UNESCO session at the International Council on Archives Congress focused on digital documentary heritage

Girona City Council and its Municipal Archive hosted the 2nd Annual Conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA), which was held from 13 to 15 October 2014, in Girona, Spain. The event coincided with the celebration of the 9th European Conference on Archives (ECA), organized every four years by the European Branch of the International Council on Archives (EURBICA).

The events were grouped under a common title: Archives and Cultural Industries, in order to foster debate on a key issue for archives: the potential for the documentation that has been preserved in them to be a resource provider for the creation and consumption of culture and knowledge among the population.

Archives around the world house a tremendous amount of documentary heritage, such as textual, graphic, photographic and audiovisual documents that represent the collective memory of humanity. The digitization of collections of documents has allowed the creation of multiple cultural resources accessible through the Internet and other communication networks that can be a focal point of interest to consumers and businesses. There is a great potential of this documentation to meet the growing needs of consumers.

The congress participants discussed innovative strategies to be established in both the treatment and organization of documentation and its dissemination and exploitation, in legal ways that respect intellectual property rights, and which ultimately reassess the role of archives in the Knowledge Society.

The Conference discussions focused on these issues from three perspectives:

  • The perspective of content: How should collections of documents be organized, described, digitized and disseminated to facilitate access and enhance their heritage value;
  • The perspective of cultural industries: What aret the new businesses dealing with the creation and distribution of digital content and how can collaboration between the public and private sectors be articulated to advance business creation;
  • The perspective of general population: What are its interests and cultural consumption habits, and what future trends may arise.

The UNESCO-ICA session within the framework of the Congress, focused on the problem of preservation challenges of digital heritage. It is one of the challenging subjects within the PERSIST project (Platform to Enhance the Sustainability of the Information Society Transglobally),  an initiative of UNESCO, ICA, IFLA and other partners, which aims to enhance the sustainability and long-term accessibility of digital heritage. The project assumes that on these issues a high-level global policy discussion is needed between heritage institutions, industry and government, and that UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme is a unique platform that could facilitate this process. The idea for PERSIST was born at the Conference The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitisation and Preservation in Vancouver (September 2012).

The panellists pointed to the threat of obsolescence to digital information as being twofold, since there is a risk of obsolescence to both the hardware and the software. What increases that threat is the speed with which technology is changing. Another danger that threatens digital technology is cost. The preservation of digital material is a continual process, and to the initial cost of digitizing must be added additional costs for migrating data every five or ten years, if not more often. Another concern is the fact that too few professionals are still unaware of the economic burden of digital preservation in the overall management of their library. The need to preserve digital documents is of equal importance, and this essential work is now beginning to be taken seriously by the interested stakeholders.

Discussion focused also on electronic documents as being often considered as two distinct groups: digitized copies of original printed or written documents, and works which have no print original, often called born-digital works. The preservation policies concerning the two groups may be different, especially where the original document which has been digitized is also being preserved. On the other hand, born-digital works may also require special preservation measures as they are unique.

Panellists pointed out to migration of information as one of the preservation measures currently advocated to preserve electronic publications, but it raises technical challenges, together with problems of staff resources and financial implications.

The UNESCO representative, Ms Iskra Panevska from the Memory of the World Programme, stressed that “UNESCO’s interest in safeguarding, preserving and disseminating the world’s cultural and documentary heritage is as fundamental as its constitution with its mandate to contribute to building peace through the spread of knowledge. With regard to digital heritage, she went on to emphasize that “the need to safeguard this relatively new form of documentary heritage calls for international consensus on its collection, preservation and dissemination which resulted first in the adoption of the 2003 UNESCO Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage and the convening of the UNESCO Memory of the World in the Digital Age Vancouver conference in 2012.  More recently, on the request of its Member States, UNESCO has elaborated a draft Recommendation on preservation of, and access to documentary heritage, including in digital form. She added that “due to the ephemeral nature of digital information a continuous and active management for its long term preservation and accessibility is essential, and development of digital preservation best practices, methods, tools, systems, and infrastructural setup including trusted and sustainable digital repositories are required”.