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What is documentary heritage?


For UNESCO, a document is “that which records something with a deliberate intellectual purpose”.  A document is considered to have two components: the informational content and the support in which it is recorded. Both elements can have a large variety of forms and are equally important parts of memory.

Produced within the framework of human activity, documents can be symbols of and have features relevant to the collective memory of a community, nation, region or society. Through their support and content, documents reflect the diversity of peoples, cultures and languages, and become part of the heritage of humanity.

According to the guidelines of the Memory of the World Programme – which is in charge of the heritage housed in museums, archives and libraries around the world -, the definition of documentary heritage includes the following elements:

  • mobile
  • consisting of signs/codes, sounds and/or images
  • can be conserved (the supports are inert elements)
  • can be reproduced and transported
  • is the result of a deliberate documentation process.

© Archivo General de la Nación, México – Códices del Marquesado de Oaxaca.

These characteristics exclude elements that are part of a fixed structure (such as a building or natural site), objects in which the signs/codes are secondary in terms of their function or pieces considered to be “originals” cannot be reproduced, such as artwork.

It must be mentioned that although the “document” concept is universal, it is well-known that some cultures have more “documentary” practices than others. For this reason, UNESCO has other programmes to protect intangible and oral heritage. See Intangible Heritage.

Currently, the debate regarding documentary heritage has found a new focus in digital heritage, understood as unique resources that are the result of the knowledge or expression of human beings that often has no physical support, but rather a digital one. The complexity of their preservation lies in the fact that their supports are transient and their conservation requires specific work in this sense in the production, maintenance and management processes.

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