Responses: The Struggle over the Timbuktu Manuscripts

After a posted a funding appeal from the Timbuktu Libraries in Exile project, @tommymiles sent me a link to Dr. Bruce Hall’s public call — basically — not to give money to the project:

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Hall raises three issues: 1) that the manuscripts have been “mischaracterized,” spoken of in a quasi-magical way, 2) there has been an exaggeration of the number of manuscripts, 3) and transparency in the project and access what’s going on with these manuscripts.

As to the first objection, Hall agrees that the manuscripts are “a wonderfully important resource for scholars, both Malian and non-Malian,” but prefers Dr. Diakite not talk about them as a unifying cultural force. Ultimately, this seems neither here nor there.

As to the second charge, in an email, Diakite reiterates in response, “more than 300 000 evacuated manuscripts are in hand in safehouses and that a first time ever inventory of the the manuscripts has been completed. We have identified 73 large categories of manuscripts in the inventory in a large variety of languages as stated.  Many manuscripts do not originate in Timbuktu as stated.”

As to the third, the serious issue — which Hall titles “secrecy” — he alleges that a lot of money has already been spent on manuscript preservation with not enough transparency. This may well be so, although ultimately, the T160K project is not asking for that much — not as much, for instance, as IndieGoGo campaigns for the creation of a new video game. Also, as to the general funds spent, Diakite responds, “our current efforts are an in extremis response to very significant physical integrity issues being experienced by the evacuated manuscripts.  They are distinct from any long term efforts to permanently record the contents of the corpus through digitization or for research in the corpus.”

Blogger Ayman Fadel also responded to these issues; he explains why he has donated money to the campaign. He also says:

The problem is the gulf between African scholars and Africanists from North America, Europe and elsewhere. While my distance from the field today reduces my authority on this topic, while I was a graduate student, I observed that the relationship between the Africanists and their subjects was totally unequal, even though the Africanists depended almost entirely upon African scholars, informants, translators and archive librarians to progress in through their research. Yet these Africans hardly ever received reciprocal benefits such as a career path in academia, access to scholarly journals published in North America and Europe, money, publication of their research or a say in the finished work.

There has generally been a great deal of hype in reporting on the manuscripts in Timbuktu;  but five days ago, UNESCO put out a press release, stating that the situation was worse than they had previously believed, and that approximately 300,000 manuscripts are in urgent need of preservation.