World Libraries

The Book and the Sand: Restoring and Preserving the Ancient Desert Libraries of Mauritania — Part 2

floral device From travelog to catalog

Colonial scholarship produced a few tentative surveys of prominent libraries, a limited number of partial handlists, and a handful of reviews or translations of individual works, but made no serious and systematic attempt at mapping the manuscript territory it had discovered and started to explore. Travelers, on the other hand, offered a different and complementary view by describing visits to actual libraries, encounters with their owners and keepers, and life in the oasis towns where manuscript collections had been preserved for centuries. By giving these libraries a human face and a physical background, and by contextualizing and popularizing what had previously been confined to a few scholarly accounts, their narratives managed to add these new and uncommon “must–sees” to the travel maps and guides of western Sahara. More significantly, travel accounts laid the foundations of cultural tourism in Mauritania, which in the past ten years has seen a slow but steady growth, and to which the cultural and economic survival of the old caravan towns, as well as the future of the manuscript libraries themselves, appear to be increasingly linked.

A new incentive to emphasize the manuscript tradition as part of the cultural heritage of the country was provided by the movement for independence, which culminated in the creation of the new Islamic Republic of Mauritania on November 26, 1960. As early as 1949 the scholar Mokhtar Ould Hamidoun produced an inventory of the private libraries of Chinguetti (Gaudio, 1978, 82). Then in the early 1960s, with funding from UNESCO, he and Adam Heymowski of the Royal Library in Stockholm were able to conduct a country–wide survey, inventorying almost 2,000 works by 425 authors and estimating the existence of about 40,000 manuscripts. Their Catalogue provisoire des manuscripts mauritaniens en langue arabe préservés en Mauritanie (1965–66) was the first extensive inventory of Islamic manuscripts produced in Mauritania, and one of the first initiatives of this kind conducted in West Africa. Like all pioneering projects carried out with limited means, it is simple and yet resourceful, with basic entries providing author and title (typed in Arabic), as well as Latin transcriptions of author names, handwritten in the margin.

An important step towards the creation of a national repository of manuscript collections was the establishment in 1975 of the Institut Mauritanienne de Recherche Scientifique (IMRS), followed three years later by the Institut Supérieur des Etudes et Recherches Islamiques (ISERI). In the first five years, thanks to the energetic collaboration between its director, Abdallahi Ould Boubacar, and the minister of culture, Ahmed Ould Sidi Baba, the IMRS acquired some three thousand manuscripts, which were more than doubled by 1995. This inspired the ISERI to implement a similar initiative in 1988, which secured an important collection of about two thousand items (Ould Maouloud, 2002, 340).

The great value and poor conditions of these newly acquired materials on one hand, and the lack of expertise and resources (both financial and technological) on the other, prompted the IMRS to seek foreign help to take proper preservation measures. This led to a fruitful collaboration with the University of Tübingen, in Germany, for the microfilming and cataloging of 2,239 manuscripts from over 260 collections throughout the country. Funded by the Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), the four–year long (1981–84) project was coordinated by Rainer Osswald, Ulrich Rebstock, and Ahmadu Ould ‘Abd al–Qadir, while the selection of the materials to be cataloged was based on a list compiled by the chief of the manuscript division at IMRS, Ahmad Ould Mohammed Yahya. The resulting microforms were deposited at the University of Tübingen, the University of Amman, Jordan, and the IMRS in Nouakchott, while the three–volume catalog was published in 1985 and re–issued in one volume in 1989 (Ould Cheikh, 1987).

The catalog is organized in a way that emphasizes conciseness and precision. Each entry is made of up to six descriptive fields identified by letters of the alphabet: A for “Author,” B for “Title,” C for “Subject,” D for “Date,” E for “Location,” and F for “Dimensions and Condition”. Four indexes (libraries, subjects, titles, and authors) complete the survey. The first two show, next to each entry, the number of corresponding works and their relative percentage. Manuscript collections (or individual owners/curators) are listed under place names (from Abdangay to az–Ziwan, for a total of 96 locations), while subjects are identified by their Arabic names transcribed in Latin characters (e.g., Adab, Fiqh, etc.). The collaboration between Rebstock and Yahya continued over the years to produce other significant contributions, including a handlist of 1,109 items from twelve private collections (six in Chinguetti and six in Ouadane), and a catalog that describes fourteen private libraries in Nemah and Oualata.

