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Karthala was founded in 1980 by Robert Ageneau, who was previously editor of the journal Spiritus (1969 - 1974), member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit and co-director of another publishing house, Harmattan.
Karthala was founded with the aim of publishing texts on international issues related to developing countries. Twenty years after the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s, there was felt to be a need for new approaches to what was then known as the "Third World", and in particular Africa.
In 2011, the Karthala catalogue contained some 2200 titles. It is mainly composed of human, political and social sciences. Early publications focused on Africa, the Maghreb, the Arab world, Islam, Latin America, and the countries of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The quarterly journal Politique africaine was also launched at this time. Literary studies, travel books, and collections of folktales have also present from the start as well as a series of dictionaries and other linguistic studies.
During the 1990s, Karthala expanded and diversified its catalogue to included Asia, Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Topical series have been created (including series on World Medicine, Childhood, International Research, and contemporary Christianity). Karthala currently publishes around 120 new titles a year.
In 2014, Xavier Audrain became director of Karthala.
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