Enhancing the preservation of documentary heritage in Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa countries are home to an extraordinary cultural and documentary heritage, both secular and religious, which is of critical importance to the entire world. A contribution to the history of humanity, this rich heritage represents an enormous capacity to inspire the development of the region’s countries. However, many of the unique heritage collections, manuscripts and historically significant records, which have survived neglect and disasters, are scattered across different institutions and remain at risk of loss, decay, inappropriate storage, pollution and political instability.

Within this context, UNESCO and the National Commission of Lebanon for UNESCO organized a three-day regional training workshop for French-speaking Arab countries, which opened on 20 April 2015 at the UNESCO Office in Beirut. The workshop, convened in the framework of the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme, seeks to promote preservation of, and access to the region’s unique archival holdings and library collections. This strategic activity also aims to encourage and support local efforts to identify, develop and submit new proposals for consideration and inscription on the Memory of the World Register. This will make many valuable historical collections accessible to the general public, which is critical to ensuring the survival of the Middle East and North Africa unique documentary heritage.

The Memory of the World workshop was opened by Prof. Zahida Jabbour, Secretary-General of the National Commission of Lebanon for UNESCO, who also read a welcome message to the participants by H.E. Raymond Araygi, Minister of Culture.  Mr Sulieman Sulieman welcomed the participants on behalf of the Director of the UNESCO Beirut Office,  Dr Hamed Al-Hammami. Opening remarks were also delivered by Ms Iskra Panevska, UNESCO’s officer in charge of the Memory of the World Programme. In her welcome remarks, Ms Chafica Haddad, Chair of the Intergovernmental Council of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) extended, on behalf of the IFAP Bureau and Council, her warm greetings to all participants and experts attending this important regional event. “Through its information preservation priority area, IFAP has been focusing attention, over the last years, on the fragility of new data storage media and the threat this presents to the ability of future generations to access digital knowledge. IFAP has also been raising awareness, building the capacity of information professionals, supporting international cooperation and contributing to policy responses aimed at promoting the development and implementation of digital preservation techniques and standards,” she said.

The capacity building workshop in Beirut brings together representatives from eight Middle East and North Africa countries (Algeria, Djibouti, the Comoros Islands, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Oman), and 22 national participants from Lebanon, as well as two international experts, Ms Frederique Bazzoni, a member of UNESCO’s MoW Register Sub-committee, and Mr Abdelaziz Abid, former Head of the Memory of the World Programme.

The workshop interactive sessions offered to participants an overview of UNESCO’s heritage programmes, in general, and the functioning of the Memory of the World Programme, in particular. The participants acquired practical skills and knowledge on how to use the MoW Register Companion, to identify and select items for nomination, to use the selection criteria, and what to do in case if their nomination is rejected. They got acquainted with some past examples of inscriptions on the Register and with the significance of establishing national and regional MoW committees. The training also focused on the crucial role of the Memory of the World Register in increasing global awareness about the existence and the significance of documentary heritage.

Participants discussed, among other things, the establishment of an Arab Regional Memory of the World Committee as a cooperation mechanism, which would also encourage further training within the region, initiate and manage specific projects and build a regional network of experts on documentary heritage preservation.

UNESCO launched the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 to guard against collective amnesia calling upon the preservation of the valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world ensuring their wide dissemination. The Programme vision is that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance. The Programme is thus intended to protect documentary heritage, and to help networks of experts to exchange information and raise resources for the preservation of, and the access to, documentary and archival collections of valuable records.