Around the time Rebstock’s Rohkatalog was published, another foreign scholar was contacted by the Shaykh Sidiyya family with a request for assistance in the microfilming of the their famous collection, both for preservation purposes and as a first step in the creation of a regional archive based in Boutilimit. A member of the History Department of the University of Illinois, Charles C. Stewart, had been conducting research in Mauritania — and particularly in Boutilimit — since the late 1960s; he knew the Shaykh Sidiyya and had used their library to collect material for his doctoral thesis on “The Role of Shaykh Sidiyya and the Qadiriyya tariqa in southern Mauritania.” [1]

In June 1986 Stewart conducted a preliminary survey of the collection, to identify and quantify material for filming, and to separate manuscripts from printed books. Of the latter, three–quarters dated from the second decade of the twentieth century onwards and were not inventoried, while “all the manuscripts were set aside for microfilming, as was a small collection of early print (lithograph) materials that were deemed to be rare” (Stewart, et al., 1992, 1). Between October 1987 and December 1989, with two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, nearly 120,000 pages of material were microfilmed and subsequently indexed and cataloged. The microfilmed collection consists of 104 reels, of which two copies were returned to a member of the Shaykh Sidiyya family in Nouakchott and two are preserved at the University of Illinois.

The bilingual (Arabic and English) catalog was created using a computer–based program especially developed for this project by Kazumi Hatasa of Purdue University (Stewart and Hatasa, 1989). Each of the 2,054 records “consists of a potential of 31 items descriptive of the manuscript, although it is rare that even half of these are utilized in a single record” (Stewart, et al., 1992). Most entries, in fact, are made of a dozen or less basic fields, such as record and collection numbers, title (in Arabic only), author, known as (i.e., familiar or common names), subject, form (prose, verse, or commentary), date (the year the manuscript was copied or published), owner (provenance), pages, dimensions (in centimeters), and miscellany (which may include information about the condition of the manuscript). Based on the information contained in these fields, computer–generated indexes were created for authors, subjects, nisbas (and author’s full names), known as (and author’s full names), recipients (of letters), copyists, scripts or languages, authors–subjects–forms, and subjects–forms–authors. The resulting four volumes (two of records, one of indexes, and one in Arabic), were produced by xerography in 1990 and distributed to twelve libraries in Mauritania and abroad (Stewart, 1991 and 1994).

In 1988–89, while the microfilming of the Shaykh Sidiyya Library was in progress, Stewart and his team used the same computer program, format, and indexing approach to catalog the manuscript collection of the IMRS in Nouakchott. Of this collection, which brings together 72 libraries mainly from the Trarza region in the southwest, Ahmad Ould Mohammed Yahya had maintained a careful handlist of acquisitions and compiled a list of titles of particular interest to historians (Yahya, 1987–1988). Produced and distributed in 1992–93, and in very much the same way as Stewart’s previous work, the 3,134–record, five–volume Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts at the Institut Mauritanienne de Recherche Scientifique represents a significant contribution to a general catalog of all Islamic manuscripts in Mauritania, of which it remains the largest and most substantial segment published to date.

Subsequently, Stewart’s team developed a second version of the AMMS program which allowed them to add other catalogs and handlists of West African collections housed in Niamey, Niger, Paris, Timbuktu, and Evanston, Illinois, to their database, for a total of almost 20,000 records. Then, in the summer of 2002, after the project had been on hold for almost a decade, all of the 19,778 records were ported onto a Windows platform, the screen was redesigned, and, most significantly, a search engine was created that overcame many of the previous difficulties that had arisen from the diversity of input parameters. During the decade this project was on hold, new finds of manuscripts in private libraries in Mauritania and Mali continued apace, and the numbers of additional manuscripts now cataloged from “new” collections may well eclipse the number of initial entries in AMMSvers2 (Stewart, 2004). The Internet version of the database went live in the fall of 2004, and at the time of this writing remains the only catalog of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa to be accessible online.

A different, more encyclopedic initiative was launched in the late 1980s by the London–based Al–Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation with the aim of assessing the contents, conditions, and accessibility of Islamic manuscripts wherever they are located. The World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts was implemented by commissioning country–specific handlists and catalogs, by training librarians and archivists, and by organizing conferences and seminars on issues pertaining to the conservation of Islamic manuscripts (Sharifi, 1994; Ibish and Atiyeh, 1996). The national catalogs were published in the early 1990s; each volume covers a number of countries (not necessarily from the same continent or region), and within each country individual repositories are listed alphabetically under their respective locations. The section on Mauritania “gives first–hand information about collections which have been seen personally” by the compiler, Geneviève Simon–Khedis, who, in spite of the “difficulty of access and research,” was able to visit and describe 41 libraries in 14 different locations (Simon–Khedis, 1994, 281). Each entry gives the name of the collection and its owner or curator; the date of establishment; the status (private or public); the conditions of access (e.g., on application); the total number of Islamic manuscripts; a description of its holdings (with information about its founder, provenance of the materials, and their actual condition); and, cataloging information (e.g., published or unpublished catalogs, cataloging in progress, etc.). A chronological list of union catalogs and surveys adds important bibliographical information to what remains a useful and unique reference work.

floral device Post–colonial prospects and prescriptions

A natural effect of the independence (and the consequent need to build institutional mass), the centralizing approach manifest in the attempt to create a national repository became increasingly difficult to justify and sustain when money started to dwindle and the IMRS lost its acquisition power. (A blessed impediment in this case, since it prevented most historical towns, already economically depressed, from losing their only cultural asset and potential source of income.) This, and the growing dependence on international aid and cooperation, with its emphasis on sustainable development through the valorization of local resources, paved the way for an alternative and more sensible approach, based on the understanding that the manuscript libraries are part and parcel of their communities, where they play an important role as repositories of cultural identity and increasingly valuable assets in the tourist economy. Since the mid–nineties, this second approach has been implemented in either of two ways: by creating collective repositories in the major manuscript–rich towns, or by providing private owners with the financial and technical means to properly preserve their collections at home.

