The texts, written in Arabic but often translations of African lore, are the remains of vast bodies of work collected in cities in Africa's Sahara and all but destroyed during the colonial era.
The International Herald Tribune reports Timbuktu, which is in Mali just north of the Niger River and a former crossroads for the region, is in the midst of a cultural revival as a repository for Africa's intellectual heritage.
The Andrew Mellon Foundation is financing a small restoration project for the Arabic-language texts, some dating back 850 years.
"Only a select group of scholars is aware of the African model of Islam found in these ancient texts," Stephanie Diakite, an American scholar, told the Herald Tribune, recounting how in the 16th century, the cities' elders rebuked invading Moroccan troops, saying there was no basis in the Koran for one Muslim nation to invade and enslave another.
Diakite said she has found families with ancient skills in manuscript writing and bookbinding.
"Some families have kept tools in their homes for centuries and haven't known what they were used for," she said. "We are locating these families and training men and women in the art of conservation, adapting old book-writing and -binding skills to the necessities of the modern age."