From Time Magazine: Timbuktu’s Ancient Libraries: Saved by Locals, Endangered by a Government.
In fact, Timbuktu’s residents and preservationists had told TIME early last year that they had rescued tens of thousands of manuscripts before the militants seized northern Mali. They agreed to talk on the condition that TIME kept their secret until the jihadists had been defeated. The operation was conducted by Timbuktu’s old families, which have looked after the city’s 300,000 or so ancient documents for centuries. The residents left behind just a few hundred manuscripts in Timbuktu’s only publicly run collection, the Ahmed Baba Institute, in order to conceal the fact that they’d hidden the bulk of them elsewhere; it was those that were destroyed last month. “The vast majority of belligerents are illiterate, and we don’t want them to know how valuable these are,” Stephanie Diakité, an American in Bamako who runs workshops on the manuscripts, told me before the French and African forces freed Timbuktu. “We want them to think that they are just silly books.”From the AP: On vegetable carts, in millet sacks, people of Timbuktu conspire to save priceless manuscripts.
Now that impression is gone forever. Even those jihadists who are illiterate are likely aware of the manuscripts’ high value, given the headline news generated by their potential destruction. Timbuktu’s libraries comprise one the most detailed written accounts of Africa, from when the city was a gold- and salt-trading hub in the 15th and 16th centuries with a thriving community of scholars and several universities. When TIME visited Timbuktu in 2009 to describe the manuscripts, residents explained that each family appointed one of their children to look after the documents for the next generation — a system that has lasted through countless migrations, invasions and skirmishes over the years.
But with the manuscript pages brittle — they can crumble at the lightest touch — preserving them has become urgent. ...
It appears from the latter article that most of the 2000 unaccounted-for manuscripts were locked safely in a basement room in the Ahmed Baba Institute and were not harmed, which is good news. Also, it is not clear to me whether the Institute building was burned or not. This article indicates that it was at least set on fire, but apparently it did not burn down.
Background here and links.