Graziano Krätli’s article “Between Quandary and Squander: A Brief and Biased Inquiry into the Preservation of West African Arabic Manuscripts” provides a critical overview of major initiatives undertaken to identify, describe, and preserve Arabic manuscripts in West Africa. He is a librarian at Yale University and a scholar of the the material, technological, economic, and cultural aspects of book production, circulation, and preservation in the non-Western world. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
My article on West African Arabic Manuscript Heritage has a three-pronged approach. In the first place, it provides an overview of the major initiatives that have been undertaken since the 1960s to collect, describe, and preserve Arabic-language manuscripts in Mali, Mauritania, and Nigeria. Mainly focused on bibliographic description, content analysis and preservation, these initiatives employed storage and reformatting technologies (microfilm and digitization), database management systems, and the Internet, to develop computerized catalogs and finding aids, create surrogate copies of selected manuscripts, and eventually make these resources available online. Considering the harsh environment, the problematic nature of the materials and their storage conditions, and the limited human, technological and financial resources employed, it is remarkable how some of these projects managed to survey and map large swaths of the West African manuscript landscape, often making the results of their work permanently available online.
In the second place, it reviews the accomplishments and shortcomings of some major projects, in order to understand how they often failed to meet – or even understand properly – the expectations of their intended and potential users. (Or if they did meet such expectations, they misunderstood or underestimated the nature of the tools they employed and the rapidly evolving technological and cultural environment that nurtures and supports them.)
Thirdly, it advocates a different approach to preservation and its priorities with respect to both, the particular heritage at issue and its particularly challenging geopolitical context.
Below is a list of added online content, with indication of the article pages on which each resource is referred.
- Octave Houdas’ French translations of the Ta’rīkh al-sūdān (1898-1900) and the Tadhkirat al-nisyān (1901) (401) are both available available on Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).
- Louis Archinard’s (401) account of the “conquest and pacification” of French Sudan (current Mali), Le Soudan en 1893 (Havre: Imprimerie de la Société des anciens courtiers, 1895), is available on Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).
- Timbuktu’s great mosques of Djingareyber (rebuilt in the 16th century), Sankore (14th century), and Sidi Yahia (ca. 1400), and sixteen mausoleums and holy public places were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988 (404) as “outstanding witnesses to the urban establishment of Timbuktu, its important role of commercial, spiritual and cultural centre on the southern trans-Saharan trading route, and its traditional characteristic construction techniques.”
- The four ancient ksour of Wādān (Ouadane), Shinqīṭī (Chinguetti), Tīchīt (Tichitt) and Walāta (Oualata), in Mauritania, were included on the World Heritage List in 1996 (404), with the motivation that they represent medieval towns with an outstanding example of the type of architectural ensembles illustrating seven centuries of human history, and focuses on their bearing “unique witness to a nomadic culture and trade in a desert environment.”
- Noureddine Ghali and Sidi Mohamed Mahibou published their catalog of the library of Umar Tal (Al-Ḥājj ‘Umar b. Sa’īd al-Fūtī al-Tūrī, 1797-1864), Inventaire de la bibliothèque Umarienne de Ségou, in 1985 (407). The document is now available on Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).
- Between 1947 and 1950, Georges Vajda (1908-81), a leading French scholar of Judeo-Islamic Studies, described more than 500 manuscripts in the Bibliothèque d’Ahmadou (i.e., Umar Tal) ( 407). The typewritten inventory is now available on Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).
- The Oriental Manuscripts Resource (OMAR) database (411), developed in 2000 at the University of Freiburg (Germany), in cooperation with the Information Technology Center of the University of Tübingen (Germany). provides access to approximately 2.500 Arabic manuscripts from Mauritania, together with the corresponding bibliographical metadata. It remains a valuable resource, and the only one of this kind focused on Mauritanian manuscripts. At the same time, it represents a “closed project,” combining stabilized content with outdated features and functionality, and the lack of basic maintenance (as shown by the broken links on the welcome page).
