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The Tunisian library tries to maintain a rich multilingual press archive

#Tunisian #library #maintain #rich #multilingual #press #archive

In the basement of the National Library of Tunis, conservator Hasna Gabsi combs through shelves of mid-19th-century newspapers to select the latest for digitization.

She selects a faded copy of an Arabic-language newspaper printed in the 1880s, then goes to the sections with French, Italian, Maltese, and Spanish newspapers published in Tunisia.

“The archive is witness to an important historical culture,” said Gabsi in the flickering neon light.

The library’s collection includes around 16,000 titles printed in Tunisia – hundreds of thousands of editions of newspapers and magazines.

As part of a campaign to preserve the country’s archives, library staff have been working to digitize the documents.

Most newspapers are in Arabic, with the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century when Tunisia was an Ottoman province.

After France occupied Tunisia in 1881, European settlers published magazines in several languages, including French, Italian, Spanish and Maltese.

Some publications are even in Judeo Arabic, a local Arabic dialect written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Gabsi selects an issue of Voix d’Israel, a Hebrew-language newspaper printed by Tunisia’s Jewish community, which numbered about 100,000 when the country gained independence from France in 1956.

Further down the shelves she seeks out L’Unione, published in 1886 by an Italian congregation that would number some 130,000 by the middle of the following century.

Nearby, technicians with huge scanners are digitizing the newspapers and other documents that have been made available online to the public since May.

The library’s director, Raja Ben Slama, has assembled a team of around 20 people to speed up the process.

She said the importance of preserving the newspapers was clear to her when she arrived in 2015.

“We are in a race against time with the elements against magazine degradation,” she said.

Some of them “cannot be found anywhere else,” she added.

Many of the publications have disappeared, particularly those published in Italian, Hebrew and Maltese.

Economic troubles and tensions sparked by the Arab-Israeli conflict led to the departure of most of the country’s Jewish community, while most Italians left the country in the years following independence.

For the historian Abdessattar Amamou, the archives in the region are rare and reflect the “mosaic” of different communities that were present in the North African country.

“At the beginning of independence we were three million people – but with that came tremendous wealth at the level of the press,” Amamou added.

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