I have to admit - the title was titillating: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hint of Indiana Jones, exotic location and well, bad-assery. What do I actually know about Timbuktu? I know the saying, "from here to timbuktu" from school - which basically means a faraway no-man's land. A friend of mine once mentioned she wanted to go to Timbuktu.
"Why?" I asked.
"Just so you can say, 'Hey, I've been to Timbuktu!'" she laughed. And why not?
I wouldn't know where to locate Timbuktu on a map, but thanks to the book, I now know it's a part of the African state of Mali, the place where guitarist Ali Farka Toure came from.
Timbuktu's story is a familiar one. From the 13th-16th centuries, it was the seat of great Islamic scholarship and the centre of vibrant trade. The scholars sought out Islamic texts and manuscripts and brought it to the city. There was a flourishing trade in manuscripts in the city - this was a city that prided itself on its learning, that traded in the written word, and knowledge. Over time, the city's fortunes fall. The manuscripts scattered, hidden, kept in private hands, or lost. The story of the book started with a man, Abdel Kader Haidara. His father was a reputable scholar, and after the father's death, Abdel Kader Haidara was approached, and asked to be help seek out the lost manuscripts. At first reluctant (Abdel Kader had planned to become a merchant), but he was eventually roped into the job, and became a manuscript hunter of a sort - a job he became very good at, eventually setting up his own great library, responsible for the conservation and collection of many precious manuscripts.
Then the story turns, and we get the background of the growing Islamic fundamentalist militarism in the region. Then the local government was overthrown by rebels, and their president fled. Suddenly, the world changed and the manuscripts were under threats from destruction, because ignorant men will always want to destroy those things that they do not understand. It saddens me that this is a familiar tale, and we are no closer to ending this sort of ignorance. In fact, the rise of powerful ignorance seems to be growing in our world today. And it makes me afraid, that it might come to a point one day when it would be punishable by death to read.
But that is something for another day, and may it never come. The book tells of brave librarians, people who understand the value of the written word. They will risk their lives to preserve it. We need more librarians like these, even though I understand that not all librarians will risk their lives to preserve books. Sometimes though, I just need to remind myself that there are still people who will stand up and do the right thing.