Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu – Application

“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south and silver from the country of the white men. But the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo “- Sudanese proverb.

Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu is a virtual reality application that uses leap motion technology to provide an interactive, natural way for users to engage with digitized manuscripts. Inspired by the recent destruction of Timbuktu’s priceless scripts, this application seeks to  change how we interact with digitized historical materials.

Not just as a series of documents  stored in an indexed database, but as valuable items that possess an authenticity and integrity of their own.

Virtual Reality and Leap Motion Technology demo – source


Fragile, delicate, and  prone to destruction, the allure of manuscripts is often compounded by our inability to fully possess and handle them. As we try to soak in the wealth of their content, we are all too aware of the risk of our own unwitting actions, a cough, a sneeze, an accidental ink spill or more so the environmental risks beyond our control. For this reason, digitization not only presents a way to preserve  but a way to increase access while maintaining the integrity of the original document. In the case of the renowned Timbuktu manuscripts, digitization efforts have/ are being carried out by local libraries, NGO’s such as SAVAMA-DCI, and various donor groups such as the Ford Foundation, Library of Congress, British Library, HMML, and others.

“By December 31, 2016, HMML and SAVAMA-DCI had already digitized more than 44,500 manuscript items, totaling more than ,635,000 images.” – HMML Museum and Manuscript Library


Which brings us to the question, “what happens beyond digitization?”. Most times, digitized documents and images are simply accessed as individual files in their native formats; .pdf, .jpeg etc. This not only isolates the items, but strips them from their original context. Recent technologies today allow us to provide a higher degree of interaction  that goes beyond the digitized object and encompasses its environment and its relation to similar items of its kind. Using two cutting edge tools we developed the concept for this application which employs virtual reality to facilitate immersion and leap motion to facilitate interaction.



By mounting the leap motion device on the table or on a HMD such as the Oculus Rift, the user’s hand gestures in the real world are reflected on screen. Users can select a collection of manuscripts and control the movement of the book pages from left to right using both hands. Additionally, they can also zoom in and zoom out of pages by using a pinch movement gesture captured from hand motions in real life.

(Demonstrated in the video below)


While we revel in the novelty of virtual reality it is important that we provide authentic experiences in as much as we can. Some of the ways in which this concept can be improved is the provision of audio which relates directly to the environment which these manuscripts are found. Another way, would be to provide language translations that would cater to  a wider audience from different geographic regions.

Possible places in which this application would be installed are, archive reading rooms, libraries and possibly museum exhibitions. We like this idea because it allows for distribution of  the digitized items to wider audiences and provides them with a unifying experience that cuts across the board. Although this application is still in its concept phase,  we wanted to share the thought process behind it and the reasons that inspire us to reinvent how African heritage is consumed and shared.

“The volumes of history, poetry, medicine and astronomy once displayed in libraries, markets and homes became rare and then disappeared…” Perhaps in future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, there is only the history of Europeans in Africa, the rest is darkness” 

– Joshua Hammer, Badass librarians of Timbuktu.



The images used within  are obtained from a variety of sources , some are not directly linked to the Timbuktu manuscripts due to the difficulty in obtaining HD images of the manuscripts themselves. They are used purely for demo purposes and have been credited to the respective sources below:

  • Qatar Digital Library
  • 2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (3)
  • Arabian Nights – Andrew Lang


Tools Used:

Unity , Leap Motion, Oculus Rift.

By: Tayiana Chao

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