The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the story of manuscript custodians in Timuktu and around Mali who sequestered and preserved codicies and other written works during Al Qaeda’s incursion into Mali. Timbuktu’s central location on the West African trading routes and its dry environmental conditions it the largest repository of medieval Islamic manuscripts in the world. The tolerance and progressive thought endemic to medieval Islam were not compatible with Al Qaeda’s worldview or their simplified history of Islamic thought and scholarship, so the Maghrebi arm organization made the destruction of Timbuktu’s manuscripts a priority.

Hammer tells this tell primarily through the eyes of Abdel Kader Haidara, a Timbuktu native whose family had preserved thousands of manuscripts and whose aspirations to create a world-class library for Timbuktu’s troves predated Al Qaeda’s arrival. Haidara’s keeping the works out of terrorists’ hands makes for a harrowing tale, but I found myself wishing Hammer had devoted more space to the intellectual history of Timbuktu and Mali, as the first few chapters (which provide this history as background for the main tale) were the most fascinating part of the book.