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Flesh and blood long-term library

by Bryan Campen - Twitter: @bryancampen on January 12th, 02010

Great piece in the Washington Post on the future of ancient books in Timbuktu.

A sort of ancient-book fever has gripped Timbuktu in recent years” as outsiders encounter large, family-owned collections of ancient manuscripts which remain in private hands. at the same time, Timbuktu’s residents “hope to lure the world to a place known as the end of the Earth by establishing libraries for visitors to see their centuries-old collections of manuscripts.”  For those who do not sell their collections privately, small libraries are in bloom across the city.

Yet with instructions from ancestors to preserve ancient books within families, there is a reluctance to place them in libraries currently being built for the very same purpose. “Many owners refuse to part with their books… but they struggle to raise funds to restore or display them.”

It is interesting that that so many families were able to preserve these manuscripts for so long.  What caused this culture of long term preservation?

Consider the Library of Alexandria, which Stewart Brand covers in Clock of the Long Now. It experienced at least four fires, two from “collateral damage” by Ptolemy VIII (88 B.C.E) and Julius Caesar (47 B.C.E.), and two from religions on the rise (Christianity and Islam).

The ability to preserve these books over many centuries so far rests with families intent on honoring and adhering to requests from ancestors, a rather small and fragile model compared to the infrastructure needed to build a great library. Yet it is possible that a family with instructions from ancestors is, in some sense, a better library than a library itself.

Six hundred years ago, Timbuktu was packed with university students (at about 25,000, the size of a modestly large mid-western university these days) and a constant flow of merchants. It was a nexus of trade and intellectual life on the continent which then slowed. Perhaps because it did not intersect with the dramatic tension between three continents, like Alexandria, it was less prone both to collateral damage *and* the request by military or religious leaders to dispose of books not relevant to the prevailing winds. In any case, this slowing may well have ensured greater preservation over time.

It’s also confirmation that a library in the middle of a continent–away from the intersection of countries, military conquests and ascendant religious movements–is a really good idea.    With “ancient-book fever” now in Timbuktu, some combination of library and family models will have to preserve them.