Journal of the South African Society of Archivists

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Preservation of Endangered Archives: a Case of Timbuktu Manuscripts

Alexio Motsi



This study seeks to discuss the preservation of archives with a focus on those that are constantly exposed to various threats such as the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, an ancient city found in the North of Mali in West Africa. The paper will share my experiences working on Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts and some of the findings in my Master of Science Degree in Archives and Records Management research titled “Preserving Ancient Manuscripts in Hostile Environments, with Reference to The Preservation of the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu”.[1]Traditional methods of preservation have been employed in Timbuktu from the 13th century which is why these manuscripts have survived till today. The study examines the currently accepted international standards and practices used in the preservation of library and archive material and how these fare against the challenges faced by the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu. The use of the Timbuktu manuscripts serves as the worst case scenario that can assist in the better understanding of the unique preservation challenges facing the documentary heritage in Africa and other developing countries.


The reality that war has become the worst threat to archives and other cultural heritage must be acknowledged. No one has an answer to how preservation of heritage can be done amidst raging wars and terrorism. The unpredictable nature of terrorism makes it difficult to prepare for it. The nature of war is also changing. In South Africa, demonstrations raged at institutions of higher learning and communities in 2017. Burning of heritage monuments, libraries, schools and destruction of other property has become a common occurrence during protest actions. The paper concludes by identifying the causes of unrest and indicates how archives can be vulnerable.


[1]This research was done to fulfil the requirements for the completion of the Master of Science Degree in Archives and Records Management with the University of Dundee in Scotland in 2015.


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