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'Libraries in Exile' fights to save priceless manuscripts in Mali

The coalition of librarians, archivists, and historians is using the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to try to raise money to save the historic papers.

By Husna Haq / June 17, 2013

Many priceless manuscripts are stored at the Hamed Baba book repository (pictured) in Mali. Some were saved despite looting but are now in danger because of moisture.

Harouna Traore/AP

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Can books help war-torn lands heal from conflict? A new international initiative to save historic manuscripts in Mali may mark one step toward rebuilding and reconciliation in that conflict-ridden country.

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More than a year after conflict in Mali threatened scores of priceless historic manuscripts due to looting, fire, and moisture damage, an ambitious initiative is taking shape to save the endangered manuscripts before it’s too late.

Libraries in Exile, an international coalition of librarians, archivists, and historians, has launched an appeal to raise $100,000 via crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to save the Arabic manuscripts

In early 2012, Al-Qaida and Tuareg fighters occupied Northern Mali after pushing out government forces. The resulting conflict left thousands dead and made hundreds of thousands refugees.

Malian forces regained control of much of Mali this year, but the conflict also left hundreds of thousands of precious manuscripts destroyed or endangered, most notably, thousands of historic Arabic manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute, a revered library and research center in Timbuktu.

The manuscripts from the institute date back more than 700 years and cover a range of topics from Arabic literature and poetry to business, astronomy, science, and rare religious books. They hail from across the Muslim world, including Andalusia, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Indian Ocean trading ports.

At least 4,200 of the historic manuscripts were lost from the institute due to looting and arson, according to news reports, while another 300,000 were evacuated by a team of international librarians and archivists. Those 300,000 saved manuscripts are now in danger of decay due to moisture damage and improper storage.

That’s what the new crowdfunding project aims to reverse.

Via crowdfunding site IndieGoGo, Libraries in Exile is asking the public to donate money to save the manuscripts. The monies raised will be used to purchase moisture traps, archival boxes, and labor, according to the UK’s Guardian. A donation of $30 will preserve a single manuscript; $9,000 would help preserve an entire footlocker of manuscripts. Some $40,000 has already been raised.

“It is through the efforts of ordinary people that the manuscripts have been preserved this long, and that they have survived the violence affecting Mali today,” Libraries in Exile campaign page states. “Crowdfunding is enabling of participation and we believe this is a key to the sustainable safeguarding of the manuscripts.”

“A cultural heritage of this magnitude has incredible power to bring people together…We believe that securing these manuscripts is a positive step towards a process of enduring peace and a reduced toll of human misery for this entire region.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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