Collective repositories have been, or are in the process of being, established by transferring manuscripts from private homes to a central facility where they can be restored, preserved, stored, and accessed according to scientific principles of conservation. All private collections remain property of their owners, who retain their rights and control over them, while also playing an active role in the administration of the center. This solution was applied for the first time (and with mixed results) in Chinguetti, where private funding was provided by at least two European groups (the French Fondation Rhône–Poulenc and the Italian Associazione Culturale “Giovanni Lorenzin”), a plot of land was donated by the Habott Foundation, and an association of manuscript owners (Nahda) was specifically created to support and coordinate the initiative. After several exploratory missions sponsored by UNESCO or the European Union, and in spite of the diffidence and distrust of the local people, the building of the new manuscript center was finally undertaken in 2003. A similar initiative sponsored by the Spanish cooperation in Oualata, at the south–eastern end of the old Ouadane–Audaghost route, succeeded in bringing together seven private collections representing about thirty percent of all local manuscripts. But it succeeded only in part, and largely thanks to the support and active participation of Muhammad Nah Ould Abd al–Rahman, custodian of one of the largest private libraries in town, while two other major collections were kept out by their respective owners [2]. In Tichitt, about 200 miles northwest of Oualata, a local notable built a facility to preserve the manuscript collections of his own clan, the Chorfa (Ould Maouloud, 2002, 342). When it was surveyed by Simon–Khedis in the early 1990s, the new Abd al–Mumin Library contained approximately 3,000 items, about one thousand more than the local Maktabat al–Awqaf, the municipal library whose holdings are charitable gifts (Simon–Khedis, 1994, 305).

More recently, Tichitt has been the beneficiary of two grants of $16,000 each, awarded by the U.S. government through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program established by the Congress in 2001 “to provide direct small grant support to heritage preservation in less–developed countries.” The first grant was “to build and equip a facility to house and preserve approximately 7,000 Islamic manuscripts documenting the history of Saharan trade during the Ghana empire.” [3] The facility was inaugurated in August 2002 [4].

Of course there is a big difference between raising a building and starting an adequate preservation program, let alone ensuring its survival over time, and unfortunately many collective repositories planned so far seem to show the symptoms of a condition diffused among international cooperation projects: once the building is inaugurated and the collections are successfully transferred (if they are transferred at all), the envisioned center quietly and almost naturally atrophies into a storage facility, and the whole initiative rarely moves beyond this initial step in the conservation process. This certainly doesn’t help to overcome the natural (and amply justified) suspiciousness and distrust of the manuscript owners, whose decision to grant the custody of their collections and become involved in the management of the new center is what, ultimately, determines the success or the failure of an initiative of this kind. Such decisions, to be sure, are often motivated by personal or political reasons which can be traced to historical rivalries among families and clans, a fact that outsiders don’t always recognize or take into proper consideration.

The alternative approach represented by home conservation, in which technical advice and support are catered to individual libraries, is best represented so far by the Réseau des Bibliothèques Traditionelles de Tidjikja (Tidjikja Traditional Libraries Network), a successful initiative implemented in this old caravan town midway between Chinguetti and Tichitt. Membership in the network requires three main commitments: to actively participate in the conservation of the manuscripts; to cooperate with catalogers and conservators; and, to make the resulting documentation available to researchers. On its part, the owners association provides technical equipment and know–how, and is also responsible for the creation of a “centre du patrimoine” for the management of technology and materials used in the conservation and restoration process (Ould Maouloud, 2002, 342–4).

The passage from the heroic phase of pioneer cataloging to a more comprehensive and strategic approach to conservation occurred in the mid–nineties, when a number of significant initiatives laid the foundations for projects to come. Between 1995 and 2000, the Centre International de Recherches Sahariennes et Sahéliennes (CIRSS), a research center of the Institut International d’Anthropologie (IIA) in Paris, organized four international colloquia with the purpose of assessing the potential for cultural and economic revival in the Sahara, discussing appropriate development strategies, promoting awareness, and soliciting financial and technical assistance from national and international agencies [5]. The proceedings were published in Nouvelle Revue Anthropologique, the journal of the Institut International d’Anthropologie, and later collected by Attilio Gaudio in Les bibliothèques du désert (2002) [6].

