Memory of the World: Documenting against collective amnesia

Medieval Icelandic vellum manuscripts in typical wooden bindings - © The Arnamagnaean Institute

We cannot construct our future, if we are unaware of our past. This conviction is the driving force of UNESCO’s International Conference on Preservation and Digitization, which will seek to develop strategies for preserving our heritage, now increasingly documented online, from 26 to 28 September 2012 in Vancouver (Canada).

As digital technology has become the primary means of knowledge creation and transmission, the vulnerability of documentary heritage in digital form is a major source of concern. All it takes is a few clicks to summon before one’s eyes an infinite number of testaments to humanity’s past, such as documents, sound recordings, films, videos, and photos. Yet in the digital age, a computer glitch or virus could just as easily delete this content, causing historical memory to fade into amnesia.

What are the challenges of preserving digitized documents? Sometimes the materials are too fragile to be successfully digitized. Government policies giving low priority to digitization could mean inadequate budgetary resources, untrained staff or non-maintenance of digital files across software and hardware upgrades. Most often, finances are the main obstacle.

© Ministry of Culture, Morocco
Kitab al-ibar, wa diwan al-mobtadae wa al-khabar Manuscript.

For Jonas Palm, who heads the Department of Preservation at the Swedish National Archives: “In the excitement about the solutions digitization offers, the right questions about costs are often not asked, especially about long-term costs for keeping the digital files alive.” It is difficult to assess digitization costs but on average one third of budgets will be spent on digitization whereas the other two thirds will be spent on organizing materials, indexing and making it accessible. Long-term preservation of digitized objects is a permanent additional cost factor.

What type of maintenance is involved once our heritage is digitized? According to Mr Palm, ‘Whatever strategy one chooses to follow, the essential point to consider before undertaking large-scale digitization is the level of long-term financial commitment that can realistically be secured and to develop a preservation strategy accordingly. Estimations of costs that cover all aspects should be part of the planning process to limit the risk that a project ends up as yet another digital black hole, as so many others have done’.

Inadequate funds can seriously endanger digital preservation efforts. For example, the Latin American Newsreels, produced weekly from 1960 to 1990, provide the most comprehensive existing record of the Cuban Revolution. They are rich with historical perspective on global bipolarization during the Cold War, as well as the independence wars of African colonies and popular uprisings. The Cinemateca de Cuba (Cuban Cinema Library) took charge of duplicating the films that it considered important, subtitling and distributing them to other Latin American film archives. An electricity shortage in the 1990s deprived the Cinemateca of the means to carry on what had become a daily battle to preserve moving images in tropical countries and to make them widely accessible. Historically important images like those chronicling Che Guevara’s journey to the Republic of Congo remain in danger of becoming lost forever.

© AFF Basel, CH / AFS Amsterdam, NL
Anne Frank's first diary

Though vital for transmitting humanity’s past to future generations, a digital copy can never fully capture or replace the original. Nothing indicts racism more damningly than the court papers of the Rivonia Trial that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid.

Few rebuttals of Holocaust negationism are as elegant or devastating as the pink-checkered notebook of Anne Frank’s Diary. Originals are vessels of timeless wisdom, informing our quest for a peaceful, sustainable future.

Memory of the World Register - Photo Gallery

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