New library to protect valuable Islamic texts and to aid HE

A new Central University Library of Mali, serving higher education institutions across this Sahel and Sahara country, will house thousands of ancient Islamic texts, including some removed from Timbuktu in 2013, to save them from destruction at the hands of Islamist militants.

The militants subsequently torched two libraries in the Malian desert city, but few texts were damaged – now many will be transferred to the new library, to be opened next August (2024), in the Mali capital, Bamako.

This West African franc XOF9 billion (US$15 million) building will include temperature control technology preserving much of Mali’s written heritage – books and manuscripts – with security systems aided by its location in Bamako, firmly under the control of the Mali military.

An Islamic insurgency still rages in Mali, with militants controlling much of northern Mali’s desert regions, although not Timbuktu, for centuries a centre of culture and religious learning.

‘Hill of Knowledge’

The 18,153 square-metre library is being built on the ‘Hill of Knowledge’, one of Bamako’s three well-known hills, in the central Badalabougou district.

Construction has been under way since a foundation stone was laid in September 2021 by Prime Minister Dr Choguel Kokalla Maïga, who heads Mali’s military-led government, with a 36-month construction schedule, which – say architects – is on track.

Once it is completed, the library will be run by the government and will be a resource for all 12 of Mali’s universities and higher education colleges, with teachers and students able to consult texts, many of which are being digitised.

Professor Mohamed Coulibaly, a teacher and researcher at the University of Law and Political Science of Bamako (USJPB), said the library would be valuable for students whose learning has been disrupted in recent years by a series of strikes by university staff: “It is these untimely interruptions that have led to the non-completion of secondary and university programmes,” he said.

“Our students have not achieved the level of learning or training they need because of the delays in courses.”

Coulibaly said this was one reason why the government had decided to boost higher education by building this library, which will have a quality collection of books and manuscripts.

At the university library site, University World News spoke to construction manager Ousmane Cissé, who added that the library would also house departments of cultural activities; public services; administration; scientific services and technical services. There will be an open courtyard.

He said: “It will have majestic architecture, reflecting an ecological and Sahelian approach, and will offer its visitors collections in all areas of knowledge.”

There will be security posts, cameras and effective lighting, which will enable students to work without the “insecurity” faced in some Mali higher education institutions.

Regarding the conservation of ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu within the University Library of Mali, El Boukhari Ben Essayouti, head of the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu and secretary general of the Malian Human Rights Association, said that Timbuktu manuscripts that may be added to the collection include those owned by the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research (IHERI-AB – L’Institut des hautes études et de recherches islamiques Ahmed-Baba), which are the property of the Malian state – accounting for 10% of these documents.

The rest are held privately and are currently distributed in about 50 libraries, with manuscript owners to decide for themselves whether to move the documents to the new library: “Each owner has the leisure to decide because there are no binding regulations in the matter,” said Ben Essayouti.

According to Savama (a Malian organisation dedicated to the preservation of books and manuscripts) estimates, there are nearly 400,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu, he said.

The number that will be transferred “will depend on the storage capacity”, he said, stressing that IHERI-AB and Savama documents are well preserved, although privately held manuscripts are in varied conditions.

Professor Abdoul Sogodogo, vice dean of the faculty of administrative and political sciences of the Université des Sciences Juridiques et Politiques de Bamako (USJPB), the new University Library of Mali will reduce the reliance of Malian higher education students on their teachers, and help academics improve their knowledge: “It is a question of facilitating access to universal knowledge,” he said.

“It is a bit sad to say but, in Mali, students commonly have weaknesses in their academic disciplines. This is largely explained by the difficulties of accessing documentary resources (physical and digital). In general, students lack financial resources for the documents necessary for their training,” he stressed.

Regarding safety and security, he said modern library management systems, including digitalisation, were essential: “For example, an invisible tracing system should be incorporated into the documents and surveillance cameras installed. There should be a scanner for objects and people – who should not be allowed to enter with bags – recording all necessary data from readers to register their identities. In the case of terrorist attack, it is crucial to have an early alert system,” said Sogodogo.

He said the University Library of Mali will offer “a reading club to group learners, hold book exhibitions, stage text analysis sessions, and organise course modules in strengthening written and oral expression”.


The project’s architect, Abdorahamane Ag Hantafaye (who is the uncle of the author of this piece), said the design included surrounding green space “to bathe the building in a garden, given the sought-after setting of conviviality and tranquillity for concentration ...”

This, he said, would be augmented by the library’s design, which will also integrate some existing buildings which are currently used by Bamako units of Malian research institutes and universities for studies and projects.

The goal here was to improve the environmental sustainability of the project, to avoid contributing to the already intense air and water pollution of Bamako, whose estimated population is 2.8 million.

He also said the design reflected the secularism of Mali (a Muslim majority country with animist and Christian minorities), with the roof level of the central building having a patio covered by a representation of a book supported by two slates with Koranic texts next to a Christian cross.

“The beams supporting the awnings of the reading rooms have the shape of books,” added the architect.

A wide variety of materials will cover the building facades, highlighting the diversity of the volumes inside, he said. It reflects the multiple uses of the building, “where various functions rub shoulders: offices, equipment or even services”.

The design also attempts to reflect features of other Bamako education institutions such as the Institut Zayed des Sciences Economiques et Juridiques (IZSEJ) by including domes looking like overturned gourds.

But the architect also wanted to stress modernity, “combining our Sudano-Sahelian style with modern construction techniques”, said Ag Hantafaye.