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In this presentation I shall introduce the work of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. It began as an attempt to understand the tradition of learning in Timbuktu as represented in the large number of manuscript books kept in the town. However, it has expanded into a larger consideration of various issues ranging from philological studies of manuscripts to the histories of collections and the manuscript as artifact. Most relevant to this conference is our engagement with the libraries in Timbuktu (and a few others beyond).
The spread of the printing press and the printed book did not mean the inevitable disappearance of the manuscript book. Timbuktu, once the sign of the most distant place, has become a symbol of a West African tradition of writing and the persistence of the handwritten work. “Timbuktu” should be thought in relational terms as a centre of learning connected to a few other well-known centres in the broader western Saharan-Sahelian region; settlements such as Wallata, Tichit, and Shinqit. These places have (or have had) family collections based on the works of scholars who lived there. While our project’s work began in Timbuktu it became clear to us over time that Timbuktu’s history cannot be fully appreciated without its connections to other settlements.
We have worked with the main state library, established in the late 1960s and various family collections that came into prominence in the 1990s. We collaborate with local scholars and family representatives to understand the histories of scholarship and collecting in the town and region. Our students have worked on various aspects of the learned tradition, from studying individual works, to genres of work, to close investigation of an individual collection. We have also compiled translations of selected manuscripts. Publishing scholarly work – and making it easily accessible - based on our research is an integral part of the project.