Libraries are often targets of destruction during war times. After all, this is where many cultures store their history. It’s an effective means of permanently destroying memory. Iraq. England. China. Ireland. No country is immune, even in modern times.
I consider myself a guardian over the materials in the library’s special collections. To be a good guardian, I think about the collection’s enemies – water, light, and pests – and I do my best to ensure that the collections are safe. I am fortunate that war does not enter anywhere in my equation, and that only time remains my most formidable adversary.
News operators are reporting that Islamist militants, while exiting the world heritage city of Timbuktu, set fire to the library holding its precious manuscripts, dating back as far as the 13th century. Many of these manuscripts were stored in private collections for centuries, some hidden in wooden trunks under desert sand. These scrolls recorded a variety of subjects in different languages. Many were in the process of being restored, but few were digitized.
Invading forces rarely overlook the importance of a library, for they are often the brunt of attacks with the specific purpose of destroying local culture and memory. It horrifies me when I hear about libraries being destroyed, but it never surprises me. The extent of the damage in Timbuktu, Mali, is still being assessed, but I think it is safe to say that world history and culture were dealt a punishing blow today.
UPDATE 2/1/2013: An article in the Wall Street Journal indicates that most of the ancient texts in the Timbuktu libraries were hidden away and thus saved.