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The Boston Globe

Ideas

The smuggled hard drives of Timbuktu

When rebels invaded, a digital-archive project suddenly became a cultural lifeline.

When the Malian city of Timbuktu fell to Islamist rebels last April, the destruction of its immense cultural treasures did not begin at once. It wasn’t even clear, at first, who exactly was in charge of the city, or what they might do.

But by July, when a coalition of new leaders consolidated control and began tearing down some of the city’s most important burial shrines, the heads of Timbuktu’s libraries had already been working quietly for months to move and hide their collections—one of the most significant troves of unique med­ieval manuscripts in the world. And among the first materials that they smuggled out were something surprising: hard drives.

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