Background

A large part of the vast amounts of information produced in the world is born digital, and comes in a wide variety of formats: text, database, audio, film, image. For cultural institutions traditionally entrusted with collecting and preserving cultural heritage, the question has become extremely pressing as to which of these materials should be kept for future generations, and how to go about selecting and preserving them. This enormous trove of digital information produced today in practically all areas of human activity and designed to be accessed on computers may well be lost unless specific techniques and policies are developed to conserve it.

Preserving this information poses new problems. If such material is to be accessed in its original form, technical equipment – original or compatible hardware and software - must be maintained alongside the digital files that make up the data concerned. In many cases, the multimedia components of websites, including Internet links, represents additional difficulty in terms of copyright and geography, sometimes making it difficult to determine which country a website belongs to. 

UNESCO has been examining these issues with a view to defining a standard to guide governments’ preservation endeavours in the digital age. The General Conference adopted Resolution 34 at its 31st session, drawing attention to the ever growing digital heritage in the world and the need for an international campaign to safeguard endangered digital memory. The General Conference also invited the Director-General to prepare a discussion paper for the 2001 Spring session of the Executive Board containing elements of a charter on the preservation of born-digital documents, as well as to encourage the governmental and nongovernmental organizations and international, national and private institutions to ensure that preservation of the digital heritage be given high priority at the national policy level. 

During the meeting of the Organization’s Executive Board in May 2001, Member States agreed on the need for rapid action to safeguard digital heritage. 

The complexity of the problems involved means that the task of preservation must involve producers of digital information, including software, who should take conservation into consideration as they design their products. Obviously the days are gone when preservation was the sole responsibility of archival institutions. 

Co-operation, guidance, leadership and sharing of tasks are all key elements for preservation of digital heritage. Cultural institutions need the co-operation of creators of information and of software producers. Adequate resources and support at policy level are indispensable to ensure that future generations continue to have access to the wealth of digital resources in whose creation we have invested so much over the past decades. 

Based on the above findings, UNESCO has developed a strategy for the promotion of digital preservation. This strategy is centred on:

  1. a wide consultation process with governments, policy makers, producers of information, heritage institutions and experts, the software industry as well as standard-setting organisations;
  2. dissemination of technical guidelines;
  3. implementation of pilot projects and;
  4. and preparation of a draft charter on the preservation of digital heritage for adoption by the General Conference at its 32nd session. 

The guidelines for the preservation were prepared for UNESCO under contract with the National Library of Australia. This document introduces general and technical guidelines for the preservation and continuing accessibility of the ever growing digital heritage of the world. This document is intended to be a companion volume of the Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage. 

Colin Webb and the National Library of Australia have organized the Regional Consultation Meeting on the Preservation of Digital Heritage for Asia and the Pacific, held in Canberra, Australia, 4-6 November 2002. This was the first of a series of similar regional consultation meetings held in Managua, Nicaragua, 18- 20 November 2002; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 9-11 December 2002; Riga, Latvia, 18-20 December 2002; and Budapest, Hungary, 17-18 March 2003. 

These regional meetings were attended by a total of some 175 experts from 86 countries, representing a wide range of stakeholders and disciplines including libraries and archives, Internet service providers, national standardization agencies, software and hardware industry representatives, journalists, lawyers, universities and government authorities. They all contributed useful comments on the Guidelines and the Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage.

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