Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

16 March 2018

The Manuscripts of Mali

The fabled city of Timbuktu has attracted frequent media attention over the last few years. During the occupation of northern Mali by Al Qaida linked extremists in 2012 the destruction of mausoleums to local Islamic saints in Timbuktu caused an international outcry and resulted in a UNESCO funded rebuilding project after the recapture of the city in 2013. The extremists also burned around 4500 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute as their last act of defiance before the French and Malian forces re-conquered Timbuktu. Already during the Jihadist occupation many thousands of manuscripts had been transported in secret to Bamako in the now famous rescue operation organised by the Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara. This swashbuckling tale has been the subject of two international best-selling novels, The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (2016) by Joshua Hammer and The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu (2017) by Charlie English, as well as countless articles and documentary films. Timbuktu, ante bellum, was a thriving city of tourism and the centre of over fifty private family libraries which have now been moved to Bamako where the manuscripts are receiving conservation treatment and are being digitised by SAVAMA, an association of Timbuktu libraries led by Abdel Kader Haidara, which has received international funding from the German, Dutch, Luxemburg, Swiss and Norwegian governments as well as the Ford Foundation and many other sources.


Certain important libraries in Timbuktu declined taking part in the rescue mission to relocate to Bamako. Instead they chose to hide their precious manuscripts in secret desert hiding places in and around Timbuktu: these include the Imam Essayouti, Al Aquib and Al Wangara manuscript libraries, attached in turn to the three ancient mosques of Timbuktu: the Djinguereber (built 1327), the Sankore (built soon after) and Sidi Yahya (1440). Together they compose what was known as the University of Timbuktu. The British Library, through the Endangered Archives Programme and in partnership with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, USA, is now undertaking the digitisation of these libraries in situ in Timbuktu, where work is underway in the Imam Essayouti library since October 2017, and will begin in the Al Wangara in April 2018.

  Imam Ben Essayouti and Sophie resize
Imam Ben Essayouti with Sophie Sarin

Al AquibThe Imam of Sankore at the Al Aquib Library, Timbuktu

Al WangaraThe Al Wangara Library

Although the main concentration of Arabic manuscripts in Mali was undoubtedly in Timbuktu due to its position as the most important trading city of the Trans-Saharan trade route since the early Middle Ages, other Malian cities also boast large deposits of ancient Arabic manuscripts: Djenné in particular. It is situated some 500 km south of Timbuktu in the Niger Inland Delta of Central Mali and was also an important city of trade and scholarship and one of the gateways where Islam first penetrated Mali in the 13th century. Djenné is a repository for thousands of manuscripts which have been kept by families for centuries. In 2009, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme ran a Pilot Project, which concluded that Djenné’s manuscripts provided a suitable source of material for the mounting of a major two year digitisation project. This was the first in a series of three consecutive major projects, which finally came to an end in October 2017, when in the region of 400,000 images had been achieved from the 8,500 manuscripts which are currently stored in the Djenné Manuscript Library.

Library front Djenn√© Manuscript Library

Malian manuscripts deal in the main with traditional Islamic subject matter such as Hadiths (traditional sayings and stories attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), Islamic Jurisprudence of the Malikite School, religious poetry and sermons etc. There are also frequent philosophical expositions, mainly on ethics and logic as well as many manuscripts dealing with the Arabic language and grammar. There is history, correspondence, and astronomy which is normally treated as inseparable from astrology. A large proportion of the manuscripts, particularly in Djenn√©, fall under the label ‚Äėesoteric‚Äô; incantations and magic formulas which purport to tell the future or influence the course of events by the use of phrases from the Qur‚Äôan in combination with the manipulation of vegetable matter or animal sacrifices. These sorts of practises are frowned upon by certain factions within Islam and some believe that this may possibly have caused the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu by the fundamentalists who derive their Islamic creed from the Wahhabist school of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The involvement of the British Library through the EAP in these projects in Mali continues to be instrumental in safeguarding these manuscripts. In the case of Djenné not only in digital form but also in providing a physically safe environment for the storage of the documents, which had previously been kept in very precarious situations in the family homes, susceptible to the vagaries of the climate where during the rainy season violent rainstorms often cause destruction to the fragile mud buildings, and insects are a continuous hazard.

