UNESCO engages African memory institutions on their response to Covid-19

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About 60 experts from African memory and academic institutions participated in a virtual regional consultation aimed at gauging their responses to Covid-19. Held on 29 April 2020, the event was organized by the UNESCO Regional Office in Dakar in partnership with the African Regional Committee for the Memory of the World (ARCMoW).

Organized within the framework of the Memory of the World Programme, the consultation is aligned with UNESCO's various interventions against the pandemic. More specifically, it provided a space for reflection on the role memory institutions can play during and after the pandemic. The participants were invited to share their experiences and engage in in-depth reflection on effective short-, medium- and long-term responses likely to support countries in their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Echoing the recent public statement in which UNESCO and its partners invited Member States to seize the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to support documentary heritage, Mr Dimitri Sanga, Director of the UNESCO Regional Office for West Africa-Sahel, noted that "even if in several African countries national responses to the pandemic have made little mention of the preservation of information, it is no less critical and cannot be achieved without the institutions of memory".

In his view, "future generations' understanding of the pandemic will depend on the documentary and digital heritage duly preserved".

This view was shared by Mr Papa Momar Diop, Vice-President of ARCMoW, who stressed the importance of memory preservation and its accessibility to foster research.

The consultation was punctuated by several interventions made by experts from memory and academic institutions. Prof. Bunmi Alegbeleye of Babcock University, in his inaugural presentation, recalled the different options available to memory institutions to tackle the pandemic. He stressed their potential to create conditions for fostering research and access to knowledge on pandemics.

Following the same line of argument, Ms Phyllis Johnson of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (Zimbabwe) argued that the response of memory institutions is crucial not only for this pandemic but also for all other disasters that are striking the continent. According to her, “Disasters will strike, but it is preparedness and response that counts, and therefore documentation and sharing of experiences [...] Preserving the memory of these experiences is essential to inform future responses and support emerging solutions”.

Oya Rieger (Ithaka S+R) and Dina Youssef (Bibliotheca Alexandrina), in their interventions, revisited some initiatives carried out by both traditional memory institutions and new actors (e.g. Internet Archive, Public Source, etc.) in response to the pandemic.

Some participants used the opportunity to share their own initiatives. Ms. Cécile Coulibaly of the Virtual Library of Higher Education and Scientific Research of Côte d'Ivoire explained how her institution has focused on digitization of theses and dissertation from national universities, which are now freely accessible online.

The consultation also tackled such other issues as:

  • digital preservation, which continues to be an expensive and complicated process, in particular at the institutional level;
  • technological integration to improve online access to documentary and digital heritage;
  • relevance of monitoring systems and principles guiding the choice of what to preserve;
  • importance of experience sharing between countries to build lasting collaborations;
  • importance of investing in capacity building and the development of infrastructure and preservation tools;
  • need for adequate institutional policies, measures and means to prepare for future uncertainties; etc.

The consultation was also an opportunity for Mr Fackson Banda, Head of UNESCO’s Documentary Heritage Unit, to present a UNESCO perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on memory institutions and the Organization’s response.

The Documentary Heritage Unit manages the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme. Set up in 1992, the MoW Programme aims to identify documentary heritage of world and historical significance, ensure its preservation, and promote universal access to it.