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The Full Story of West Africa’s Manuscript Culture and Islamic Learning Centres Will Finally Be Known

The ancient Timbuktu manuscripts of Mali were back in the headlines following internet giant Google’s initiative to host a collection of them at an online gallery. The images of the documents, text in Arabic, can be found at a page called Mali Magic. No place in West Africa has attracted more attention and resources than the city that has always captivated the imagination of the outside world, Timbuktu. There have been documentaries and books, academic studies and a renewed public interest since some of Timbuktu’s world heritage status buildings were damaged in attacks in 2012. The manuscripts, themselves, some reputed to date as early as the 1400s, were threatened and the international community responded. While Mali Magic displays 45 very photogenic manuscripts from one private library, the site doesn’t begin to tell the full story of the wealth of West Africa’s manuscripts that are found from the Atlantic to Lake Chad. But thanks to decades of scholarship and, recently, digitisation, that information is now accessible at a bilingual, open-access, online union catalogue of nearly 80,000 manuscripts at the West African Arabic Manuscript Database.