Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Conversation with Dr. Massimo Zaccaria

Sketches of a trip: Eritrea 2011

Dr. Massimo Zaccaria

Sketch five and half.

Whenever I'm in Eritrea, by luck, Dr. Massimo is also in Eritrea doing his research. We have held discussions on various issues and our center of gravity in Asmara has always been RDC (The Research and Documentation Center of Eritrea, which is the defacto National Archives of Eritrea).

Below is one of the topics that we discussed.

Issayas: Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

Dr. Massimo Zaccaria: I’m a researcher of African History at the University of Pavia. I graduated in Oriental Studies at the University of Venise (Arabic main concentration). Quite soon I took a particular interest on Sub-Saharan Africa an area where the intersection between Islamic and African culture is particularly evident. Sudan was the first African country where I have conducted research. I first visited the country in 1987 and the following year I took an advantage of a special program organized by the University of Khartoum aimed at teaching Arabic to a selected group of foreign students introducing them to the history of the country. After a year and a half I had to return to Italy to conclude my studies, but I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and by the kindness of the Sudanese people. I received my PhD from the University of Siena in 1992 and then I was Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University a Pavia. In 2000 I obtained a permanent research position at the University of Pavia. In 2001 I decided to visit Eritrea. During my researches I was struck by the fact that Sudanese history was treated quite separately from the history of the neighboring countries. In reality Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia share a great deal of aspects, they have developed links that permeate the culture and the daily life of the three countries to an extent that always struck me. I started focusing how this links developed during the colonial period so I started working at how Italian Administration related to the Hajj, a typical transnational phenomenon. I also focused on the labor history of the region; I’m currently working on a project centered on the history of mechanic in the Horn of Africa Region. This kind of knowledge was brought in the region by the Italians, but Eritreans soon appropriated this technology and soon became the regional experts. Especially in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan the Eritrean connection in the mechanic field is particularly evident. So I’m trying to trace how Eritreans were able to develop and maintain this network.

Road construction

Edible oil production factory in Keren. (1930)

Gold extraction, Medrizen. (1900)

Oil refinery, Massawa. (1885)

The first automobile in Eritrea.

All pictures are from Zemhret Yohannes'
new book in Tigrigna :"Italian Colonialism in Eritrea"

But I’m aware that I’m not talking about the main subject of our conversation. So let’s go back to the main issue of this interview. In 2009 I presented a proposal for a Marie Curie fellowship. The subject of my research was an attempt to tackle the problem of the preservation of African locally printed materials i.e. books, booklets, newspapers, calendars and so on but rigorously printed in Eritrea in the period between 1867 (first book printed) and 1941 (end of the Italian domination). This kind of material is particularly delicate. It was printed in a very limited number of copies and is in general overlooked by researchers that tend to focus on other kind of materials: parchments, manuscripts, archival documents. I’m not saying that to pay attention to these very precious documents is wrong, on the contrary every effort should be exerted in order to preserve them. But our attention should also go to materials that don’t enjoy the same level of striking value. To my knowledge no African country has an adequate picture of the materials printed locally; in general we have a rather opaque idea of the local printed production. But it is this local production that can help us in understanding crucial mutations in the social history of a given country. Before applying for the Marie Curie fellowship, I discussed and developed this idea with Zemhret Yohannes and obtained full cooperation of RDC in the person of its director, Azeb Tewolde.

Issayas: You are working on the history of the printing press in Eritrea; can you tell us what you've found out?

Massimo: As I said the project was quite innovative, that means that it was new and we had a very imprecise idea of the amount of titles we had to deal with. Some bibliography that took into consideration only portion of the Eritrean local production were putting the number to some 150 title plus some newspapers. The OPAC of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze searching the combination “Asmara” and “1867-1941” still give back 178 hits. Eritrea's Research and Documentation Center (RDC) catalog was giving close to 200 hits. So we started visiting public and private libraries in the country. After two years of work in Eritrea and Italy we were able to update it to some 750 titles! That is triple of the initial estimation. We also digitize that title, at the moment we have already digitized 110.000 pages being 75% of the patrimony. Currently we are working at the online version of the library; we hope to be able to provide full access to the texts within 2012.

Issayas: What is the title, the author, and the printing press of the first book printed in Eritrea?

Massimo: At the very beginning of the history of the printed book in Eritrea we have the Catholic Church that brought the first printing press in the country at the beginning of the 1860’s. For that reason the first book printed in Eritrea is a religious one, a “doctrine” printed in Massawa in 1867. Then another printing press was brought by the Evangelical Church and an
additional one by the Italian Authorities. In Eritrea there was no shortage of printing presses, on the contrary there was an excessive presence of printing presses that were competing over a limited market.

