On 4 June 2018, IFLA attended the opening sessions of the General Assembly to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at the UNESCO HQ in Paris, France along with decision makers, NGOs and other stakeholders from the cultural heritage field.
When explaining IFLA’s work on cultural heritage issues and libraries, the most common thing that people seem to think of is ancient manuscripts and old books. Manuscripts and books are easy to relate to, and most people understand the need to preserve them in order to preserve our history.
It is harder though when explaining the need for safeguarding and preservation of intangible cultural heritage, because what is it really, why protect living heritage and what can libraries do?
Before going to Paris, it felt necessary to do some homework, to get to grips with intangible cultural heritage and the role of libraries, to be able to answer those questions, as well as convince others.
What exactly is Intangible Cultural Heritage?
Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) can be defined as the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities or groups recognizes as part of their cultural heritage. This could be knowledge about the environment, a dance, music or even cooking.
As the name suggests, it can’t be touched, so it’s not books, records, sculptures or paintings. But this doesn’t make it any less important to people in their daily lives. Unlike more ‘formal’ culture, it is not necessarily so easy to collect and preserve for the future. Too often, it is not even regarded as culture, meaning that it risks being neglected.
In 2003 UNESCO therefore adopted a new international convention: the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The aim of this Convention is to secure a sustainable future for practices, traditions, skills and rituals passed down over generations. The Convention has been recognised around the world and 177 countries have ratified it in just 15 years!
Why protect living heritage?
UNESCO has noted that ICH is extremely vulnerable, and there are unfortunately many examples of intangible cultural heritage at risk, or even already lost. ICH has been threatened by globalisation, commercialisation and individualisation, and UNESCO as well as many NGOs and other organisations are eager to ensure that ICH and cultural diversity are safeguarded around the globe.
What can libraries do?
Generally, initiatives for safeguarding ICH include identification and documentation. Indeed, this may often be the first step in the process – the development of records, or an inventory. This is a natural strength of libraries.
So one of the best ways of understanding the role of libraries is by showcasing some of the great examples of collections from around the world. Libraries can make people and their heritage visible and help them pass it on to future generations.
Like the National Library of Sri Lanka whose ICH collection includes Sinhalese folklore, tales, legends, customs and ceremonies and other parts of the culture that can be recorded, but not touched.
Or the National Library of Australia which has pledged to enrich the cultural life of Australia by collecting, preserving and protecting records of the oral history with interviews, records of music and environmental sounds.
Or CERDOTOLA in Cameroun which has programmes focusing on preserving African languages, arts and food.
The list is long, these libraries are just a few of many who contributes to the safeguarding and preservation of ICH. All are also members of IFLA’s network of Preservation and Conservation Centres.
Governments should be supporting libraries in this work!
The Convention itself requires Member States to establish documentation institutions for ICH and facilitating access to them (Article 13). This is an important point for the library community, which can draw on government commitments in advocacy work.
In the General Assembly, several Member States highlighted the importance of capacity building and getting experts and NGOs involved. The Secretariat of the Convention in turn stated that good safeguarding practices needs to be highlighted, and a working group under the Secretariat is creating a survey to be send to thousands of organisations to help them understand how intangible cultural heritage can best be safeguarded and preserved.
We’ll be keeping an eye out for this survey, as it is clear that libraries can take an active role in this, contributing to safeguarding and preserving the world’s intangible cultural heritage and fostering cultural and creative diversity and social cohesion.