Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Nonfiction: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Admit it: the title caught your attention. It caught mine, too. Fortunately, the contents of the book live up to the boldness of the title. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara and his team of librarians and community volunteers who literally risked their lives to save precious manuscripts from destruction.

Centuries ago, Timbuktu stood as a beacon of learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Home to scholars and a university, students flocked to the city and studied from masters and from the manuscripts they produced. Many of these were copied lovingly by hand, ornamented with gold and jewels and illustrated lavishly. These manuscripts often were passed from generation to generation. Although termites and other environmental challenges destroyed many of them, others were preserved in the dry Malian air.

In the 1980s, a young man was hired by a government library to begin collecting manuscripts for them. The goal was to preserve and restore the heritage of scholarship that had been lost over the years. Haidara proved to be an outstanding collector, amassing hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and working with a team to save them from what had been their greatest threats: termites and mold.

But a new threat was forming in the region. Al Qaeda of the Maghreb, an offshoot in Africa owing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, took over much of Mali–including Timbuktu. Any document that challenged their strict interpretation of Islam was in danger, and most of the manuscripts in the collection were either secular works or works from a much less rigid perspective of the religion.

Haidara and his team, especially his nephew and coworker Mohammed Toure, made plans to first hide the manuscripts, then to move them from Timbuktu. People literally risked their lives to save the manuscripts, and Joshua Hammer tells their stories with admiration and respect. Some of them refused to let him use their actual names, as Al Qaeda still has a presence in the area and they did not want to attract their attention even now after the main force was defeated and driven out of the city.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a story of scholarship and love for heritage. It is also a story of heroism in the face of tyranny. A true-life adventure, it is a thriller with a plot that deserves a Hollywood treatment (and a movie is in the works). I highly recommend it.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer