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Thousands of Mali’s Ancient Manuscripts Go Digital

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Google has partnered with Mali’s traditional leaders to digitize tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts from the city of Timbuktu.

Political unrest in the nation’s north has endangered the manuscripts. In 2013, extremists burned two libraries in Timbuktu. Many manuscripts were reported destroyed, along with many other monuments of Islamic culture. However, librarians had secretly moved most of the manuscripts ahead of the attacks.

Timbuktu was founded as a commercial center in West Africa 900 years ago. Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, the ancient manuscripts cover many elements of knowledge including mathematics, medicine, science and astronomy. They provide a picture of the complex society and daily life in the region during the Middle Ages.

The digitization project showcases work done over the past seven years to preserve the documents. Up to 40,000 pages of the documents will be available online. The collection, known as Mali Magic, also contains online interactive tours of some of the country’s most significant historic sites using Google Street View, the BBC reported.

Google is not the first company to try to digitize Mali’s vast archives. The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project began doing so in 1999. The project by the University of Oslo worked to physically preserve the manuscripts, digitizing them and making them accessible for research. The project ended in 2007.

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