Issayas: Can you tell us about your project at RDC ?

Massimo: RDC was the main partner in the research project. We took a “minimalist” approach. In general it is believed that a digitization project require consistent financial resources. That is only partially true. The fear that a digitization project is going to be too costly keeps away many potential beneficiaries from the implementation of a digital library project. There are best practices, manuals, software that are distributed free on the web and are prepared by institutions that ensure the highest qualitative standard. Also hardware costs can be kept to a minimum. If you don’t have the resources to buy the most advanced scanner on the market you are not automatically out of business. You can revert to a normal scanner and get a fairly good result. The difference is that if you wait for external funds you seriously risk never start the project. We opted for self-reliance; this kind of mentality is typical Eritrean I would say so we immediately get on well. Consequently our choice for the scanner was the canon slide200 a scanner you can find on the market for approximately 90 euro (we bought 4 of them). Initially I was concerned about its ability to cope with heavy tasks duty, being a scanner designed to meet the needs of a private user. It ended up that they are still working with an average of 20.000 pages scanned each. For A3 format we had to rely on a machine that cost a little bit more, some 1000 Euro. We used three notebooks and a laptop as computers. In this way we were able to keep the hardware cost around 2000 euro, quite an affordable price. Our equipment was very portable, it stayed in a bag, so we did not need car transport, and in fact we moved from library to library using public transport and biking. We wanted to show that nowadays a digital project is not a question of money, what you really need is a sound organizational capacity and a great deal of determination. Again to this respect Eritrea provided the best partner.

Issayas: You've identified about 750 titles and some 110,000 pages digitized. Can you tell us about that?

Massimo: It was a very demanding task indeed. We created a team and for a year we were working daily at the project. We faced a great deal of problems but, again, we were very determined to solve them and we did it. In general our job started with contacting the libraries and explaining our aim. We then moved our equipment to the libraries and started cataloging and digitization. We always got full cooperation. In the country there is a widespread awareness about the importance of documenting and preserving the past. If the project succeeded that is mainly due also to members of the team: Feven Solomon, Gebretensae Damr, Nathenet Abraha, Nebiat Andemichael, Saba Kidane and Samhar Seghid.

Nebiat Andemichael and Saba Kidane working at RDC's
Tira a Volo branch, Sept. 2010.

Nathenet Abraha working at the Library of the
Italian School, March 2010

Mobile Unit Equipment at the Francescana Printing Press, June 2010

The library of San Francesco Church, 2010

Above pictures courtesy of Dr. Massimo Zaccaria.

Issayas: As you know Eritrea has its own script. Even though there was no printing press before the Italian colonization, there were books written and bound by hand in the monasteries and other places. Are these included in your project? Do you plan to add these in your project?

Massimo: No, manuscripts are not included in our project. They represent a typology of materials that has attracted attention from other researchers that have much more competence than us. We are concerned with printed materials and we stick to the rule.

Issayas: Are newspapers included in your project?

Massimo: Yes. We digitized also newspapers that do not exceed the A3 format. For larger format we had not adequate equipment. Anyway the journals excluded for this reason are very few and the majority of the other newspapers and journals have been included in the project. The use of digital technologies has permitted the virtual recreation of the series. In general it is extremely rare that a library houses the full collection of a given journal. In general they have only a few numbers. Step by step we were able to recreate the full collection of most of the journals printed in Eritrea. It was a very demanding task but now we will be able soon to provide access to the full collection of publication like the “Bullettino Ufficiale della Colonia Eritrea” (1890-1941) that no library possess in its entirety or to the extremely rare collection of the first journals in Tigrigna language like "Melikti Selam" ("Message of Peace") published by the Evangelical Church and “nay hzbi ityopya uneteyna fetawi” ("The True Friend of the Ethiopian People") published by the Catholic Church, both publication made their appearance during World War I. The presence of two journals in Tigrigna language in this period signal the existence of a local ring of people that used the printed word for communicating and debate new ideas.

Issayas: What is your next project?

Massimo: To make possible full access to this materials through the web and, maybe, to cover the period to 1962 in order to show how the printed word was used in the national debate about
the destiny of Eritrea in that formative period.

Issayas: Massimo, thank you for your time. When you're done, I would like to talk to you about your research on the history of mechanics in the Horn of Africa.

Massimo: You're welcome.

Note: For a brief report on Dr. Massimo's and RDC's activities, please check out the website below.


Next, final sketch.


  1. Great pictures, great story, great job in here, GREAT BLOG, you've got all my CONGRATULATIONS and maximum respect, Robert from Ploiesti, Romania !!!

  2. This is amazing, I don't know how you do it but you bring forth the most amazing aspects of our history. I think your blog should be mandatory reading. Simply amazing.