Contemporaneous with these conferences, two missions were undertaken to assess the contents and conditions of the private libraries in Chinguetti and Ouadane, and to plan a proper conservation strategy. The first was sponsored by the Fondation Rhône–Poulenc and organized by UNESCO in collaboration with the Fondation Nationale pour la Sauvegarde des Villes Anciennes (FNSVA), which provided logistical support in the field. Over ten days (October 31 — Nov. 10) in the Fall of 1996, the French team visited 33 libraries and had the opportunity to assess about 3,450 items. A number of questions were asked of the owner or custodian of each library, to verify the nature of the ownership, the storage conditions, the approximate number of volumes, the physical conditions of the items, the availability and nature of inventories, the accessibility of the collections, the availability of a budget for acquisitions and collection management, and any collection development initiatives. Based on the information obtained, the team prepared a preliminary report which summarizes the findings and outlines three operational approaches consistent with the alternative between collective repository and home conservation (Arnoult, 2002) [7].

Less than two years later, the Italian non–governmental organization Movimento Africa ’70 undertook two missions to Chinguetti (May 24–31 and June 11–25, 1998) to assess the social, economic, institutional, and environmental situation of the town, and to prepare a municipal development plan focused on five interconnected and interdependent priority issues: water resources, sand removal, road maintenance, culture (i.e., architecture and manuscript libraries), and tourism. The holistic approach and comprehensive scope of these two missions are reflected in the composition of the international team, which included a sociologist, a social economist, a head of technical services, three technical assistants (provided by the European Union and concerned with road maintenance, water resources, and sand removal), an architect, a book conservator, an expert of tourism development, and a tour operator. The preliminary report, Étude de faisabilite d’un projet de developpement communal a Chinguetti, was submitted on June 25 to the Nouakchott office of the European Commission. A survey of fifteen libraries (the same visited by the Rhône–Poulenc mission in the Fall of 1996) allowed the book conservator, Marco Sassetti, to assess the physical characteristics of the manuscripts (age, watermarks, covers and binding, paper and ink, calligraphic aspects, etc.), to photograph a number of them, and to provide a diagnosis based on statistical and typological data. His observations and comments on the conditions of the manuscripts differ substantially from those of the Rhône–Poulenc team, which by comparison seem rather superficial and predictable, if not slightly prejudiced. Sassetti, in particular, notes that

Contrairement à l’opinion courante des visiteurs d’ailleurs, selon laquelle les manuscrits se trouveraient en état d’abandon à cause de la négligence des propriétaires, ... les susdits — compte tenu de conditions environnementales difficiles et de l’absence de moyens et de maîtrise des techniques — ont mis en place des actions de sauvegarde à de différents niveaux.

Contrary to the opinion of many visitors, who see the poor conditions of the manuscripts as a result of their owners’ neglect, ... the latter, in spite of the harsh environment and the lack of technical expertise, have de facto implemented protective measures at various levels.

One of these measures is the “reconstruction” of 208 manuscripts, commissioned by the Habott family and made possible by a number of scholars who, over a period of four years, collected pages that had been scattered around the country. Another is the replacement of manuscripts dispersed after members of a local family, the Ahl Tolba, relocated to Nouakchott or abroad. A third is the traditional bindings and protective sleeves in decorated leather, which another family had locally made for about one hundred of their volumes. Conservation–wise, Sassetti points out the relative advantages of a desert climate, especially the lack of humidity which helps to preserve the older manuscripts, penned on paper made of cotton fibers (whereas paper manufactured in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tends to be less resistant), and warns against the risks of a sudden transition to artificially controlled climatic conditions. In recommending that the manuscripts remain with their owners, as part and parcel of the local community, the study emphasizes the link between ownership and cultural identity, as well as the strong sense of locality underlying both concepts. Similar importance is given to the juridical status of the manuscripts as defined by the Mauritanian law, which makes them eligible for protective and conservative measures [8].

The feasibility report prepared by Movimento Africa ’70 includes an action plan addressing each of the five priority issues. The section on culture (i.e., manuscripts and their repositories) recommends that improvements of existing buildings focus on preservation issues (especially protection against the dust) as well as on their accessibility to visitors. At the same time, it proposes the creation of a manuscript center (Centre d’Archéologie, Codicologie et Herméneutique des Manuscrits Arabes Mauritaniens or CACHMAM) equipped with an exhibition hall, a reading room, and a conservation laboratory where manuscripts can be analyzed, cataloged, preserved, restored, and reproduced. The description of the center reflects Sassetti’s expertise and “deep conservation” approach, particularly in the architectural requirements of the building and the guidelines for descriptive cataloging, the latter seen also — and most significantly — as an essential preparation to effective preservation.