Fig 9 MaliDigitising in Djenn√©

However, the menace for the manuscript collections in both Djenn√© and Timbuktu lies not only in the threat of physical deterioration; the political situation is very unstable. There exists an uneasy truce in Timbuktu, but Islamic extremists are encamped in the surrounding desert and attacks on the city are frequent despite a very large UN peace keeping force.  Similarly, the escalating security crisis in central Mali is making the future uncertain for the Djenn√© Manuscript Library. State presence is withdrawing from the area as frequent attacks from local Islamic fundamentalists target state employees at institutions such as gendarme guard posts and schools. The Mission Culturelle, as the representative of the Ministry of Culture is a potential target and by extension the Djenn√© Manuscript Library. So far neither has been targeted, but the situation is volatile. The fact that the Djenn√© collection of documents has now been digitised and that copies exists at the British Library and also at the National Archives in Bamako means that although the original copies continue to be kept in troubled central Mali, at least the vast majority of manuscripts have now been saved for scholars in digital form, and the Timbuktu manuscripts from the three famous Timbuktu University Libraries are now also on their way to being digitally preserved for posterity.

Written by Sophie Sarin, grant holder of five EAP projects based in Mali: EAP269, EAP488, EAP690, EAP879 and EAP1094

From September 2018, the British Library will be showcasing the projects carried out in Djenn√© in the form of an exhibition to be held along the Second Floor Gallery. There will also be accompanying events related to Mali during the autumn, so do check the Library's What's on page later in the year. 

12 February 2018

World Radio Day: Recordings from the Endangered Archives Programme

World Radio Day has been held annually on 13th February since 2012 following its proclamation by the UNESCO Conference. The following year the United Nations General Assembly formally endorsed this proclamation and adopted it as an official ‚ÄėInternational Day‚Äô to be celebrated on the anniversary of the establishment of United Nations Radio in 1946.

It is celebrated as a way of showing the continuing importance of radio around the world. The UN Secretary General António Guterres, speaking in the build-up to World Radio Day 2018 states,

‚ÄúRadio reaches the widest audience in the world! In an era of dramatic advances in communications, radio retains its power to entertain, educate, inform and inspire. It can unite and empower communities and give voice to the marginalized‚ÄĚ 1


Whilst the Endangered Archives Programme is more widely known for digitising vulnerable collections of manuscripts, books, newspapers and other written or visual based mediums, we have also funded a number of audio digitisation projects. Several of these are available to listen to now on BL Sounds, including two important collections of digitised radio archives from Iran and Micronesia. For this post celebrating World Radio Day we thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight these two collections and feature a few of the recordings from the thousands that are available for you to listen to freely.

Micronesia - Endangered Micronesian recordings (EAP115)

This eclectic collection of sound recordings from Micronesia were digitised with the help of the Micronesian Seminar (MicSem), a research-pastoral institute founded by the Catholic Church in 1972. The project team were made aware of hundreds of audio tapes sitting on the shelves of government radio stations throughout the region that were in danger of being lost. These tapes contained a rich and diverse collection of recordings played on local radio from the 1950s right up until the early 21st century. Many had already been lost or destroyed, some through theft and others damaged in natural disasters. These low-lying islands are regularly threatened by typhoons and some are already seeing the consequences of climate change. Many of the islands have already lost land mass due to erosion caused by rising sea levels, some are likely to disappear completely within the coming decades, and others have even been lost altogether within living memory. The threat of typhoons, rising sea levels and the usual factors that endanger vulnerable archives ‚Äď poor storage conditions, theft, pests, humidity, decay and degradation of the original medium, etc. ‚Äď uniquely placed these radio archives in need of preservation.

The project mainly digitised recordings from government radio stations in Majuro, Marshall Islands; Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap, Federated States of Micronesia; and Koror, Palau. The project team also digitised recordings from a number of private radio stations, including V6AJ on Kosrae, and some from former Palau national congress Senator Alfonso Diaz’s private radio station (WWFM). Other sources for recordings include private individuals and the Liebenzel Mission and Catholic Church media studio in Chuuk.

The recordings feature a wide variety of musical styles and chart the evolution of music in the region, with recordings ranging from traditional music, religious chants and hymns, to acoustic rock and reggae songs. Given the importance music has on the islands, these recordings can give some context into the cultural evolution of these island societies.

