Short-Term Plans

Preservation of manuscripts should facilitate their study. If a well-preserved collection fails to provide access for research, the manuscripts are in effect ‘imprisoned’, which is almost as if they did not exist at all. Digitisation and cataloguing are two crucial measures for bringing the Timbuktu manuscripts to life.


The significance of digitisation is twofold. It provides a backup of collections, reducing unnecessary handling of already fragile manuscripts. It also allows computerised image processing such as digital restoration, analysis of handwriting and reading of erased or faded texts.
The newly established manuscript archive in Bamako is intended to become a centre for digitisation. It has been equipped with a digital SLR camera, macro lenses, daylight panel lights and a height-adjustable camera stand. Specialists will conduct training courses and workshops on digitisation.
To ensure that the digital archives are sustainable and constantly backed up, the archivable high resolution copies of the manuscript photographs will be stored on external hard drives at several institutions involved in the digitisation process. An access copy of each digitised image should be available to researchers at these institutions, in accordance with special copyright agreements with the owners of the libraries.


Cataloguing is a time consuming process of creating descriptive lists of manuscript collections. The cataloguer identifies the texts in a manuscript and describes its physical and visual characteristics, including binding, paper, ink, number of lines per page, type of script, marginalia, annotations, dates, ownership and many other details. Good catalogues provide scholars with the important information so that preliminary research can be carried out without unnecessary handling of fragile manuscripts. The amount of cataloguing work required for the Timbuktu manuscripts can be gauged from the fact that only 5,000 of the estimated 285,000 items evacuated to Bamako have been catalogued to date, with varying degrees of precision. This figure does not include the catalogue of 9,000 items from the 30,000 manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Institute, which were also brought to Bamako during the rescue operation.


The digitised and catalogued databases of the manuscripts will ensure the long term survival of the Timbuktu collections and will form a new foundation for research. However, it should be remembered that good-quality digital images and detailed descriptions are no substitutes for the real thing: distance research cannot answer all questions. Manuscripts have many important features which require close-range study. Paper watermarks, ink composition, binding and leather folders can only be analysed when the manuscript is physically present. Therefore, accessibility of the manuscripts for research in situ through the provision of adequate workstations is another crucial component involved in organising the archive in Bamako, and making it into a state-of-the-art centre for conservation, digitisation, cataloguing and research.