The latest and most ambitious conservation initiative is still in progress and, for want of a detailed plan, regular updates or partial results, can be judged only by its avowed purpose and scope. These are nothing less than to locate each individual collection and repository in the country, to inventory its holdings and to assess their conditions, with the view to planning an appropriate, scientifically sound, and economically sustainable strategy for the long–term conservation of manuscripts. Launched officially on September 15, 2003, with a rather optimistic timeframe of six months, the project is the result and culmination of more than two decades of diplomatic and institutional initiatives on the part of the Mauritanian government, beginning with the ratification of the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural Heritage in 1981. A second significant step was the creation, in 1993, of the Fondation Nationale pour la Sauvegarde des Villes Anciennes (FNSVA) [9] within the office of the Secretary of State, with the mission to plan, organize, and implement initiatives aimed at the protection and preservation of the ancient towns of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata (Ould Dadi, 2002). This paved the way for the inclusion, in December 1996, of the four ksour in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, with the motivation that they “constitute exceptional examples of settlement built to serve the important trade routes of the Sahara Desert, and which were witness to cultural, social and economic contacts for many centuries.” [10] This allowed Mauritania to apply for funding from the World Bank (IDA) and UNESCO (World Heritage Centre), to implement the pilot project Sauvegarde et Développement des Villes du Patrimoine Mondial de Mauritanie (Protection and Development of the World Heritage Towns in Mauritania). However, by the time a loan of five million dollars (#3401–MAU) was approved by the World Bank in May 2000, a more ambitious and far–reaching conservation strategy had been developed by the government in Nouakchott.

Launched in November of the same year, the Projet de Sauvegarde et Valorisation du Patrimoine Culturel Mauritanien (PSVPCM) [11] has become the operational framework for the planning, development, and implementation of any initiatives pertaining to the protection, restoration, preservation, and conservation of cultural heritage, both tangible (archeological sites, architectural works, manuscripts, etc.) and intangible (poetry, music, oral tradition, etc.). Among the various initiatives planned by its orientation committee are the creation of six regional museums, a general inventory of Mauritania’s archeological sites, and four centers for the care and conservation of ancient manuscripts (in Boutilimit, Kaédi, Tidjikja, and Tichitt); the establishment or rehabilitation of twelve mahadras (traditional schools); a workshop to pinpoint the kind and level of legislative action needed to protect the country’s cultural heritage; and three conferences: on the future of the mahadras, on Mauritanian traditional architecture, and on the protection, preservation, and valorization of its ancient manuscripts. The three conferences took place in Nouakchott in February, March, and April 2002, respectively. The latter was held in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition of manuscripts at the National Museum; its program comprised four workshops (on the identification and accessibility of collections; the conservation of manuscripts; players and partners; and, the valorization of written heritage); and ended with the official adoption of a set of general and particular recommendations for the protection of documents and collections, and for the technical aspects of establishing a library. Drafted by Jean–Marie Arnoult, these recommendations were subsequently included in the conference proceedings, together with a cataloging manual and a glossary of French and Arabic terms used in manuscript conservation (Actes du colloque international sur le manuscrits mauritaniens, 2002).

Funded by the World Bank and conducted in collaboration with the Union Nationale des Associations de Propriétaires des Manuscrits (National Association of Manuscript Owners), the new cataloging campaign availed itself of 36 scholars who were selected, trained by an expert from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and sent in the field with an unusual variety of navigation and orientation equipment, including all–terrain vehicles, compasses, and GPS instruments. (While press releases were eager to stress the training and technological components of the campaign, no mention was made of the technological and methodological aspects of the cataloging process, and no information either was provided on the nature, characteristics, and format of the catalog — or database — to–be.) [12] As it turned out, the project unofficially “ended” when the cataloging was still in progress, and Mauritanians, after yet another disappointing experience with international cooperation, are now looking for a way to continue the work autonomously [13].

In the meantime, the seeds of a new or revived cataloging project could have been planted during the “Journées des villes mauritaniennes du patrimoine mondial”, a four–day conference held on April 11–14, 2005, at the Maison de l’UNESCO in Paris. Both, the theme and the program of the conference [14] seem to show, more openly than in previous incarnations of this event, an overarching political aim, almost an urge, to validate and substantiate the trilateral cooperation (la coopération tripartite) between UNESCO, the Mauritanian government, and the World Bank. A cooperation whose results, albeit partial (even questionably and disappointingly so, as in the case of the cataloging campaign), are in fact sampled and showcased by the various presentations, as well as by the accompanying exhibition “Villes de mémoire — Anciens ksour de Mauritanie.”

floral device Conclusions and recommendations

In the hundred years since Mauritanian traditional libraries first drew scholarly attention from outside of Africa and the Islamic world, and particularly in the four decades since independence, efforts have been made primarily to locate, assess, and describe their manuscript collections, which for the most part are scattered over a desert area twice the size of France, stored away in questionable or alarming conditions (if not literally buried under the sand), and comprise between a few dozen and several hundreds items. While most collections have been inventoried, and some also partially microfilmed, no complete and exhaustive survey has been published yet that systematically and thoroughly describes each individual repository in the country. (The only significant step in this direction remains Geneviève Simon–Khedis’ 1994 contribution to the World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts, which, as we have seen, is far from exhaustive). This is a major setback in the conservation process as it limits the availability of accurate data and relevant information on the repositories and their holdings, particularly their nature and characteristics, typology, geographical distribution, physical and storage conditions.

