Digital heritage is made up of computer-based materials of enduring value that should be kept for future generations. Digital heritage emanates from different communities, industries, sectors and regions. Not all digital materials are of enduring value, but those that are require active preservation approaches if continuity of digital heritage is to be maintained.
Heritage is explained in UNESCO documents as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” A heritage is something that is, or should be, passed from generation to generation because it is valued.
The idea of cultural heritage is a familiar one: those sites, objects and intangible things that have cultural, historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value to groups and individuals. The concept of natural heritage is also very familiar: physical, biological, and geological features; habitats of plants or animal species and areas of value on scientific or aesthetic grounds or from the point of view of conservation.
Is there an emerging digital heritage?
According to the UNESCO’s Charter for the Preservation of Digital Heritage:
- Resources of human knowledge or expression, whether cultural, educational, scientific and administrative, or embracing technical, legal, medical and other kinds of information, are increasingly created digitally, or converted into digital form from existing analogue resources.
Where resources are "born digital", there is no other format but the digital original.
- Digital materials include texts, databases, still and moving images, audio, graphics, software, and web pages, among a wide and growing range of formats. They are frequently ephemeral, and require purposeful production, maintenance and management to be retained.
- Many of these resources have lasting value and significance, and therefore constitute a heritage that should be protected and preserved for current and future generations. This heritage may exist in any language, in any part of the world, and in any area of human knowledge or expression.
Using computers and related tools, humans are creating and sharing digital resources – information, creative expression, ideas, and knowledge encoded for computer processing - that they value and want to share with others over time as well as across space. This is evidence of a digital heritage. It is a heritage made of many parts, sharing many common characteristics, and subject to many common threats.
Definitions of heritage need to be seen in context. For example, UNESCO defines a world heritage made up of globally outstanding sites of cultural and natural value that should be preserved; many national and state legislatures also define their own national, regional or state heritage. However, heritage value may also be based on what is important at a group or community level. Heritage materials can exist well beyond the limits suggested by national legislation or international conventions. Anything that is considered important enough to be passed to the future can be considered to have heritage value of some kind.
This digital heritage is likely to become more important and more widespread over time. Increasingly, individuals, organisations and communities are using digital technologies to document and express what they value and what they want to pass on to future generations. New forms of expression and communication have emerged that did not exist previously. The Internet is one vast example of this phenomenon.
It is also likely that the development of tools to support greater multi-lingual and multi-script use of the Internet will lead to further rapid growth in digital heritage in parts of the world that are currently disadvantaged by the predominant use of English on the Internet.
Making sure this burgeoning digital heritage remains available is thus a global issue relevant to all countries and communities.