Endangered Archives

EAP690: Project to digitise and preserve the manuscripts of Djenné and surrounding villages

Ms Sophie Sarin, Independent Researcher
2013 award - Major project
£55,829 for 24 months

Archival partner: La Bibliothèque de Manuscrits de Djenné

Project Overview

Djenné has already benefited from the support of EAP for a Pilot Project EAP269 in 2009 and in 2011 Major Project EAP488. As a result, the town’s library has grown manifold since the local population has continued bringing their endangered manuscripts for safe keeping during the course of the two projects. However, the majority of the Djenné manuscripts remain in a precarious situation. In addition, there are rich collections of manuscripts in the surrounding villages which will be included in this new major project.

It has been estimated that Djenné holds more than 10,000 ancient manuscripts. This is a very conservative estimate and the project can only hope to touch a fraction of these endangered documents. Nevertheless, the project is aiming to digitise in excess of 150,000 pages of the manuscripts of Djenné and surrounding villages.

These manuscripts will be digitised in situ at the Djenné Manuscript Library. The preservation copy of the images copied will be stored on hard drives at the Djenné Manuscript Library. An access copy will be available for the use of researchers in a reading room which has already been put in place. A copy will also be stored at the Archives Nationales in Bamako and at the British Library.

The manuscripts of Djenné have not received nearly so much attention as those in Timbuktu. Djenné shares the same history as Timbuktu as an important centre of learning and trade, and the same tradition of copying manuscripts, with the interesting difference only being that a larger proportion of esoteric manuscripts have been found in Djenné, with many that relate to traditional medicine, a subject of much interest.

The oldest dated manuscript currently in the Djenné Manuscript Library is from 1394, although there are supposedly older manuscripts in the town which have not yet been entrusted to the library. The majority of the manuscripts date from between approximately 1700 to 1900.

A new menace is now threatening the manuscripts of Mali: the destruction of many manuscripts in Timbuktu by the recent Jihadist occupiers. Further attacks may possibly occur. Publicity surrounding the Malian manuscripts of Timbuktu has created a commercial climate in which the manuscript owners may be persuaded to sell. The manuscripts held in the Djenné Manuscript Library are relatively safe from environmental hazards such as termites and water damage, which still threaten the manuscripts remaining in the collectors’ houses. The workshops will foster a climate in which the manuscript owners will hand over their manuscripts for safekeeping.

Today, as a direct result of the EAP projects, the Djenné Manuscript Library holds 4,032 Manuscripts entrusted to the library’s safe keeping by 65 Djenné families. Every week new manuscripts arrive, but even so, the archivists are aware that this is still only a small proportion of the wealth of manuscripts that are still kept in Djenné and the outlying villages. The largest number by far still remains endangered by being stored in an unsatisfactory manner in the family homes where they are threatened by termites and water as well as prospectors.

In addition to carrying on the work as previously, this project will also reach out to the neighbouring villages up to 60km around Djenné. This will involve weekly visits by one of the archivists in the company of a person who is known in the particular village. Sessions of information under the auspices of the Village Chief will be held and consequently visits to individual families to view their collections. In this manner it is hoped that many of the families will be persuaded to relocate their collections to the Djenné Manuscript Library.

Finally but importantly the attacks on the tombs of saints and manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu by the recent Jihadist occupiers of the town has thrown into relief most graphically the urgency of the preservation of these Malian manuscripts by digitisation in particular. Through the EAP488 project it can now be claimed that Djenné is more advanced in this important field of work than her more famous ‘twin sister’ Timbuktu. These manuscripts will contain as yet undiscovered clues to the social, economic and religious history of West Africa. The Arabic manuscripts of Mali have been changing the perception of sub Saharan West Africa as an area without a written past in recent years. These manuscripts belong to the cultural heritage of the world and it is a duty to attempt to preserve them.

Project Outcome