Another major handicap is the lack of a general catalog of all the manuscripts preserved in Mauritania, added to the fact that many collections have been only partially cataloged, while some haven’t been cataloged at all, and there may also be a few whose existence or location remain vaguely or barely known. This is a bit disappointing, not to say discouraging, especially if we consider that cataloging is the area in which most and the best work has been done so far. To be fair, if such work has produced only partial results, and if such results don’t stand comparison with standard catalogs of Arabic manuscripts produced in the last 25 years or so, [15] this is largely due to the pioneer conditions in which cataloging in Mauritania has been done (and, to some extent, continues to be done), whether in the sun–baked, sandblasted desert towns, with neither electricity nor running water, or in the poorly equipped facilities of national institutions such as the IMRS in Nouakchott. But it is also a consequence of the lack of coordination and integration of individual efforts, of their limited scope and vision, and of their being conceived primarily with a narrow bibliographical aim, rather than as part of a comprehensive, long–term conservation strategy.

Another challenge for the bibliographer as well as the curator and the conservator, is represented by the variety of provenance, appraisal, cataloging, organization, and preservation issues arising from the complex evolutionary history and makeup of most libraries, which typically bring together several collections developed over a long period of time, and that in some cases are themselves in the process of being merged with other collections, as a consequence of the recent creation of common repositories in many manuscript–rich areas.

Because of the composite and promiscuous nature of many collections, it is often difficult to separate library from archival materials, particularly when books and manuscripts present, in addition to a commentary on the text, marginal notes or inserts recording information on their owners, family matters, or even local historical events. So far, however, handlists, catalogs and surveys have focused almost exclusively on manuscripts, ignoring printed books and archival documents, as well as the archival value of library items and the fascinating issue of how and to what extent these different kinds of materials relate to each other, both physically and otherwise. If on one hand such limited scope can be justified in practical terms (manuscripts first, books and archival materials later), on the other it reveals the predominance of literary over archeological interests, and of scholarly over curatorial agendas. A natural, if not inevitable, consequence of the double nature of the book, which is physical container and intellectual content, body and soul, at the same time. The amount and type of data collected for, and provided by, existing handlists and catalogs shows their purpose as being mainly to identify and briefly describe the items listed, without much — or any — concern for their conditions, restoration, and preservation. While this is obviously enough to fulfill the bibliographical needs of linguists, historians, and other literary scholars (whose interests are traditionally limited to, as well as defined by, the intellectual contents of their sources), it scarcely provides the level of information required to develop a sound and appropriate conservation plan.

In order to serve bibliographical and curatorial purposes, and to effectively contribute to the preservation of both the intellectual content and the physical characteristics of the materials considered (whether manuscript or printed, library or archival), a catalog should be part of, or rather conceived as, an integrated electronic database providing full bibliographic description as well as detailed information on important aspects such as:

  • Repositories (type, characteristics, and purpose; physical and environmental conditions; accessibility)
  • Ownership and provenance
  • Nature and extent of the collections of which the individual items are part (if relevant)
  • Reproduction and dissemination (microforms, digital copies, transcriptions, translations, publications, exhibitions)

Since data and information alone, without the possibility of comparing and combining them, are unlikely to produce relevant knowledge, such a database should be extensively cross–indexed and searchable in a variety of ways, offering for example the opportunity to retrieve items based on their author, date, subject, owner, and repository, as well as their physical characteristics (paper, ink, calligraphic style, etc.), their conditions, and their conservation, reproduction, and dissemination status (including restored, microfilmed, and digitized versions, publications and translations, exhibitions, and inclusion in other bibliographic resources). If, in spite of all the opportunities offered by information technology and the Internet, such a catalog or database has not been conceived yet, let alone developed, it is largely due to the fact that most initiatives of this kind are still planned, implemented, and evaluated by literary scholars (particularly bibliographers and historians) rather than conservators, curators, and librarians. Thence the need to develop and implement a more inclusive approach which sees the book, whether manuscript or printed, as a physical object whose material and technological aspects are as relevant as its intellectual contents. Such a view would result in the development of catalogs and databases designed to meet a wide range of scholarly and curatorial purposes and needs, including those of book historians and archeologists, restorers, conservators, librarians and exhibition curators.

Overall, the case for the manuscript libraries of Mauritania seems to have suffered from the fragmentary and inconsequential nature of many of the initiatives implemented so far, some of which involuntarily duplicated (or intentionally ignored) previous efforts, while others failed as a consequence of their reliance on the shifting sands of international cooperation. Another serious drawback was the inability to promote and publicize, in an adequate manner and to a sufficient degree, a number of noteworthy initiatives and the consequent failure to generate significant scholarly attention and interest, particularly in the English–speaking world [16]. As a matter of fact, virtually all literature on the desert libraries of Mauritanian is in French, Italian, or Spanish and consists primarily of newspaper or magazine articles [17].

