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STOP PRESS 31 January: fantastic news from a credible source: this blog post from the Tombouctu Manuscripts Project says that although there was damage there does not seem to have been a fire at all and the manuscripts are safe.  Which just goes to show how difficult it is to get reliable information during conflict situations.  The news story and the way it spread also shows that people do care about heritage – the burning of manuscripts is a major news story.  I hope all this has raised awareness of these amazing resources and the work this Project and others are doing to protect and digitise them.  I’m not removing the original post because, even though these particular manuscripts are probably OK, the wider points about the vulnerability of heritage objects and the need to digitise them effectively are still true.

STOP PRESS 30 January: according to the BBC and Time and much discussion across the twittersphere, it looks as though the loss may not be quite so bad as feared, thanks to efforts by Timbuktu’s people to protect their heritage.  Maybe 2,000 rather than 30,000 items may be lost.  More news is emerging: I’m keeping an eye on it via twitter (hashtags #timbuktu and #manuscripts).

A story in the news today that puts other threats to heritage in perspective: the burning of a library in Timbuktu containing thousands of ancient manuscripts. In this excellent and insightful blog post, Simon Tanner of Kings College tells us the story of the institution, New Ahmed Baba Institute, and its manuscripts and people.  The institute was set up “to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage”, using them to bridge the gap between scholarsjip on Islam and on Africa, and to raise public awareness of Timbuktu’s incredible history as a centre for trade and ideas.

Dr Tanner, who has advised on digitising African manuscripts, then reflects on the digitisation of African heritage: how digital collections are created by the ideologies of those funding and selecting them.  The same problem is faced by any institution seeking to digitise, but is greatly magnified in this situation.

As noted in the blog, the shock of such events is a reminder of just how fragile heritage (and human life) are, so vulnerable to war and conflict.  At least digitisation may mean that such events in the future do not result in total loss of  heritage: after all, lots of copies keeps stuff safe (safer, anyway).

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