When a radical Islamist faction fled the city of Timbuktu as French forces descended on the city late last month, the new library at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research was set on fire.
The institute’s library collection included approximately 30,000 volumes, many of which are one-of-kind manuscripts some dating back 700 years. Some of the volumes were from the 15th and 16th centuries when Timbuktu was the intellectual center of western Africa. Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, had called the collection one of Africa’s “most important cultural treasures.”
At first it was feared that a large portion of the historical collection was lost. But when the radical Islamist faction first came to Timbuktu, some of the manuscripts had been moved to the capital in Bamako. Only about 2,000 documents were in the library at the time of the file and many of these were later found safe, locked in a basement room.
It is now estimated that only about 5 percent of the total collection was lost and many of these documents had been digitized.