On 14 November every year, the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property stands as a reminder that theft, looting and illicit trafficking threaten the ongoing preservation of and access to the world’s cultural heritage.
In the words of Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO:
On this International Day, UNESCO therefore calls upon everyone to realize that stealing, selling or buying a looted work is tantamount to participating in pillaging peoples’ heritage and robbing their memories.
Libraries are memory institutions. They preserve and provide access to the memory of the world. Our documentary heritage is a testament to the stories, knowledge, creativity, spirituality, and experiences of societies from yesterday and today. It is indelibly linked to cultural identity, and is a tool for learning about the past and about one another.
Loss of this material through theft and illicit trafficking robs people of the ability to encounter this material, learn about it, share their views, and benefit from the knowledge it transmits.
Further, the trafficking of cultural property has served to prolong armed conflict in recent years, supporting the work of criminal and terrorist groups, funding illegal activity.
Action to counter these threats therefore has an important role to play both in contributing to peacebuilding, as well as in upholding the rights of people to access and enjoy cultural heritage.
The 1970 Convention
The International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property is also the anniversary of the signing of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970 Convention).
This international Convention urges State Parties (i.e. governments) to take measures to prohibit and prevent illicit import, export and transfer of cultural property and provides a common framework for State Parties to take action.
Included in the Convention’s definition of cultural property are objects that may well be represented in the collections of libraries:
- property relating to history, including the history of science and technology and military and social history; to the life of national leaders, thinkers, scientists and artist and to events of national importance
- pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material
- original engravings, prints and lithographs
- rare manuscripts and incunabula, old books, documents and publications of special interest (historical, artistic, scientific, literary, etc.) singly or in collections
- archives, including sound, photographic and cinematographic archives
The Convention goes on to urge State Parties to support the development of museums, libraries, and archives, as these institutions are instrumental in helping ensure the preservation and presentation of cultural property.
We urge libraries to get involved in national activities to uphold the 1970 Convention, such as through contributing to national inventories, cooperating with national services for the protection of cultural heritage, and carrying out information and education campaigns on trafficking of documentary cultural property.
The Challenges of Documentary Heritage
We need library voices to be involved in international, regional, and national efforts to counter the threats of theft and trafficking to ensure that the specific challenges associated with documentary heritage are understood and acted on.
Documentary heritage is unique among other forms of cultural property and therefore presents specific challenges. These include the fact that books and published materials are often created in multiple copies, with the intention of sale and dissemination across borders.
Libraries may not be equipped with the same level of security as other institutions, and books offer the possibility of theft of individual pages. In some parts of the world in particular, rare books and manuscripts are kept in collections within private homes.
And notably, existing standards being used to identify of objects don’t always apply to the way that documentary heritage is identified and catalogued by libraries and archives. It may be difficult for authorities to spot potentially trafficked material from among personal objects.
We must ensure the systems and tools that are already in place to protect cultural property are equipped to take on these unique challenges. For example, working to adapt or amend existing tools, guides, trainings, and protocols to address the specifics of books, manuscripts, and other written materials can help better inform and train police and customs authorities.
How is IFLA involved?
IFLA works to bring together professionals across our sector who can develop the tools and raise awareness we need to better protect our documentary heritage.
IFLA’s Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Centre hosted at Qatar National Library has been active in countering the threat of documentary heritage trafficking in their region through the Himaya Project.
Tune in on 15 November for a high-level panel discussion on efforts to counter the trafficking and illegal circulation of antiquities and documentary heritage. IFLA’s President Barbara Lison will take part in this event to speak further on the importance of library involvement in countering trafficking. Find more information and the link to register here.
Rare Books and Special Collections
IFLA, especially through our Rare Books and Special Collections Section, is working with the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers to address international issues regarding provenance, theft, trafficking and restitution of cultural heritage items.
Among the plans of this joint working group are efforts to help galvanize the library and archives sector to contribute to reporting lost or presumably stolen items, empowering the potential for their discovery. This also includes work towards raising awareness and de-stigmatising the reporting of theft within the library and archives sector, as well as developing educational resources on theft and trafficking.
IFLA is further engaged with the archive sector on the International Council of Archives’ Expert Group against Theft, Trafficking and Tampering (EGATTT). Looking ahead to the coming year, this expert group seeks to further raise awareness among professionals, authorities, and the public on documentary heritage trafficking. Further, they plan to build capacity by sharing simple preventative measures to protect collections, and by developing mechanisms to identify at-risk material and report theft.
IFLA has been a long-time partner of UNESCO. Looking ahead, we seek to identify ways in which we can continue connecting the work being done by libraries and library professionals to the work of UNESCO. This can be a step towards integrating a documentary heritage perspective and amplifying the library sector’s efforts to safeguard the cultural property under the protection of our institutions.
Find out More
Interested in learning more about what you can do to protect documentary heritage? Refer to Combatting Illicit Trafficking of Documentary Cultural Heritage: and Introduction.
Register to join the virtual event at Qatar National Library: International Day Against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property