e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Hay-on-Wye and Timbuktu

While browsing the web trying to find an answer to the question:

Why does the small, Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye have so many bookshops?

I came across the information that it is twinned with Timbuktu.

The reason is not hard to find – Timbuktu is also famous for books, this time in libraries. These libraries contain diverse and important collections of Islamic manuscripts.

There have been recent instances of extremist rebels damaging shrines and monuments in the area. So far the libraries are safe but they are still very vulnerable. To make them safer the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has been studying and digitising their contents, but with so much material this is a long process.

In addition to important works of Islamic scholarship, these collections also form a major source for the study of African history. Even in apparently purely religious texts there are often little notes in the margins giving local details. This is part of the charm of old books – other readers have been here before and left their mark. For a modern version of this take a look at Bundle of Books for 9 July.

My question:

Why does Timbuktu have so many libraries?

is quite easily answered. It was a major trading settlement that grew into an important city on a meeting point of desert and river valley, with a mixed and intellectually active population. From different parts of the Islamic world people came (and still come) to study and contribute to the scholarship in the city.

I still haven’t found the answer to my first question. The nearest I can get is that  Hay-on-Wye sits on a meeting point – this time of England and Wales – and is full of enterprising and intellectually active people. Through its festivals it has numerous visitors from the world of readers and writers.


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9 thoughts on “Hay-on-Wye and Timbuktu

  1. Thanks for what is an anteresting post and question. Fascinating about Timbuktoo!


  2. For about 300 of the manuscripts in Timbuktu the reason for them being there was the exile, voluntary and enforced, of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century. A long journey brought them to their new home. In 2003 the regional government of Andalusia provided funds for the construction of a library in which to house them, the biblioteca andalusi tombuctu. Along with another 2700 manuscripts, they form an important collection of the history of Spain and North Africa from the time of the Visigoths, now threatened by the attacks of Islamic extremists.
    Thank you for such an interesting post. It’s always a delight to come across reports on the less well-known corners of literature and history.


    • Thank you for stopping by and for the information. The journey from Spain to Timbuktu must have been a very long one at that time – horrible for the refugees forced to make it. I’m glad to hear that Spain is helping to care for the manuscripts.


  3. Thank you very much for linking to my post! I haven’t been to Hay-On-Wye for ages, but I remember it being book heaven. I tried to get the the festival this year, but didn’t make it. Maybe next year. I’ve never really thought about why there are some many bookshops there. It’s definitely worth looking into!


  4. That should have read first used bookstore in Hay, not first anywhere. 🙂


  5. Richard Booth has been credited with promoting “book tourism” in Hay, starting the first used book store. I remember reading about him a few times before I visited Hay in 2006. If I recall correctly, Paul Collins writes about Booth in his memoir Sixpence House, about his year of living in Hay and loving all of the bookstores there.

    Here is a post of that book I wrote in 2006 (one of my very first blog posts)

    There is also a wikipedia entry for Richard Booth:


    • Thank you for the information and links, they are really useful. I don’t think I could afford to live in Hay – I would spend too much on books. The article on Booth is fascinating. It’s sad, though, that so many American libraries closed. At least their books had a second run as a new enterprise.


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