06/17/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

A Race Against Time for Timbuktu's Famed Collections

With Salafist mobs succeeding in toppling and defacing Sufi shrines in Libya last year, it should have come as no surprise when, a few months, later, the phenomenon was repeated by agents of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), spreading guns and anarchy south. Having failed to hold Timbuktu, AQIM set out to destroy hundred-year-old manuscripts stored in public and (mostly) private libraries in Timbuktu, Mali -- their aim, it seems, was no less than to destroy the written corpus of Islamic history in North Africa, including not only original Islamic commentary, but material they deem "un-Islamic."

Through a set of extraordinary events, local custodians of more than 300,000 rare manuscripts (some single-page documents), managed to secret most of the volumes from the two major libraries, and numerous private collections to the capital of Bamako, 700 kilometers to the South. About half of the manuscripts went by road, and the other half by water, down the Niger River from Timbuktu and across the inland sea to Djenne, where they 300 taxis ferried them in shifts to Bamako. One of the foremost Timbuktu-based advocates is Abdel Kader Haidara, who spent decades acquiring and caring for what is perhaps the most significant of the local collections, then housed in the (private) Mamma-Haidara library. Read more in Yochi Draezen's New Republic piece.

Now, the West African intellectual trove faces another threat: the elements. The manuscripts, many of which are highly fragile, will not withstand the rainy season, which begins in a few weeks. Each volume must be isolated, and individually boxed -- at a cost about 30 dollars per book. To cover this, supporting organizations have started a fundraising campaign -- seeking relatively modest amounts to stave off the most immediate threat, through boxing/ isolation, application of desiccants, etc.

The corpus is divided into several categories, from histories and travelers accounts, to commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), to commercial tranactions and treatises on medicine and astrology. The chronicles constitute the main primary sources on the history of Islamic West Africa from the 12th to the 18th century. They debunk the widespread notion that 'black Africa', pre-1800 produced no written sources worthy of mention. The Timbuktu collections yielded significant works by black-African intellectuals -- like Tarikh es Soudan (a history of the Songhai empire, written by Abdel Rahman Ibn Abdallah al Saadi in the late 1500s), and Tarikh al Fattash (A Seeker's History), believed to have been written by Al Hajj Mahmoud Kati in the 1600s, and the Tathkirat al Nisyan ("Notes to the Obivious"), by an anonymous author. These three works provide unique and otherwise unreachable perspective of the social and political history of West Africa during this time, including commentary on not only the local pre-colonial dynasties, but also Arab, Tuareg, Jewish and other peoples prior to the Moroccan invasion of the 16th century (backed by the British, who sought to eliminate any potential threat to its interests in the transatlantic slave trade).

This is just one case among many that underscore the need for new multilateral/ binational mechanisms focused on the tactical problems associated with safeguarding cultural and human heritage in times of immediate crisis, working with local authorities where possible (before, during and after a crisis) to draw up contingency plans, deploy expert conservationists, and lobby for defensive action; to fill the gaps as the international organizations ramp up to provide longer term solutions. Of course, the direct human cost of conflict must be of paramount concern, but addressing these two issues is not mutually exclusive: Collateral cultural losses are often the result of neglect, not mis-prioritization of resources. Are we about to lose another major piece of human history, for lack of a few million dollars? It's more complicated, of course -- but not much.

Piecemeal fundraising via social networking sites like Indiegogo and global giving is not 'the answer', but for the time being, it's helping. A case, perhaps, of "new media" working to save "very old media."