Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Bad-Ass Librarians of TimbuktuBy Awnali Mills

Let me start by saying that this isn’t a fair review, because I didn’t finish The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer.  I almost did.  I got this close.  But I just couldn’t do it.

I have followed the story of the amazing librarians and museum curators of the Middle East who have risked everything to try and preserve their cultural heritage.  I read everything that comes across my feed about them, and admire them greatly.  I really, REALLY wanted to enjoy this book, but I just didn’t.  Let me ‘splain.

Hammer tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, how he inherits his father’s library and then is employed searching out, purchasing, and preserving other libraries.  He puts them in places where they can be safe, used for research, and inform the world about the illustrious history of the African peoples.  His collections tell the story of math, science, law, and poetry and how they are intertwined with religion—a priceless and irreplaceable treasure.

Then, Hammer leaves that story and begins telling about the different leaders of Islamic terrorism, and how they became terrorists.  From then on, he has long spates of information about the terrorists, interspersed with stories about the librarians and their quest to save the manuscripts.  I found this informative, but frustrating.  The book has a fantastic title, but it felt like a more appropriate title would have been something like The Rise of Islamic Terrorism and How It Affected the Librarians of Timbuktu.

I read the book to find out about the librarians.  I get that you can’t fully understand what the librarians were up against without a picture of what was going on around them, but do we really need a complete history of how these terrorists were converted and came to power?  Don’t get me wrong.  Hammer obviously knows his stuff, and I can’t even imagine how much time and effort went into researching this story.  I DID come away from the book with a better understanding of jihad.  In the library, I deal with Muslim families all the time who frequently encounter prejudice and animosity—sometimes even on library property.  This book helped me understand the conflicts within the Muslim community better, and that is certainly valuable.

Having said all of that, if you want to understand Muslim culture better, if you want a great picture of how some of the leaders of terrorism came to power, and if you want to know how and why terrorists are trying to erase their own culture, then read this book.  It is very well researched and well written.  But if you want to read a book just about the Timbuktu librarians, this isn’t the one.

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