- Unlike OMAR, the Arabic Manuscript Management System (now West African Arabic Manuscript Database) ( 412) has evolved significantly since its inception, both in terms of content and technology. More recently, it has helped shape the fifth installment of the Arabic Literature of Africa series, The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, compiled by Charles C. Stewart et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
- The Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information was created in December 1994 by the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group (RLG) to “investigate the means of ensuring continued access indefinitely into the future of records stored in digital electronic form.” Their final report (413) was released in May 1996. In 1997 the Commission on Preservation and Access (established in 1986) merged with the Council on Library Resources (formed in 1956) to create the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).
- The March 2002 Guidelines for Digitization Projects for Collections and Holdings in the Public Domain, Particularly Those Held by Libraries and Archives (414) were sponsored by UNESCO and drafted by a group of experts on behalf of IFLA (International Federation of LIbrary Associations and Institutions) and ICA (International Council on Archives).
- UNESCO’s Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage (414) was adopted in October 2003 and published in the Records of the General Conference, 32nd Session, Paris, 29 September – 17 October 2003. Volume 1: Resolutions (Paris: UNESCO, 2004): 74-77.
- Founded in 2000 by John O. Hunwick of Northwestern University and R. Séan O’Fahey of the University of Bergen, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) (416) sponsors collaborative interdisciplinary scholarship on the Islamic tradition of learning in Africa, and promotes broader awareness of the role of Islam in African societies, past and present.
- In the summer of 2003 the Library of Congress, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, which featured the cultural heritage of Mali, held an exhibition entitled Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu. The exhibition featured 23 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha. The manuscripts were later digitized and made available online as a virtual exhibition as well as through the Global Gateway Web site Islamic Manuscripts from Mali launched in 2005 [link to ] (416-17).
- Although all West African countries are represented in the World Digital Library (WDL) (417), Mali is the only one represented by a substantial number of manuscripts (31, all from the Mamma Haïdara Library in Timbuktu). Nigeria is represented by one (also from the Mamma Haïdara Library) and so is Mauritania, although this latter manuscript – a fragment of the Qu’ran from the Walters Art Museum – was actually produced in the Maghreb.
- Aluka (418) was founded in 2003 as an initiative of the non-profit-organization Ithaka, established the same year to support of JSTOR’s founding mission. Following a recommendation made in 2008 by the trustees of JSTOR and Ithaka, Aluka’ primary source collections (including 323 manuscripts from Timbuktu) are being integrated with JSTOR as part of its “World Heritage Sites: Africa” collection.
- Founded in 1996 by Abdel Kader Haidara, director of the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu and the most prominent advocate of Malian manuscript preservation, the association Sauvegarde et la Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique (SAVAMA-DCI) (418) became a non-governmental organization in 2005. Its activities, largely funded by international foundations and agencies, include manuscript restoration and digitization, training workshops, seminars, and conferences.
- Officially established in 2003 and currently (as of 2016) supported by the Düsseldorf-based Gerda Henkel Foundation and the University of Cape Town, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (418) pursues the preservation of the manuscript tradition of Timbuktu through a number of related activities, including digitization, content analysis, and translation of individual manuscripts as well as the identification of unknown or lesser known collections.
- The Old Kanembu collection of Islamic manuscripts (418) is one of a number of digitized collections of materials from Africa that are made available by SOAS (University of London) for online use. It provides access to a growing corpus of Qur’an manuscripts dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, and various other religious texts dating from the 19th century to 1980’s, which contain marginal and interlinear annotations in Old Kanembu, one of the earliest sub-Saharan languages written in Arabic script.
- In August 2016, FADGI’s Still Image Working Group issued a set of Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials (419) that represent “shared best practices for still image materials (e.g., textual content, maps, and photographic prints and negatives) followed by agencies participating in the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI).” The Guidelines is an update of a previous (2010) document of the same title that, in turn, was based on the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA)Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Archival Records for Electronic Access: Creation of Production Master Files – Raster Images (June 2004). Similarly, the 2009 Digitization Activities guideline is based on an internal draft developed by NARA in August 2008.
Cite this article:
Graziano Krätli, “‘Between Quandary and Squander’: A List of Added Online Content,” Book History Unbound (2016), https://www.sharpweb.org/book-history-unbound/2016/kratli/.