Preservationist Helping Save Islamic Texts in Nigeria

Michaelle Biddle.

Michaelle Biddle.

Michaelle Biddle, head of preservation services, has returned from a five-week sabbatical to Nigeria, where she conducted a survey of Islamic manuscripts and related materials in northern Nigeria under the auspices of the Arewa House, Centre for Historical Documentation and Research, Ahmadu Bello University.

Biddle was there working on preserving documents and taught conservation workshops to preserve documents in Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto and Maiduguri and teach archivists and conservationists how to best preserve paper documents in accordance with international conservation standards. The program Biddle taught was entitled “Conservation in a Box” and was funded by the U.S. Ambassador’s Cultural Preservation Program.

Each participant received a complete set of conservation tools, conservation supplies that will last many months and a custom-made table on which to work.

Biddle said that working in a multi-lingual environment provided challenges, but they were not insurmountable since English is widely used in education in Nigeria and it is the official language of the country.

“Conservation has a specialized vocabulary and the workshop participants were extremely supportive of each other, translating into Hausa or even Arabic for those who were having difficulty understanding finer points,” Biddle says.

Biddle was not surprised that many of the artifacts she saw were in poor shape. In a report about her experience, Biddle quoted a 1999 report by Professor Bunmi Alegbeleye, Dean, School of Education, University of Ibadan, to the 65th International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions General Conference in Bangkok, where he stated: “…in unequivocal terms the preservation and conservation scene in Africa is in a dismal state.”

Biddle said that her students told her that they learned as much about critical thinking as how to preserve and conserve these Islamic manuscripts. It was surprising to her that only one student had taken chemistry and no students had taken geometry, even though all of the students were university graduates and many had advanced degrees.

“Both are fundamental in conservation,” Biddle says. “I had not planned on explaining the pH scale or an isosceles triangle.”

She felt that it was rewarding to watch their successes.

“By the end of the classes each of the participants realized that there was a great deal they could do, even with their present resources, to preserve and conserve these manuscripts,” she says. Biddle said that she will likely return to Nigeria next year and also plans to visit Timbuktu, in Mali, because it’s another major center of West African Islamic manuscripts.Biddle was invited to become involved in the project due to her extensive training and experience in working with manuscripts. She has previously worked as an Islamic art bibliographer, with Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. (Antiquarian Oriental and African Booksellers), and has worked in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, England. She has studied manuscript binding, preservation techniques, and is presently a M.A. student in archaeology and ancient history, University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.
“This experience reinforced my belief that just as knowledge should have no national boundaries, we all have a duty to do what we can to preserve cultural resources,” Biddle said.

“Conservation, the means by which we preserve our heritage, is a commitment not to the past but to the future.”

Biddle’s work in Nigeria was previously featured in the Wesleyan Connection at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/newsletter/campus/2008/0208nigeria.html.