The combined disadvantages of linguistic isolation and promotional inadequacy become even more evident by comparison with the Malian situation as represented by the Timbuktu Libraries Project, a comprehensive manuscript preservation and cultural promotion initiative launched in 2000 with funding from the Ford Foundation and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). Masterminded by John O. Hunwick of Northwestern University and R.S. O’Fahey of the University of Bergen, in Norway, two leading authorities on Islam in Africa and the general editors of the prestigious Arabic Literatures of Africa series, the project has generated a significant amount of interest, both within and without the academic world, thanks to a sustained promotional effort which included press releases, magazine, newspaper, and journal articles, conferences, seminars, a project Web site, [18] and also a fine exhibition of manuscripts at the Library of Congress [19]. These two initiatives further point to the absence, in Mauritania, of a similar effort to collect and make available through a well organized, carefully maintained, and regularly updated “official” Web site, all the information and the documentation produced, and therefore all the explicit knowledge generated, by any study, mission, project, or initiative conducted so far, independently from its accomplishments or its results. The ultimate goal of such initiative should be to provide virtual access to the digitized manuscripts, organized by location (Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, Oualata, etc.), then by library, then by subject area, genre, and/or topic, and accompanied by a transcription of the Arabic text and a translation in at least two languages, French and English.

As a consequence of this lack of documentary resources, the impression a researcher invariably gets is that, much more than the libraries themselves, the information about and around them seems to be buried under the sands — particularly those of international cooperation and institutional bureaucracy or neglect, which in the long run may prove more treacherous and obliterating than the dunes of the Great Desert itself.

floral device Notes

[1] Discussed at Oxford University in 1970, the thesis provided the basis for Islam and Social Order in Mauritania: A Case Study from the Nineteenth Century (with E.K. Stewart, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), which remains Stewart’s major book–length contribution to the study of Islam in West Africa.

[2] Located farther south and west, and closer to Timbuktu than to any other Mauritanian ksour, Oualata is geographically and culturally more Sahelian than Saharan. In terms of international cooperation, the town is considered more or less Spanish territory, since most research and preservation work, starting as early as the mid–1970s, was done by Spanish groups such as the Foundation El legado andalusí (Corral, 1985 and 2000).

[3] The Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation 2001 Report, (accessed 28 September 2005).

[4] “Signature d’un accord de financement entre le PSVPCM et l’ambassade des USA”, AMI press release, 6 August 2002. It is worth mentioning that, since the inception of the program, funds were granted to support at least four other initiatives directly related to the preservation of Islamic manuscripts in North and West Africa. In 2001 and 2002, Mali received $14,942 and $25,000 to support, respectively, the “Day of the Book”, a public education initiative related to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, and the “The Ink Road/Chemin de l’Encre”, an international symposium “on the preservation, safeguarding, and applied research of ancient African and Islamic manuscripts.” In 2003 Niger received $16,650 for the electronic preservation of a collection of more than 4,000 Islamic manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and Algeria was awarded $17,550 for the preservation and documentation of the Zawiyat Ali bin Umar Manuscript Collection in Algiers, which includes over one thousand manuscripts from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. For a description of the program and individual projects, see (accessed 28 September 2005).

[5] The first colloquium (Chinguetti, November 1995) focused on the ancient caravan towns. The second (Milan, May 1998), on the ancient manuscripts from Sahara and Sahel, was organized in collaboration with the Centro Studi Archeologia Africana (CSAA) and in conjunction with the opening of the photographic exhibition Biblioteche del deserto (“Desert Libraries”), the first ever to show Arabic manuscripts from Mauritania. The third, on the Mauritanian cultural heritage (Nouakchott, November 1999), passed a resolution to publish a “Saharan anthology” in five volumes, in French and Arabic, on the ancient caravan towns and their endangered libraries. This was followed, a year later, by a fourth colloquium held in Timbuktu and focused on the future of cultural tourism in the Sahara. The Milan exhibition was followed, three years later, by a more comprehensive traveling show entitled Sahara: Antiche biblioteche del deserto. Esploratori italiani dimenticati “Sahara: Ancient Libraries of the Desert, Forgotten Italian Explorers”), organized by the Institut International d’Anthropologie in collaboration with the Centro Studi Archeologia Africana and the Italian association Itinerari Africani. Based on iconographic and ethnographic materials, and accompanied by conferences and the projection of documentaries, it opened in July 2001 and toured a number of cities in northern and central Italy, including Turin, Milan, Verona, Ferrara, and Florence.

