In Timbuktu there are libraries filled with ancient books: texts on astronomy and maths, works of art and calligraphy, ancient copies of the Quran, hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, priceless and invaluable.
I say there are, but that’s now debatable. During the uprising of Tuareg rebels last year, it was reported that many of the libraries had been destroyed, their contents lost to fire, Mali’s great biblioclasm.
But other reports are emerging – that only a handful of manuscripts were destroyed, that the Old Families of the city orchestrated a plan to keep their collections safe. And so these ancient texts were hidden, safe from rebels who, despite being largely illiterate, had nevertheless heard how much these manuscripts are worth.
And so many of these texts appear to be safe. But they’re old and brittle, and the Old Families don’t trust the government to look after them, and digitisation projects flounder in the face of wariness. Have the documents been preserved? Will they be safe in the future? Big questions for a city that, according to a 2006 survey, 34% of young Britons don’t believe exists.
Timbuktu is twinned with Hay-on-Wye, the UK’s ‘town of book’. Another place with an almost liminal feel – after all, surely nowhere really has that many second-hand books. It’s an eccentric, almost unreal place, and one that I love simply because it exists.
But when I was there last August, as part of my honeymoon, corporate reality was encroaching. Among the shelves and the books were petitions and posters promoting a ‘Plan B For Hay‘. Because Plan A is to build a Tesco megastore in town, with all the attendant calamities that has for the economic ecosystem. On one side a lot of independent retailers and locals and tourists; on the other a corporation that, yes, sells books, but in the narrow confines of celebrity memoirs and thrillers about a maverick’s pursuit of serial killers. Maybe Hay’s reputation and history will save it, but it’s a worrying future; maybe not on the scale of Timbuktu’s biblioclasm, but still a blow to lovers of books.
It’s tempting to say there’ll always be libraries to counter this sort of thing, but according to research the UK lost over 200 libraries in 2012. There are still more than 4,000 across the country, but it would be complacent to say that everything’s okay. These figures still represent a lot of people with reduced access to library services – to literature and information, to books and computers, to dedicated professionals willing to take our hands and guide us through mazes of genre and data. That’s why Voices for the Library exists.
The Internet may have democratised data and information, but the Internet has also given me three different melting points for iron. We need people to curate this stuff; we used to call those people ‘librarians’.
Today is National Libraries Day. It’ll take a lot to convince me that’s not still relevant.