UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme in 1992. Impetus came originally from a growing awareness of the parlous state of preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage in various parts of the world.War and social upheaval, as well as severe lack of resources, have worsened problems which have existed for centuries. Significant collections worldwide have suffered a variety of fates. Looting and dispersal, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate housing and funding have all played a part. Much as vanished forever; much is endangered. Happily, missing documentary heritage is sometimes rediscovered.
An International Advisory Committee (IAC) first met in Pultusk, Poland, in 1993. It produced an action plan which affirmed UNESCO's role as coordinator and catalyst to sensitize governments, international organizations and foundations, and foster partnerships for the implementation of projects. Technical and Marketing Sub-Committees were established. The preparation of General Guidelines for the Programme was initiated through a contract with IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), together with the compilation, by IFLA and ICA (International Council on Archives), of lists of irreparably damaged library collections and archive holdings. Through its National Commissions, UNESCO prepared a list of endangered library and archive holdings and a world list of national cinematic heritage.
Meanwhile, a range of pilot projects employing contemporary technology to reproduce original documentary heritage on other media was commenced. (These included, for example, a CD-ROM of the 13th Century Radzivill Chronicle, tracing the origins of the peoples of Europe, and Memoria de Iberoamerica, a joint newspaper microfilming project involving seven Latin American countries). These projects enhanced access to this documentary heritage and contributed to its preservation.
IAC meetings have since been held every two years. Several National Memory of the World National Committees have been established around the world.
The Memory of the World Register - in some ways the most publicly visible aspect of the Programme - was founded on the 1995 General Guidelines and has grown through accessions approved by successive IAC meetings.