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A UNESCO Expert Meeting on Digital Preservation Challenges held in Paris this week

UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division convened a Consultative meeting of experts, jointly with the International Council on Archives (ICA), the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, which took place on 20 and 21 April 2015, at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

The 45 experts, from 17 countries, representing memory institutions from countries, the IT community and the academia, explored the establishment of a multi-stakeholder platform for the discussion of digitization practices, digital heritage selection policies, standardization and digital heritage preservation involving all relevant stakeholders.

In his welcome remarks, the Director of the Knowledge Societies Division, Mr Indrajit Banerjee, stressed that “The issue of long term preservation and accessibility of digital heritage is a professional issue for all those involved in the creation, dissemination and management of knowledge to make sure that the information they deal with can be available for future generations.” He emphasized that “It is also a development issue for the society to guarantee that the accumulated knowledge could be utilized in the future to promote further progress”.

At the opening session, Ms Chafica Hadad, Chair of the intergovernmental Council of the Information for All Programme (IFAP), pointed out that one of the major objectives of IFAP is “to promote and widen access to information in the public domain through the organization, digitization and preservation of information, as well as to promote the use of international standards and best practices at local, national, regional and international levels.”

UNESCO launched the PERSIST Project in order to foster a high-level policy dialogue among heritage institutions, governments and ICT-industry on digital heritage preservation under the aegis of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. In order to achieve this objective, participants first took stock of various digital preservation activities underway, reviewed existing selection policies for digital heritage and discussed potential solution-oriented approaches to long term digital preservation, towards establishment of a Global Repository for Heritage Software with relevant ICT industry partners. The experts worked in three working groups, namely a Content Task Force, a Technology Task Force and a Policy Task Force.

The Technology Task Force discussed the complexities of the digital environment including the vulnerability of digital documentary heritage to loss and destruction because of it being stored on fragile magnetic and optical media that deteriorate rapidly and that can fail easily from exposure to heat, humidity, or faulty reading and writing devices. Unlike the situation that applies to books, digital archiving requires relatively frequent investments to overcome rapid obsolescence introduced by technological change. In response to all these, the task force developed the concept of the Global Repository which is conceived as part of the gap analysis that highlighted the need to preserve software alongside the content. The Technology Task Force has therefore embarked onto a mission to create an international bank of legacy software.

The Content Task Force debated the issues related to selection of digital content for long term digital preservation which is one of the pressing issues currently faced by heritage institutions. Out of the massive amount of content available in a digital format, it has to be evaluated what needs to be preserved for future generations. Up to now there is no decisive method for selecting digital content and heritage institutions need to rethink their selection criteria from an analogue method to a digital one. In order to help public memory institutions with the emerging and ever changing environment and the resulting challenges, the Content task force will develop a set of Guidelines for the selection of digital heritage for long term preservation which will give institutions from all domains (Library, Archive and Museum) a starting point to thinking about their digital selection policy for long term access.

The Policy Task Force - Through its standard setting function, UNESCO aims to assist its Member States in formulating appropriate policies for effective management of their digital heritage. It is in this context that the Policy Task force discussed issues related to existing standards, policies and sustainability. The benefits of having a digital preservation policy in place include assisting with planning of a coherent digital preservation program and publicly indicating that the organization is serious about digital preservation. A digital preservation policy also states the mandate for an archive to support the preservation of digital records through a structured and managed digital preservation strategy. The policy details why selected material needs to be preserved; the strategy defines how this will be implemented.

Both the policy and the strategy are essential to ensure there is a verifiable and trusted means of preserving the integrity of digital records.  The digital preservation policy also needs to identify how other policies such as the acquisition or collection policy should be applied to the collection and management of digital records the archives and libraries seek to preserve.

In the following months, UNESCO will continue its cooperation with ICA, IFLA, LIBER, Microsoft and other relevant partners to continue and intensify the work on development of solution-oriented approaches in the area of digital preservation through its three task forces.

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.