Protecting and Preserving the World’s Digital Cultural Heritage

CIRI Blog

Published: October 14, 2012 by Dr. Pat Franks

The Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, the most famous library and cultural center of the ancient world, was constructed in the 3rd century BC and charged with collecting and sharing the world’s knowledge. In its quest to become an international library, it acquired an impressive collection of books from beyond the country’s borders. It served as a research institution that contained works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and the natural sciences. An estimated 400,000 to 700,000 parchment scrolls were said to be stored in the library, adjacent museum, and the Serapeum, a temple and daughter library. Although historians cannot confirm the events surrounding the destruction of the library, what we do know is that works written by the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world—including Plato, Socrates, and Ptolemy—were lost to future generations.

Digital Amnesia Threatening Today’s Digital Cultural Heritage

Today, libraries, archives, and museums are also repositories of history, knowledge, and culture that must be preserved. But much of today’s information is either born digital or digitized to provide greater access to the public. Like the Library of Alexandria, these holdings are at risk to a variety of natural and man-made disasters. But a more pervasive, less obvious danger threatens our world’s digital cultural heritage than threatened that of the classical world—digital amnesia.

Digital amnesia, also known as digital obsolescence, occurs when a digital source can no longer be read because of constant technological advancement compromising the availability of the information or when context (metadata) is missing, compromising information integrity and authenticity. Organizations and governments around the world are engaged in a battle against digital amnesia.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Takes a Lead in Mitigating Threats to our Digital Heritage

In 2003, in keeping with its charge of ensuring the preservation and universal accessibility of the world’s documentary knowledge, UNESCO released a Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage.[i] The Charter identified digital heritage as consisting of born digital and digitized objects including text, databases, still and moving images, audio, graphics, software, and web pages. It identified the threat of loss and made a call for action to member states.

However, despite the adoption of the 2003 UNESCO Charter, insufficient progress has been made to mitigate the risks of loss of the World’s digital heritage. Therefore, more than 500 individuals and representatives of institutions, both public and private, came together from across the globe on September 26, 2012, to devote three days to discuss strategies that can contribute to greater protection of the world’s digital assets. The conference, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation, explored the main issues affecting the preservation of digital documentary heritage.[ii] It was my honor to be among the participants.

Highlights of the Conference

Each of the three days began with plenary sessions presented by international leaders that set the tone for the remainder of the day. Presenters included Ken Thibodeau of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, Rüdiger Klein of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Dietrich Schüller of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Representatives of industry also participated in the plenary sessions, including Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archives, Vinton Cerf of Google, and Jeanne Sheldon of Microsoft.

Workshop topics included Metadata and formats for digitization and digital preservation, Refining the framework of digital forensics, Preservation and conservation of heritage in the Caribbean, and Building a legal framework to facilitate long-term preservation of digital heritage.

The UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration

It is not often that one comes away from a conference with a sense of “collective” accomplishment. Most of us gather information that educates us as individuals or that can be brought back to our institutions to inform others. But the UNESCO conference was unique in that the final session of the three days brought all of us together to provide input into the UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration. This document presents the key factors discussed by the more than 500 participants from 110 countries over the course of the conference and makes recommendations to UNESCO’s Director-General. The recommendations fall into four categories: recommendations for UNESCO itself, recommendations for Member States, recommendations for professional organizations, and recommendations for industry.

How you can become involved

Read the article, Memory of the World: Documenting against collective memory, that provides rationale for this conference.

Download the UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, read it, and send your comments and/or observations directly to UNESCO by Friday, October 19th.


[i] UNESCO, Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage, accessed at http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17721&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html on October 13, 2012.

[ii] UNESCO, Communication and Information, The Memory of the World in the Digital age: Digitization and Preservation, accessed at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/events/calendar-of-events/events-websites/the-memory-of-the-world-in-the-digital-age-digitization-and-preservation/ on October 13, 2012.