The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Dr. Steven Shepard

Over the course of the last three months I’ve taught a writing workshop at our local library in Williston, here in Vermont. The schedule was a bit haphazard because of my travel, but we made it work. My audience was people interested in becoming better writers. Interestingly, a significant proportion of them weren’t interested in getting published; they just wanted to be better at the craft of writing. Refreshing!

 I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t spent much time in our library since our kids were growing up. Being the lover of books that I am, my library became Amazon, as I assembled my own cherished library at home. It’s funny: I recently did a quick survey of our house and was pleased to discover that there are books in every single room of the house—except for the bathrooms! Go figure.

 Anyway, the library we had back when the kids were in school and the library we have today are worlds apart. It has expanded, both physically and in terms of what it offers. The Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, situated on the Williston town green in front of the Williston Central School and adjacent to the town gazebo where the town band (the Williston Wheezers) plays on the 4thof July, still has books, but now offers a computer room with available instruction for those looking to develop their digital skills; a massive media collection; Internet access; loads of learning programs; and after-school activities for kids, which are well-attended.

 But they’re not unique in this, as it turns out. According to information published in The Atlantic, 84% of libraries in the country offer some form of software training, while 90% teach basic Internet skills. In fact, in 2016, 113 million people enrolled in programs offered by their local libraries, including digital literacy. In other words, libraries have gone from being passive repositories of dusty books to active educational institutions. And the value of the investment is returned handsomely: In Ohio, in 2014, for every dollar spent on public libraries, the state received $5.48 in added economic value. Not a bad return on investment.

 These libraries have morphed into learning centers, digital community centers, and career hubs. Some libraries are partnering with local businesses to develop learning programs that will generate a steady flow of high-quality, skilled employees, ready to undertake work in the 21stcentury. 

 When was the last time you visited your local library? Check it out—it might surprise you. And if you have kids, make it a regular thing to visit with them. What this demonstrates, once again, is that knowledge really matters. It leads to the development of skills that create differentiation, opportunity, and hope. And where better to have that happen than the local public library?

 And that’s why I want to tell you about a book I just finished reading. The name alone should hook you: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer. It’s equal parts thriller, geography, history, and geopolitical intrigue. And, it’s all true. Here’s the story, without giving away the fun parts. Timbuktu (which means ‘Boctou’s well’ in the local dialect) has for centuries been a center of Islamic scholarship, an oasis of culture, knowledge and understanding in the center of Saharan Mali. 

 Abdel Kader Haidara, a minor government functionary in the 1980s, came to a realization one day: scattered across the Saharan sands  of Mali there are tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, some dating from the 5thcentury, all hand-illuminated, and all crumbling to paper dust because of heat, dry air, and termites. Stored in rotting chests or buried in the swirling sands of the Sahara, these books include early religious texts, medical treatises, political texts, manuals of early law, political treatises, personal journals of early explorers, accounts of travelers, and much, much more.

 Knowing the incalculable value of the knowledge captured in these books, Haidara set out on a quest that would make Don Quixote AND James Bond proud: to collect as many of them as possible, bring them to a world-class, centralized repository  for restoration and digitization, thus preserving the wisdom of the ages. But there were some challenges: the restoration facility didn’t exist; and the books were mostly in the hands of families who didn’t trust the government (for good reason) and weren’t about to turn them over to a junior representative of that very same government.

 And then, there was the Al Qaeda problem.

 Sworn to destroy all vestiges of existing society and its historical foundations, Haidara knew that Al Qaeda would burn the books if they were found. So, he took on the incredibly hazardous task of preventing that from happening by mounting an enormous smuggling operation to move the books, in secret, away from Al Qaeda.

 You need to read this book—it’s a FANTASTIC story.

 And hey, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the Natural Curiosity Project Podcast, where you’ll find other stories designed to intrigue and educate. You can find a link to it here.

 Thanks for dropping by.

Where Do Stories Come From?

Dr. Steven Shepard

I’m often asked where my stories come from. I do have a lot of them, and I add new ones all the time. The truth is that I’ve never really stopped to think about the answer to that question. I’m curious by nature, so if I get the impression that someone might be interesting to have a conversation with, I engage. If I see something happening that impresses me, or someone doing something that intrigues me, I go over to learn more. 

 When I teach writing or photography workshops, there’s one mantra that the participants hear me chant over and over again: There’s a difference between looking and seeing, andbetween hearing and listening.Everyone hears, but relatively few of us actually listen. And everyone looks, but relatively few of us actually see. 