[6] Attilio Gaudio (1930–2002) was a major force behind the efforts to promote scholarly and institutional interest for the desert libraries of Mauritania. Born in Italy, he spent most of his professional life as a correspondent in North Africa and professor of anthropology in Paris, where among other things he was director of the Institut International d’Anthropologie. His extensive knowledge of the peoples and civilizations of the Maghrib and western Sahara is documented in a number of books, a few of them specifically devoted to Mauritania and its cultural past. His premature death, in the summer of 2002, put a damper on the initiatives and the activities of the CIRSS, including the colloquia and the planned “Saharan anthology.”

[7] Jean–Marie Arnoult is Inspecteur Général des Bibliothèques at the French Ministry of Education and Research, a consultant for UNESCO (which commissioned from him a report on the damage to archives and libraries caused by the war in Iraq), and an expert of book and manuscript preservation. His long–time involvement in the Mauritanian libraries is documented, among other things, by a preparatory study on the conservation of the manuscripts in Chinguetti and Ouadane. The report, commissioned by UNESCO, is currently classified.

[8] With the exception of those in national institutions such as the IMRS, the ISERI, or the National Library, virtually all collections in Mauritania are owned by families or held and managed by religious institutions (such as mosques, zawiyas, and madrasas) as charitable trusts (waqf). In either case the idea of ownership is strongly related to that of benefiting the entire community, an important reminder of the tribal and nomadic roots of Mauritanian society.

Juridically, the status of the libraries and their holdings as “cultural heritage” (biens culturel) is defined and protected by two enactments, one (loi 72.160, 31 July 1972) regarding specifically the manuscripts, and the other (arrêté 00589/95, 4 December 1995) more broadly concerned with the four ksour of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata. As it turns out, such provisions are not as widely known as one would assume, even to those who should be most aware of their implemental value. Marco Sassetti called my attention to a passage of the Rhône–Poulenc report, in which the author condescendingly (and mistakenly) states that “la notion de patrimoine national n’existe pas sur le plan juridique; il n’y a pas de législation permettant éventuellement un classement au titre de monument historique induisant protection par des dispositions technique” (the concept of national heritage doesn’t exist juridically, as there is no legislation that allows for the classification as historical monument and consequently ensures any protective measures).

[9] See (accessed 28 September 2005).

[10] See (accessed 28 September 2005).

[11] See (accessed 28 September 2005).

[12] See “Recensement et catalogage des manuscrits ancien mauritaniens,” AFP press release, 16 September 2003; “Démarrage de la campagne de recensement et de catalogage des amnuscrits,” AMI press release, 16 September 2003.

[13] Laura Alunno, electronic letter to Graziano Krätli, 9 March 2005. Laura Alunno’s interest in the desert libraries of Mauritania dates back to the early 1990s, when she started visiting the country for various NGOs and development projects. Recently, she has been involved in new project, led by the University of Siena, to catalog the libraries of Chinguetti.

[14] See (accessed 28 September 2005).

[15] See, for example, Adam Gacek, Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1981), and Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of McGill University (Montreal: McGill University Libraries, 1991); Miroslav Krek, Arabic Script Manuscripts in American Institutions (Weston, Mass.: ULASMAI, 1992–); and Nikolaj Serikoff’s catalog of the Arabic manuscripts preserved in the Wellcome Library, (accessed 9 May 2005).

[16] A couple of exceptions are worth mentioning, if only because they confirm this point. The Italian mission “Fly Shuttle 2000,” which combined technological innovation, extreme sports, and cultural preservation, is one of those initiatives which, in spite of their originality and results, are typically disregarded by the scholarly community. (In the Spring of 2000, six Italian sailors reached Chinguetti aboard the Fly Flash, a Leonardesque “sail car” designed and built by skippers Mauro Melis and Alessandro Bertagna. The purpose of the expedition was to deliver, in a sustainable yet spectacular way, a hundred pH neutral storage containers donated to the local libraries by book conservationist Marco Sassetti.) A more traditional and scholar–friendly initiative, the already–mentioned traveling exhibition Sahara: Antiche biblioteche del deserto. Esploratori italiani dimenticati, does not seem to have traveled far enough to draw more than local attention, thus limiting its impact to the few Italian cities which had the privilege to host it.

[17] An English–language exception, although not a scholarly one, is Louis Werner’s article in Saudi Aramco World.

[18] Hosted by the Web site of the Centre for Development and the Environment, Senter for Utvikling og Miljø (SUM), of the University of Oslo, the Timbuktu Libraries Project pages, available at (accessed 28 September 2005), include a detailed description of the project, information of its financing and progress updates, a photo gallery, and links to a variety of scholarly and institutional resources.

[19] Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, on display from June 24 to September 3, 2003. The 23 items, 20 from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and three from the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, were first digitized and mounted on a parallel online exhibition, which can still be viewed at (accessed 28 September 2005).

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About the Author

Graziano Krätli is International Program Support Librarian at Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.
E–mail: graziano.kratli [at] yale [dot] edu

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