World Heritage Day: Libraries, Access, and Engagement

The International Council on Museum and Sites (ICOMOS) is a global non-government organisation working for the conservation and protection of cultural places. As libraries are important features of cultural places and contributions to knowledge on cultural heritage, ICOMOS and IFLA are partners on many joint initiatives – see our work on the report, Culture in the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda, for an example.

We are therefore excited to take this opportunity to reflect on the contributions of libraries to heritage discourse on ICOMOS’s annual World Heritage Day (18 April).

The theme of World Heritage Day 2021 is Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures.

Within this theme, “ICOMOS wishes to engage in promoting new discourses, different and nuanced approaches to existing historical narratives, to support inclusive and diverse points of view”.

Libraries are keepers of stories. We are also living spaces where everyone and anyone can meet, diverse points of view can be shared, and these stories can be told.

Libraries therefore have an important role in enabling complex pasts to be better understood, and diverse futures to be shaped.

UNESCO World Heritage

Visiting a World Heritage Site can be an awe-inspiring experience. Sites chosen for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List are deemed to be of outstanding universal value – meaning they offer a truly irreplaceable contribution to the shared heritage of humankind.

Visit the website of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to learn more about the 1972 World Heritage Convention and the List.

As impressive as a monument or site on the World Heritage list can be, there is often much more significance to be found beyond its façade.

Documentary Heritage and Historical Narratives

For World Heritage Day 2020, we explored how documentary heritage, namely materials on the Memory of the World register, can provide a deeper understanding of a related world heritage site.

An example that is equally relevant for this year’s theme is the World Heritage Site Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison (Barbados), looked at in parallel with the Memory of the World document An African Song or Chant from Barbados.

When one examines this site together with the testament of a life of enslavement, offered through the African work song, it is possible to get a far more complete picture of the human cost of colonialism.

See our blog article: Shared Stories: How documentary heritage enriches monuments and sites for more.

However, on this year’s theme, it is worth also examining how libraries as community spaces can help enable these discoveries and inspire conversations around them.

Inclusive Spaces for Diverse Futures

Cultural heritage is for everyone, but in order to support diverse points of view in cultural heritage discourse, cultural heritage spaces must be understood as being accessible to all.

In setting this year’s theme, ICOMOS acknowledges the role that the cultural heritage sector has in the critical examination of the past. The omission and erasure of points of view through the privileging of some narratives over others is a legacy that memory institutions must strive to reconcile.

For example, in recognition of this responsibility, International Museum Day 2020 was centred on Museums for Diversity and Inclusion. Within this theme, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) acknowledged that “there remains much to do to overcome conscious and subconscious power dynamics that can create disparities within museums, and between museums and their visitors.”

As champions of access for all, libraries too have a role to play in making cultural heritage not only accessible, but something in which anyone and everyone is invited to actively participate.

One way this can start is by engaging new audiences and emphasising inclusive and participatory ways to experience World Heritage sites.

Libraries as Accessible Spaces

As memory institutions, libraries are keepers of heritage through the materials they collect and make available. However, libraries are also living spaces – open to the public with a mission that centres on providing learning opportunities to all.

When present at a World Heritage Site, libraries help integrate the site with the greater social fabric of the community and reach new audiences through the services and programmes they offer.

For example, the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek is part of the “Classical Weimar” UNESCO World Heritage Site (Germany) and receives some 100,000 visitors each year. As a portion of the site’s value lies in its legacy of literary and scholarly achievement, it is appropriate that the library offers a publicly assessable, free-of-charge space for learning, research, and study.  Specifically, the library provides access to over one million pieces of media, including over 170,000 items on open-access shelving at the Study Centre which users are free to peruse or borrow.

Further cooperation with the World Heritage Site’s education and inclusion and diversity programmes invites learners of all ages and backgrounds to use the library while also enjoying the historically significant space.

Dynamic, living libraries can combine historically significant buildings and collections with services that meet the needs of modern users. In doing so, they invite people into spaces with which they may not have otherwise engaged.

Libraries are spaces for people to come together to discuss and learn, and this is a value that can contribute to the democratisation of heritage sites. How libraries can support inclusive and diverse points of view within heritage spaces is a question that certainly must be explored further.

There is more to do!

IFLA has explored how libraries of all kinds are promoters of cultural diversity through their role as multicultural hubs.

The IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto upholds libraries as gateways to a cultural diverse society. This Manifesto states that “libraries of all types should reflect, support and promote cultural and linguistic diversity at the international, national, and local levels, and thus work for cross-cultural dialogue and active citizenship.”

To this end, cultural heritage sites – World Heritage or otherwise – are encouraged to view libraries in their communities or within their boundaries as learning, cultural, and information centres, and as vectors to further the educational ambitions of the site, communicate its value, and engage new audiences.

However, in doing this, institutions must reflect the diverse perspectives of the communities they serve. This includes making an active effort to centre, value, record, share, and make space for diverse voices and narratives.

Libraries within heritage sites of all kinds are encouraged to be proactive in developing the relationship they have with their wider communities and enable inclusive conversations on the site’s significance.

Has your library made space for diverse voices to contribute to cultural heritage discourse? We would love to hear about it in the comments.

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