktu, which prominently features Dr. Haidara.  It is a must read!  But the story did not end there – because YAY, manuscripts were rescued, but rescued to a moist, humid environment from their dry, arid, desert home of centuries.  Librarians and archivists know what this means- it means despite not burning in the fires of the rebels, the manuscripts were still in grave danger.  Enter Dr. Diakite and Dr. Haidara’s very successful Indiegogo campaign to purchase preservation materials and archival boxes, called Libraries In Exile!  1,257 librarians, archivists, historians and others raised over $67,000 in ONE MONTH for materials and workers, saving these priceless materials!!!

steph and artisansSo YAY, again because not only are they now rescued but they will be preserved.  But physical preservation in boxes is not really the end game that Dr. Haidara and Dr. Diakite saw, because the real value isn’t just the physical manuscripts the boxes now house, but the priceless knowledge they contain, with an emphasis on African Islamic history and the peace process.  So digitizing and cataloging the manuscripts are key.  Working with Dr. Haidara, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University is creating digital records of more than 22,000 rare and historically-significant documents In addition to that work Dr. Haidara is working separately with T160K to crowdfund the cataloging part of the project.

Cataloging, as all librarians know, helps to describe what each manuscript contains, makes finding the information easier and allows for easy digitization prioritization.  African cataloging standards are different than the ones used in the United States and it is vital that trained Mali based catalogers be the ones doing the work and being fairly compensated for it (can you see the INALJ people getting paid for jobs part coming out here?)  Dr. Haidara is critical to this process as it is his intimate, lifetime familiarity with the manuscripts as well as his ability to prioritize and focus on the peace building manuscripts that make his leadership for the Cataloguing Project vital. This separate project which he is leading is in great need of funds for materials and salaries for the Mali based catalogers.  137 librarians, archivists, historians and more have given to the T160K crowdfunding effort, Cataloging the Timbuktu Manuscripts and we are nearly 1/5th of the way towards his $100,000 goal! 

Library Journal has covered this amazing effort and PBS News Hour just did a profile on Dr. Haidara.  Heck, T160K and the Timbuktu manuscripts have definitely been getting press!  But Dr. Haidara needs funding to complete this vital mission and as little as $5 catalogs one manuscript!  $200 gets you or your institution a printed copy of the catalog once it is done.  $350 pays the salary for one cataloger and $500 buys an iPad and training on the iPad for a cataloger.  Dr. Haidara has the people he needs to do this great work, what he needs is funding.  T160K and the Mamma Haidara cataloging project are not a non-profit, but a crowdfunding effort.  If you could give even a small amount of your disposable income to this project you would be making a world of difference.  For more information on this project and Dr. Haidara see our campaign page for him on or click below.

From rescue to preservation to cataloging in anticipation of digitization, Dr. Haidara and the Mamma Haidara Library in Mali are heroes!

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all photos used with permission and courtesy of T160K and Stephanie Diakite

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular LIS jobs resource (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ has had over 20 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and now lives part time in Western NY and Budapest, Hungary. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay.