“I heard a little story,” Andrea Zanni said. “A traveler finds a man who is breaking bricks and rocks. The traveler asks ‘What are you doing?’ And the man says ‘I am building cathedrals.’”
Andrea is a digital librarian in Italy, whose cathedral has neither bricks nor rocks, but the digital fabric of pixels and characters, a network of global information and free knowledge.
Born in the small city of Sassuolo, Italy, just outside the suburbs of Modena, he moved to the city in his teens. Andrea said he struggled to find a means of self-expression in his youth. “I remember being really frustrated [that] I didn’t have a way to express myself properly,” he said. “I didn’t have a way to express my love for books, my love for knowledge, together with my struggle to be useful and meaningful.”
When Andrea discovered Wikipedia, he immediately took to the online encyclopedia’s unique approach to knowledge and discovered what he described as a “playground of information.” “It’s the largest school out there,” he said. “It’s a playground for people who write it.”
When Andrea discovered Wikisource in 2005, he found his home within the free-culture movement. He has enjoyed curating and archiving public domain and freely-licenced texts, making them available to a wide audience at no cost. With Wikisource, he also began to find that means of self-expression he had been looking for when he was younger. “I love books, and for me it’s absolutely fantastic to be able to pursue my passion and get to have an impact,” he said.
As he has dedicated himself to the Wikimedia movement, Andrea has learned how to use digital media to improve his life and develop professionally. “I learned how to use computers on Wikipedia … and Wikisource,” he said. “I was there correcting commas in texts, and I learned how to build digital libraries.”
This has proved invaluable to his day-to-day work. As a digital librarian at the University of Bologna, he promotes and disseminates the institution’s 16 open-access journals, and provides access to digitized historic books by compiling metadata, uploading new scans, and running optical character recognition (OCR) software. He integrates the university’s free content into various WikiProjects and publishes documents to WikiSource. In addition to his contributions to the projects, Andrea is the project coordinator of Wikimedia Italia, the Italian chapter of the Wikimedia movement.
“Wikipedia is one of the few things that really enables people to be useful, to have an impact with a little effort,” he said. “Wikipedia is really empowering. [It’s] really a framework of good faith, of good will.”
Beyond the global reach of the projects, Andrea acknowledges the deeply personal impact Wikimedia has made upon him: “It simply changed my life. It made everything click.”
His engagement with digital literacy has provided the foundation for his current career. “I’m building a library in Wikisource,” he says. “And a library is really a cathedral for me. [It’s] the idea of building libraries, of being able from your couch to build a library every day, each day of your year.”
Andrea’s cathedral is a catalog of interconnected texts, an edifice of knowledge. He’s building it day by day and brick by brick. “I’m absolutely sure, it’s just like you are building schools, you are building the libraries,” he said. “You know that what you are doing is good.”
Profile by Zoe Bernard, Communications Intern
Interview by Matthew Roth, Global Communications Manager