UNESCO hosts a global policy forum on disaster risk reduction for preserving documentary heritage


In a first for the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme, about 60 experts drawn from multiple disciplinary backgrounds met at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris during the Organization’s inaugural edition of the MoW Global Policy Forum on documentary heritage.

Held on 11 December 2018 under the theme "Disaster Risk Reduction and Management for Sustainable Preservation of Documentary Heritage,"  the forum aimed to draw attention to disaster risk reduction as a strategic framework for conceptualizing and elaborating policies and strategies to combat against natural and man-made disasters.

In his welcome remarks, Moez Chakchouk, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, told the gathering that the event aimed to provide a platform for discussing disaster risk and how memory institutions, working together with their governments, affected communities and other stakeholders, could address it.

He emphasized: “This is all the more important given the fact that despite the storage conditions for documentary heritage generally improving, significant collections and archival holdings continue to be lost, especially due to inevitable natural disasters. In general, the loss of documentary heritage may not be as visible as that of immovable cultural properties or artistic masterpieces. That is the gap that this Global Policy Forum aims to fill by using the notion of disaster risk reduction to discuss the hazards that all too often face documentary heritage and the memory institutions that hold it.”

Ms Kirsi Madi, Director for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, gave the keynote address, highlighting how the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction could be used to support appropriate responses to the hazards facing documentary heritage and the memory institutions that store it. In particular, Madi stressed the need to identify and analyze risk to natural and man-made hazards for documentary heritage, share experiences, lessons learned, good practices and training and education on disaster risk reduction as well as develop an awareness campaign to increase cooperation among existing documentary heritage networks.

The President of the National Archives of Japan,  Takeo Kato, also addressed the gathering, highlighting the importance of documentary heritage and its significance for sustainable development. Also in attendance both as experts in their own right and as representatives of the MoW Programme’s International Advisory Committee (IAC) were Dietrich Shüller and Rita Tjien Fooh, who is also the rapporteur of the IAC Bureau.

The participants later heard from a diverse ensemble of other speakers. Among the issues on which several experts presented papers were:

  • An overview of disasters and the impact they have had on documentary heritage, including how stakeholders, such as experts, communities, governments, etc., responded to such disasters.  Here, speakers included Daisuke Sato who shared his experience during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 and Abdel Kader Haidara who was awarded the 2018 UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize for his effort in the preservation and restoration of Timbuktu manuscripts in Mali.
  • An analysis of the technical aspects of preserving documentary heritage damaged as a result of natural or man-made disasters, with speakers such as Eugenio Veca who shared safeguarding measures for Italian archives and libraries in emergency situations and  Andy Corrigan who shared his insights into the emergency management system and disaster recovery plan adopted for his library after Hurricane Katrina in the United States.
  • Documenting disaster as action research for awareness raising and community engagement, where speakers included Hidenori Watanave and Anju Niwata who shared digital technologies integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) innovation for archiving memories of disasters in Japan as well as Lothar Jordan who highlighted the need to archive memory on disasters, including how to archive such memory for effective use in society.

In summing up the discussions, Fackson Banda, Programme Specialist responsible for the MoW Programme in the Knowledge Societies Division of UNESCO, informed the delegates that the Global Policy Forum provided an opportunity to incorporate disaster risk literacy into Member States’ reporting on their implementation of the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form.  He emphasized that the MoW Programme was repositioning itself to better respond to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, partly by coordinating a shared global analysis among diverse expert networks, including the International Council on Archives (ICA), the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and others, of how documentary heritage preservation could benefit from existing international development agreements.

The Global Policy Forum was supported by Japan as part of a three-year Funds in Trust project on “Preservation of Documentary Heritage Through Policy Development and Capacity-Building”. This is the first of what will become a yearly event, focusing on a strategically important aspect of documentary heritage.

UNESCO launched the MoW Programme in 1992 to guard against collective amnesia through the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world. In so doing, the programme also ensures wider access to such heritage. 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 universal access to, such documentary heritage.