Tunisia struggles to save its multilingual newspaper library

In the basement of the National Library of Tunisia, curator Hasna Gabsi combs the shelves of newspapers dating back to the mid-19th century to select which ones to digitize.

He picks up a yellowed copy of an Arabic newspaper printed in the 1880s, then turns to the sections containing French, Italian, Maltese, and Spanish newspapers published in Tunisia.

“The archive is witness to an important and historical culture,” says Gabsi under neon lights.

The library’s collection includes some 16,000 titles printed in Tunisia and 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 of the newspapers are in Arabic, with the oldest ones dating back to the mid-19th century, when Tunisia was an Ottoman province.

But after France occupied Tunisia in 1881, European settlers published newspapers in several languages ​​(French, Italian, Spanish, and Maltese).

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

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

A little further down the shelves he chooses L’Unione, published in 1886 by an Italian community that in the middle of the following century numbered some 130,000 people.

Nearby, technicians use huge scanners to digitize newspapers and other documents, which have been made available to the public online since May.

To speed up the process, the library’s director, Raja Ben Slama, created a team of 20 people. But it was years before, in 2015, that she realized the importance of preserving the archive.

“We are in a race against time regarding the deterioration of newspapers,” he says.

Some of them “can’t be found anywhere else,” he adds.

Many of the publications have disappeared, especially those that were written in Italian, Hebrew and Maltese.

Both the economic situation and the increase in tensions due to the Arab-Israeli conflict caused the departure of most of the Jewish community from the country.

And most Italians left in the years after independence.

For the historian Abdessattar Amamou, the archives reflect the “mosaic” of the different communities that lived together in the North African country.

“At the dawn of independence, we were three million people, but with it came enormous wealth at the level of the press,” added Amamou.


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