World · August 6, 2022

The Tunisian library runs to preserve the rich archive of polyglot press

In the basement of the National Library of Tunis, the restorer Hasna Gabsi combs the shelves of newspapers dating back to the mid-19th century to select the latest ones to be digitized.

He takes out a yellowed copy of an Arabic-language newspaper printed in the 1880s, then heads to the sections containing French, Italian, Maltese and Spanish-language newspapers published in Tunisia.

“The archive is a testament to an important historical culture,” Gabsi said under the flickering neon lights.

The library’s collection includes some 16,000 titles printed in Tunisia, for a total of hundreds of thousands of editions of newspapers and periodicals.

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

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

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

Some publications are also 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 the Tunisian Jewish community, which numbered around 100,000 when the country gained independence from France in 1956.

Further on among the shelves, he identifies L’Unione, published in 1886 by an Italian community which by the middle of the following century had about 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.

Library director Raja Ben Slama has assembled a team of around 20 employees to speed up the process.

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

“We are in a race against time with the elements against the deterioration of periodicals,” he said.

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

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

The economic problems and tensions triggered by the Arab-Israeli conflict led to the departure of most of the country’s Jewish community, while most of the Italians left in the years following independence.

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

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