 Over the years I’ve forced myself to listen, and I’ve forced myself to see. It hasn’t been easy; I still find myself tuning out sometimes, thinking about what great things I’m going to do with this amazing interview when I get back to the office, but realizing at the same time that I have missed what the person said for the last 90 seconds. 

 Stories are a gift. When someone agrees to tell you theirs, take it for what it is: A gift of the highest order. When a person agrees to tell you their story, they are sharing something important, so be honored, and listen. Everyone has a story to tell, and every story is a good one. The trick is getting them to tell it. 

 But my stories don’t just come from conversations with others. Some of them are pushed to me via email. Here are my favorites. I’m not going to describe them, because they’re well-described at their respective Web sites, and besides, the short trip over to visit them will do you good (remember—that’s what curiosity is about).

And then there are the Podcasts I listen to. Here are the ones that I go back to, week after week, because they yield stories worth remembering and sharing.

99% Invisible

Aaron Menke’s Cabinet of Curiosities

BBC Earth

Costing the Earth


Curiosity Daily

Damn Interesting

How Sound

Levar Burton Reads


Nature Guys


Radio Atlantic



Science Rules (Bill Nye)

Anthropocene Reviewed

The Kicker (Columbia Journalism Review)

If you’re looking for a specific topic and you don’t find it here, let me know—chances are I know where to find it. And remember—the Natural Curiosity Project, my own regular program, has some great content as well!

Until next time—thanks for dropping by. And hey, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the Natural Curiosity Project Podcast, where you’ll find other stories designed to intrigue and educate. You can find a link to it here.

Why I Started the Natural Curiosity Project

Dr. Steven Shepard

Now that I’ve launched a new Web site, thanks to the creative capabilities of my son, I’ve decided to take his suggestions to heart, one of which is to write a regular Blog. So, this is the first post of what will become a weekly (or so) message, updating you on things that I think are important and worth writing about.

For this first post, I want to take you back in time—to 1999, the year before I started this business, the Shepard Communications Group. I was in Washington, DC, giving a talk via a Comsat satellite facility to a group of people that were scattered all over the world, the vast majority of them in Africa. The Internet was still a nascent phenomenon back then; indeed, Google was less than a year old at the time, and a really good connection to the Web was 56 kbps, via an analog modem. AOL was a happening place.

Anyway, the talk was a wonderful experience—people asked questions in English, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Spanish, and a few languages that I needed help with—it was AMAZING. I loved every minute of it. In fact, it ran way over time; we stopped when the satellite provider called and said they needed their transponder back.

One of the participants on the talk was a guy from Kenya, named Edwin, who contacted me after the broadcast to help him build a plan to use email to grow his business in east Africa. We swapped a few messages, I gave him some suggestions, and as is typical, our exchanges went from frequent, to infrequent, to nonexistent, once he got his business up and running. I thought nothing of it until I received this letter in the mail—let me be clear, a paper letter (still framed on my wall):

Dear Professor Shepard: I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me start my Internet business in Kenya. It was not easy: I had to take out a large business loan for $100, but I believe that I will be able to pay it back within 18 months. Already I have made sales of my magazine in the US and Europe and because of your help my family is eating well and my children are smiling. God bless you and the Internet. 

Asante Sana, rafiki wako Edwin.

God bless me and the Internet. Talk about feeling humble—wow.

I share that story because it was one of the reasons I started this company—one of the catalytic forces that made me want to write more books, take more photographs, publish more articles, produce more videos, give more talks, and focus so much of my professional and personal effort on the developing world. That letter humbled me, made me reflect, and gave me focus. I realized that all this technology that I had worked so hard to know so much about, to understand the inner workings of, was pretty useless without a sound application in front of it. Until Edwin wrote me that letter, I hadn’t given the Internet all that much thought, other than to see it as a technological curiosity

And there’s that word—curiosity. 

