The UNESCO Memory of the World Programme is celebrating its 30th Anniversary in October and November 2022 with the theme, Enlisting documentary heritage to promote inclusive, just and peaceful societies.

IFLA contributed to a Commemorative Statement on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary, which embraces the theme: “Your window to the world: Enlisting documentary heritage to promote inclusive, just and peaceful societies”.

Read the statement here: The 30th anniversary of the Memory of the World Programme: a commemorative statement.

Interview with the UNESCO Documentary Heritage Unit

This interview with Dr. Fackson Banda, Chief, Documentary Heritage Unit, Communication and Information Sector at UNESCO, looks ahead to the future of the Memory of the World programme and how libraries may get involved.

Question 1: How does UNESCO’s work on documentary heritage fit into its broader mission and relate to the theme of the MoW Programme’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, “enlisting documentary heritage to promote inclusive, just and peaceful societies”?

UNESCO works to create inclusive knowledge societies and empower local communities by increasing access to, preservation and sharing of information and knowledge in all of the Organization’s fields of work.

As defined by the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form, a document is an object comprising analogue or digital informational content and the carrier on which it resides. For its part, documentary heritage comprises those single documents – or groups of documents – of significant and enduring value to a community, a culture, a country or to humanity generally, and whose deterioration or loss would be a harmful impoverishment.

In this sense, information and knowledge include documentary heritage. An essential part of humanity’s collective memory, documentary heritage helps us learn from the past; whether it be contributing to building more equitable, inclusive and sustainable societies or helping us tackle current crises with information on past responses.

Documentary heritage, as an information resource, lends itself both to the “public access to information” component of Target of 16.10 of SDG 16 and its “fundamental freedoms” component. Since UNESCO is the UN custodian agency for Target 16.10, the theme of the 30th Anniversary Celebration is very relevant to UNESCO’s work on documentary heritage and fit into its broader mission.

With respect to the theme of the celebration, while the question of ensuring universal access to documentary heritage remains a foundational concern, there is a strong focus on how documentary heritage can be used to promote inclusive, just and peaceful societies.

This speaks to one of the central concerns of the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation, namely “the importance of documentary heritage to promote the sharing of knowledge for greater understanding and dialogue, in order to promote peace and respect for freedom, democracy, human rights and dignity.” In this respect, the 2015 Recommendation also embraces the idea that “… the preservation of, and long-term accessibility to documentary heritage underpins fundamental freedoms of opinion, expression, and information as human rights.”

Question 2: In light of the celebration of 30 years of the Memory of the World Programme – where does the programme stand and what’s coming up?

Over the last 30 years, thanks to our collaboration with partners, the Memory of the World Programme has achieved important milestones in ensuring that the world’s documentary heritage is preserved, protected, and accessible to all, while advocating for effective policy mechanisms and promoting cooperation at national and international levels.

These significant milestones include the inscription of over 400 documentary heritage items and collections from all over the world on the MoW International Register; the establishment of three MoW regional committees in the African, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean regions, along with national committees in 95 countries; as well as the establishment of the UNESCO International Centre for Documentary Heritage.

Initiatives in digital documentary heritage, such as “Software Source Code as Heritage” and “Platform to Enhance the Sustainability of the Information Society Transglobally” (PERSIST) are also progressing. The Programme has also been working to appropriate documentary heritage within the framework of disaster risk reduction for memory institutions. Reaching out to the younger generation, the Programme has embraced a strategy to introduce documentary heritage through educational materials, such as the Google Arts & Culture MoW platform, an e-Course for Teachers along with a lesson plan, an Interactive Calendar for children, and a children book.

Going forward, we will continue to build upon these achievements to i) ensure that documentary heritage is protected within memory institutions; ii) make it readily available and accessible to all in innovative ways; and iii) promote its use and re-use as a matter of fundamental freedoms, including to help predict and handle crises and emergencies.

Coming up on 21-22 November 2022, we will organize the 3rd Memory of the World Global Policy Forum focusing on “Enhancing International Cooperation to better Safeguard Documentary Heritage at Risk”. The event will be held in Tokyo, Japan, in a hybrid format, so we look forward to seeing you join us online (registration link).

Further in 2023, we will organize the Software Heritage Conference in February, and the 3rd Interregional Conference of the Memory of the World in Baku Azerbaijan in November.

Question 3: How can libraries get involved, and what benefits will this bring?

As a driving force for building knowledge societies, there are many opportunities for libraries to get involved in our work.

First, as part of their participation in the preservation of and access to documentary heritage, libraries can take part in monitoring the situation of documentary heritage preservation – locally or globally, spotting endangered areas facing difficulties due to technical and/or economic factors. This would contribute to efforts in resource mobilization, which would benefit them in return.

Second, libraries can actively participate in capacity development and knowledge-sharing through workshops organized by UNESCO and its partners such as IFLA, also taking into account various guidelines and resources developed by UNESCO. As it remains crucial for libraries to strengthen their capacity in digitizing and opening their collections under an open license to promote universal access to documentary heritage, UNESCO continues to support the OpenGLAM movement. In the Asia and Pacific region, for example, UNESCO is partnering with the Wikimedia Foundation, and this opens an opportunity for libraries in the region to take advantage from this important and interesting collaboration.

Third, libraries can be the key actor in their local communities to promote the importance and the use of this heritage. This can be done through various public events that discuss their collections and their relevance to the contemporary world. We have seen some examples of libraries who did such an effort recently as part of the 30th Anniversary of the MoW Programme. In doing so, libraries can embrace themes around marginalized groups, gender equality and socio-economic issues which promotes inclusive, just, and peaceful societies. As we know, these contemporary themes and others like migration, sustainability, democracy, diversity, peace, and reconciliation flow through our history preserved in documentary heritage. Libraries can bring people together to not only access such knowledge, but also inspire them to use and re-use the knowledge for the greater good. In turn, this will strengthen their positioning within their communities and beyond.

Lastly, libraries can help integrate documentary heritage in their collections into national cultural property protection frameworks, including in efforts to combat theft and illicit trafficking. They can also be proactive in identifying documentary heritage with world and historical significance in their countries that could be nominated for inscriptions to the MoW national, regional or international registers. Again, such a contribution can reinforce their positioning among their stakeholders, including policy makers, the academia, and the media.

Libraries remain at the heart of the MoW Programme. Over the past years, we have seen the concrete contributions of libraries to the safeguarding of documentary heritage, which we recognize through UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize. This year, UNESCO awarded the Prize to the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Libraries and Learning Technologies (LLT) in Egypt for the decades of preservation work carried out by its Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL). We look forward to seeing more libraries to become the Prize’s laureates in the future.