Eritrea: Digitalizing the Printed Heritage of Eritrea

Professor Massimo Zaccaria is an Italian professor from the University of Pavia, Italy, political and social sciences department. This interview is about the Eritrean publications that have been digitized and the progress it has reached so far.

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A brief introduction about yourself, please?

I am associate professor in African history at the University of Pavia. I work in the political sciences department. I started working in the Horn of Africa in the 1980's. I studied Arabic language at the University of Khartoum for a year and began working in Sudan. I moved toward Eritrea and learned a little bit about its history. And now, my research focuses mainly on the social history of the Horn of Africa.

How did you get interested in Eritrea, and how did the work begin?

I started working in Eritrea in 2004, after my first visit. It all began with my curiosity to study the connection between the history of Eritrea and Sudan because, in that period, I was still very attached to Sudan. After I started working on the history of Eritrea, I found it exciting to work on the topic. Then after, I started visiting Eritrea every year, getting involved with the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) and writing about Eritrea.

Please tell us more about digitalizing Eritrean publications, like which was the first book, and take it from there?

It has been almost four years since we started working with the RDC. We are creating Eritrea's national digital library. We are collecting all the books and printed documents published in Eritrea from the first publication to 1962 in digital copies. I am particularly visiting European libraries, making copies of printed texts, and bringing back copies so that, in the end, we will have the complete picture of this national digital library of Eritrea. We cover the period from 1867, when the first book was printed in Massawa, up to 1962. At the moment, we have digitalized more than 200 thousand pages in all languages. The main objective is that they must be printed here, in Eritrea.

How many items have been digitalized so far?

There are many like magazines, calendars in which we are very interested, books, booklets, whatever kind of periodicals. We aim to map and then digitalize these productions. Mapping is challenging as you must understand what has been published. You have to work with library catalogs, go to the library's shelf, and then control, confront, check, and cross-check. What is overwhelming is that, in the end, we succeeded and are now in the position to say more or less high-level accuracy in what has been printed in Eritrea, and we have also recovered the materials. One of the difficulties of this project is that some of these materials are extremely rare. For instance, the first book, religious, was printed in Eritrea, Massawa; to my knowledge, there are only two surviving copies. They are found in Italy, Milano, and Rome. We did a digital copy of it and brought it back to Eritrea. This is not a rare case as most of the books originally were printed in a very small run, like 250 copies and a maximum of 500 copies. And from there, like in most cases, only one copy has survived, making it similar to a manuscript.

What makes this work so unique?

There are a lot of African countries that are digitalizing their library. Referring to some of my experiences, like Kenya, they digitized all the books in their extensive libraries. This project was created and printed abroad. What we are doing is more complex. We are moving from place to place to digitalize books found in other countries that were printed initially in Eritrea. Also, virtual repatriation is going abroad, for instance, to the National Library of Rome, making copies of the original materials, and bringing them back to Eritrea, which is being done frequently. Our final target is to publish it online and share it with scholars and interested parties.

How can you be so sure that you have digitized all publications?

Of course, you can never be sure. I have been involved in this project for almost ten years. I have visited dozens of libraries, checked a lot of catalogs, and checked on the Internet to find materials printed here, so I am almost sure, 90%. There is always something that you are not able to track, but the majority of the publications have been. For the moment, the accuracy of our work is high.

What manner of work was put into it? How did the RDC collect all these publications for digitization work?

It is challenging and time-consuming. It is probably one of the reasons why all the African countries did not attempt to do something similar. It is challenging because you must work on many sites, be very determined to find information, and negotiate with the libraries to get digital copies, which requires much attention. We succeeded because we had help from RDC. The secret to this success is the combination of the partnership, RDC, and the University of Pavia. RDC has covered the works done within the country, and the University of Pavia has recovered books mainly found in Italy and other countries such as Sweden, in connection with the evangelical church, Uppsala, a caribou library, and other places constantly cross-checking the data. We have a fair picture of Eritrean printed production with all this effort.

How have you managed to classify them?

As we planned on presenting a catalog, we mostly followed the chronological order. We have also used a simplified cataloging system to order this material. Most of the material is religious, catholic, and evangelical churches, playing a vital role in the history of printing in Eritrea, at least the first faith. Then we have administrative materials like Bulletino ufficiale della colonia Eritrea, a periodical that talks about the laws passed by the Italian government, and interesting economic information. Periodicals are also the most fascinating part of this project, where you find information about daily life in Eritrea, and we are working to rebuild this entire collection of them.

Who will benefit from the work done so far, and who are you attempting to target?

That target is Eritrea and Italy, as they have a shared history. For an extended period, this material has yet to be considered attractive from a historical point of view. By recreating the periodical series, mapping ultimately the book production of a country, and sharing all the materials in digital form, you will put a lot of new information that can change the understanding of many aspects of the history of a country.

Do you feel you have contributed in preserving part of Eritrea's history?

In part, yes. It is part of Eritrea's and Italy's history, as many materials are written in Italian. For Italy, as a colonial power in Eritrea for a certain period, these materials are essential for its history. Information that can be used to better understand the entire region's history is found in Eritrea and the whole region. Because Eritrea used to be very connected with its neighboring countries, you will find unmistakable traces of these connections in these documents.

Any final remarks?

Printed documents are very important, and preserving them is also important. Eritrea is an example of this. Its authorities have paid a lot of attention to the preservation of historical documents. Probably, this project is the result of sensibility from the Eritrean side and also from the European side to work together and accomplish great results at many levels.

Thank you so much for your time, professor.

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