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UNESCO builds an international policy agenda for digital preservation of documentary heritage


Four key policy priorities for digital preservation came to the fore during a virtual policy dialogue organized by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme to draw attention to documentary heritage at risk. These included:


  • Protecting cultural identity at risk

  • Creating sustainable partnerships for preservation

  • Preventing loss of documentary heritage due to the rapid obsolescence of technology

  • Upholding enabling legal frameworks for effective functioning of memory institutions


Held on 27 October 2020, the event brought together an international line-up of experts and practitioners to analyse policy gaps and possible solutions in digital preservation. Over 800 participants joined the event via ZOOM and YouTube from all over the world. The event was split in two sessions to accommodate an international audience across different time zones.


UNESCO’s Deputy Director-General, Xing Qu, opened the event by underlining the fundamental significance of archival records, and UNESCO’s commitment to ensuring the preservation of and access to the world’s documentary heritage.

There is no history – no interrogation of the past by the present – without archives. Without archives, there is no memory, justice or reconciliation.

Xing Qu, UNESCO’s Deputy Director-General

In his keynote speech, David Fricker, the President of the International Council on Archives and Member of the MoW International Advisory Committee, reiterated the importance of digital preservation and singled out a number of “megatrends” which, if left untreated, could have grave implications for the future of memory institutions and documentary heritage as a whole.

Fricker highlighted the increasing spread of disinformation, short technology cycles, a blurring of traditional and non-traditional institutions as keepers of documentary heritage and the impact of natural and man-made disasters. These themes formed the context for discussing a digital preservation agenda from the perspective of cultural identity at risk, sustainability, technology and legal frameworks. 


Below are the key takeaways from each dialogue session.

Cultural identity at risk

Presenter: Ms Reena Tiwari, Curtin University, Australia
Dialogue contributors: Ms Te Paea Paringatai, Library Manager, the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Abdullah bin Salim bin Saeed Al-Hinai, Acting Head of the Reference Department at the Medical Library, Oman
Moderator: Ms Shubha Chaudhuri, Director of the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, India


  • It is paramount to recognise intangible cultural elements – stories and memories – as heritage. However, if not done correctly, this could potentially lead to the distortion of cultural elements and their place of origin. Questions around management and ownership of digitally preserved cultural heritage, its access and control are critical.
  • To balance the velocity, volume, veracity and variety of data that derives from indigenous people, and that is captured by non-indigenous memory institutions, appropriate indigenous data governance fit for purpose models must be developed and implemented to successfully enable effective indigenous data sovereignty.


Presenters: Mr Jeffrey van der Hoeven, National Library of the Netherlands; Ms Marcie Hopkins, British Library, United Kingdom
Dialogue contributors: Mr Gabriel Bunmi Alegbeleye, University of Ibadan, Nigeria; Ms Laila Hussein Moustafa, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, United States of America; Team ANRI (Mr Adhie Gesit Pambudi, Mr Dhani Sugiharto and Mr Prasetyo Utomo), National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia
Moderator: Mr Robert Buckley, Technical Adviser at the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates


  • Sustainability is not a technological challenge but an organisational one. Given the volume and diversity of digital collections which are becoming the most prominent reflection of heritage in the modern world, a paradigm shift from institutional thinking towards organisational networks is needed. These networks share knowledge and services from which they can all benefit.
  • Sustainability means being open to ongoing transformational activity. Through collaborative partnerships, organisations can learn to adapt, grow and innovate to achieve long-lasting and positive change. A focus on people at the heart of institutional collaborations is essential to ensuring sustainable and thriving partnerships in the long-term.


Presenters: Mr Günther Cyranek and Mr Felix Gross, Archive Digitalization, Cyranek ICT4D, Germany; Mr Dietrich Schüller, Preservation Sub-Committee of the UNESCO MoW International Advisory Committee
Dialogue contributors: Ms Yolia Tortolero Cervantes, Independent Consultant, Mexico; Ms Amanda Harris, Director of the PARADISEC Sydney Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia; Mr Frédéric Marie, President of FIAF, Director of the Cinémathèque Suisse, Switzerland
Moderator: Mr Robert Buckley, Technical Adviser at the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates


  • It is important to facilitate affordable digitization to avoid costly outsourcing solutions. Digitizing with full-chip cameras offers professional standards for different formats, such as photos, slides, posters, negative on glass, books, posters, etc. A special Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) can be developed for memory institutions to enhance their in-house capacity for both digitization processes and the design of web presence of digitized collections.
  • Magnetic tape recordings, which are the primary sources of our knowledge about the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity, risk disappearing forever. They can only be safeguarded by digital content migration – separating contents from the original, albeit obsolete carriers, and transferring them to safe digital repositories. For this, the availability of required equipment is key. The number of machines for the variety of magnetic tape formats is rapidly shrinking: 2025 is widely assumed to be the point beyond which a regular transfer of magnetic tape contents to digital repositories will become impossible. Audio-visual archives require more financial resources and capacity-building to achieve this in time.

Legal Frameworks

Presenter: Mr Eric Chin, General Counsel, National Library Board, Singapore
Dialogue contributors: Ms Maria Soledad Abarca, Head of the Photographic and Audiovisual Collections National Library of Chile; Mr Maximiliaan Scriwanek, Director of National Archives, Curaçao
Moderator: Moderator: Ms Ingrid Parent, University Librarian Emerita, The University of British Columbia, Canada


  • An international consensus is needed on how to balance the diverse legitimate interests of rightsholders with the need to preserve digital documentary heritage, to enable the creativity, innovation, research and learning that it will bring about. For this, an enabling copyright law is needed, which can allow archives to “copy for public good”.
  • Digitized cultural heritage needs a renewed “principle of provenance”. Custodianship of digitized heritage should follow the general provenance rules of its original. The original custodian should be responsible for its lifecycle and dissemination. A “provenance trail” may be needed for any user to make an independent judgement about the authenticity and reliability of digital content.


The dialogue sessions culminated in a lock note, during which the Head of the Documentary Heritage Unit at UNESCO, Fackson Banda, provided an intergovernmental framework for the discussions by analysing the national reports submitted by 38 Member States on their implementation of the 2015 Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form.

Banda stressed the need to uphold the Member States’ pre-COVID-19 pandemic commitment to investing in memory institutions and enhancing their preservation capacities. He also highlighted the need to distinguish documentary heritage from other forms of heritage in national legislative frameworks. Representatives from the International Council on Archives and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions – David Fricker and Helen Vincent respectively – also provided perspectives based on their institutional mandates.

The Policy Dialogue will be followed up by a report, detailing key messages and policy recommendations, which will be published in the coming months. The report will be produced by the MoW Preservation Sub-Committee and will subsequently feed into the 2nd MoW Global Policy Forum on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management for Sustainable Preservation of Documentary Heritage, scheduled for 2021.

The event was associated with the celebration of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage and organized by UNESCO’s MoW Programme through the Preservation Sub-Committee of the Programme’s International Advisory Committee (IAC) and in partnership with the Information for All (IFAP) Information Preservation Working Group.