I’ve always been curious, but I never thought much about it until I started doing this job and realized how many people I come in contact with aren’t—curious, that is. And that, to me, is a problem. Why? Because of the belief behind the Podcast: that curiosity leads to discovery, discovery leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to insight, and insight leads to understanding, something that seems to be missing in an awful lot of public discourse today. Let me give you an example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a taxi in LA, driving from the airport to my hotel downtown. As I always do, I channeled one of my (weirder than most) heroes, journalist Charles Kuralt (weird because after his death it was discovered that he had two separate, simultaneous families, neither of which knew of the other). That’s not the part I channeled. He once was asked what his job consisted of, given that it involved driving around the country with a film crew in a luxury RV, interviewing people. His answer was great, and I’ve never forgotten it: “My job is to find extraordinary things in ordinary people.” And by ‘ordinary’ he didn’t mean sub-standard—he meant everyday people, living their lives. He rarely interviewed heads of state, or CEOs, or wealthy octogenarians (unless no one knew they were wealthy octogenarians), or sports superstars. He interviewed farmers, mechanics, birdwatchers, firefighters, teachers, and volunteer doctors and nurses. He interviewed crop duster pilots who also delivered medicine. He interviewed game wardens and park rangers. And every one of them—EVERY one—had a compelling, mesmerizing, hang-on-every-word story to tell. And Charles found them.

So: my taxi driver. From his accent and the name on the driver’s placard I knew he was Armenian. So, I asked him how long he had been in Los Angeles. Many years, it turned out. He asked me what I do; I told him I’m a writer. I’m a writer, he responded. Really, I asked? (everybody’s a would-be writer). What do you like to write? Essays, he told me. He then asked me who my favorite writers were. And then, before I could answer, he told me his.

“Actually, Dostoevsky is quite good for global and historical perspective. Tolstoy is tedious. Mark Twain, the American essayist, is a genius—he should be read by everyone in the world. Kipling has a wonderful read on human behavior. And as for poets, which many people don’t read, but should, I very much like Pablo Neruda. He has a lover’s soul, yet he’s a pragmatist.”

Had I not been in the habit of letting my curiosity drive my actions, I never would have had this conversation with my driver, with whom I exchanged books we had each written. 

Here’s the thing. Curiosity is free—it costs nothing, yet its yield is inevitably priceless. It broadens our view of the world, makes us more aware and sensitive, causes us to be more informed, and inevitably makes us better people. And, it requires minuscule effort. It looks like this:

·      “You know what? I’d like to know a little more about that.”

·      “Are you sure about that? I think I’ll check one more source.”

·      “That person over there looks kind of interesting. I think I’ll go over and say hi.”

·      “OK—I have to ask. What’s the story of that hat?”

·      “Forgive me for asking. What language are you speaking? I love how it sounds.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that curiosity has become optional for many. And I don’t think it’s because they set out one day to no longer be curious; I think it’s a side-effect—and a hazardous one—of the deluge of data that we are inundated with every second of every day. The dangerous thing about this is two-fold. First, we grow comfortably complacent with being awash in data, falsely assuming it to be knowledge, or insight, or wisdom, or even information. 

Second, we allow ourselves to trust it without question. Volume or quantity do not equate to correctness, any more than having tens of thousands of people walk through your store, day after day, without buying anything, equates to retail success. It’s an exercise in empty calories. Because we have so much at our fingertips, we become intellectually lazy. We allow ourselves to believe that we don’t have to work hard to be well-informed or well-educated. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, slippery slope, and it’s largely to blame for the mess we’re in today. If only people would ask that simple question, ‘are you sure?’, or would take the time to check one more source before blindly accepting a statement as fact, we’d all be much better off. But it takes effort, and a willingness to be proven wrong every now and again.

So, curiosity can be lost, or perhaps better said, anaesthetized. But it can be revived. And that’s precisely why I started my Podcast, the Natural Curiosity Project. I am blessed with natural curiosity. Perhaps it’s part of being a writer, or due to the fact that I’m a voracious reader, or maybe it’s because I go out of my way to meet people—to follow Charles Kuralt’s mantra. Whatever it is, I ask a lot of questions, which yield a lot of very interesting answers, insights I didn’t have before I asked the questions. I think those insights are important—important enough, in fact, to share them with you.

So, each episode is different, but they all have one characteristic in common. I promise that I will try with every episode to tell you something you didn’t know before. Why? Because of the mantra upon which the Podcast was created: curiosity leads to discovery, discovery leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to insight, and insight leads to understanding. Understanding leads to better relationships, more effective businesses, more innovative products and services, more insightful competitive behavior, and better-behaved, more understanding humans. And we can use more of those these days.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the Natural Curiosity Project Podcast, where you’ll find other stories designed to intrigue and educate. You can find a link to it here.