 Over 7000 recordings available to listen to here.


 CEAP115/2/71/2 - Danpei Youth Christian Association, Ai Koun mehlel kapakap nan mwehdiwelo


 CEAP115/4/80/2 - Unnamed girls from Woleai, A happy celebration song


 CEAP115/2/71/2 - Danpei Youth Christian Association, Ai Koun mehlel kapakap nan mwehdiwelo


 CEAP115/1/158/6 - Mobil Team Youth, Non ai nonom on fanufan


 CEAP115/2/122/6 - Black Ruru, Ese wor mwo emon lukun en

Iran - The Golha radio programmes (Flowers of Persian Song and Poetry) (EAP088)


Abdolvahab Shahidi with accompanying musicians  ¬© Golha Project

The Golha radio programmes were broadcast on Iranian National Radio between 1956 and 1979 and consist of a mixture of musical pieces, poetry, and literary commentary. They were the brainchild of Davoud Pirnia, a one-time Assistant Prime Minister who harboured a deep love for Persian culture and its rich literary and musical traditions, and who devoted himself to producing the Golha programmes upon his retirement from political life in 1956. The foremost literary, academic and musical talents of his day offered Mr. Pirnia their collaboration and support, and many of the greatest Iranian vocalists of the twentieth century saw their careers launched on these radio programmes. The programmes constitute an unrivalled encyclopaedia of classical Persian music and poetry. Over 250 poets were introduced to the general public at the time of these broadcasts and they helped to reintroduce and preserve Persian classical music and poetry.

Prior to the digitisation of the Golha radio programmes, these recordings were previously inaccessible to students and scholars of Persian poetry and music. The original tapes were scattered between a number of different archives and private collections with no single archive containing all recordings. The Iranian government withheld access to their archives of music broadcast before the 1979 Islamic revolution, especially those which feature female voices (which all of the Golha programmes contain). Because of the regime's ideological stance to this type of music in particular, it was unlikely they would have committed the resources needed to preserve these recordings. Thanks to the hard work of the EAP088 project team, this important collection of recordings is now saved and freely available both on BL Sounds and the Golha website.

The first of these series of programmes, Golha-yi Javidan (Immortal Flowers of Song and Verse), began its broadcast on March 21 1956 and it concluded, as did all further episodes, with

‚ÄúThis has been an immortal flower from the peerless rose garden of Persia Literature, a flower that shall never perish. Good night‚ÄĚ

(In ham goli bud javidan az golzar-e bi-hamta-ye adab-e Iran, goli ke hargez namirad. Shab khosh!).2

 1296 recordings available to listen to here.


CEAP088/1/2/1 - Gulha-yi Javidan 1


CEAP088/1/4/29 - Gulha-yi Sahra'i 29

1 World Radio Day Message from UN Secretary General, Mr António Guterres

2 LEWISOHN, J., ‚ÄėFlowers of Persian Song and Music: Davud Pirnia and the Genesis of the Golha Programs‚Äô, Journal of Persianate Studies (2008) 1, 79-101

 Robert Miles, EAP Cataloguer

19 January 2018

Endangered Penguins in the Endangered Archives

20 January is ‚ÄėPenguin Awareness Day‚Äô. Although it does not seem to be an official observance carried out by any particular environmental organisation, the date is becoming popular. It isn‚Äôt surprising as many people around the world find these peculiar birds truly lovable.

For some light diversion on a Friday, I thought I would try and find out if there were any photographs of penguins within our collections and low and behold there were! It is not surprising that they all came from EAP755, the Heinrich Sanguinetti Archive and were taken by Annemarie Heinrich, a German who settled in Argentina after the First World War. Many of the pictures were taken in 1958 during a visit to the Isla de los Ping√ľinos (Penguin Island), located 21km southeast of the city of Puerto Deseado.


The breed of penguin found on this island is the Magellanic, which is a South American variety and named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first set eyes on them in the 16th century. Very sadly, these birds are classified as a ‚ÄėNear-threatened species‚Äô by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 


EAP755 contains images of both adults and fluffy chicks. Many seem to be hiding from the photographer's lens.


Not all of the photographs were taken on the island, there is also one taken in Buenos Aires zoo of two penguins being fed by their keeper.