Tag Archives: documentary heritage

Joining the Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

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.

PAC Qatar

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

A Right to Be Remembered: A Task for Copyright Laws

Ever since the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union to allow people to request the removal of articles that violate their right to a private life from search results about them, the notion of a ‘Right to be Forgotten’ as entered the language.

It is not uncontroversial. Supporters highlight the possibility it offers for people to leave past minor misdemeanours behind them (especially once they have served their time), or to protect themselves against damage to their reputation, for example from allegations or charges which were never proven to the true.

Opponents worry that such provisions can be used to make it more difficult to find out about the past activities of people in power, and even the deletion of records (not just their removal from search results). The fact that decisions as to who has this right are effectively left to private companies also worries some.

In parallel, however, some commentators have pointed out the relevance of thinking about a ‘right to be remembered’.

This blog starts by exploring some of the different ways in which this has been talked about already as an idea, before underlining its relevance in a digital age, and finally setting out how this could manifest itself in copyright laws. In doing so, it covers much of the same ground as the UNECO 2015 Recommendation on Documentary Heritage.


From Forgetting to Remembering

Soon after the idea of the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ appeared, that of a ‘Right to Be Remembered’ also popped up.

For some, the concept was an excuse to justify the collection of data about customers in order to offer them an ‘improved’ customer experience on websites.

However, already in 2015, Irina Raicu from the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in 2015 talked about being remembered as a  ‘privilege’, raising the idea of the importance of ensuring that individual stories are not lost. In particular, she highlights the importance of ensuring that the names of Holocaust victims where known, in order to promote awareness of what happened.

An article published by people involved in the High Atlas Foundation went further, suggesting that creating a right for communities to protect and preserve their heritage, and have autonomy over its safeguarding should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this, it made the connection with the practices of many Western institutions in the past in appropriating elements of heritage from other cultures (often seen as inferior), and supported efforts at restitution.

This work does also highlight the issue, increasingly recognised in the library field, of the need to reconsider practices that risked treating knowledge and experience from much of the world and its populations, consciously or unconsciously, as inferior. In doing so, this has led to a situation where some groups’ lives have been more easily forgotten, allowing our image of the past to be distorted.

In parallel, we also have more conscious efforts to eradicate the experience of individuals or groups from history altogether, either through the altering of existing records, or the deliberate destruction of materials that testify to people’s existence.

In short, we can argue that individuals and groups should have the possibility to be remembered, and their experiences and contributions valued by those who come after.

Indeed, this could be seen as an element of the cultural rights offered by international law; future generations risking seeing these rights jeopardised if the memory of those who have come before – their ancestors – is simply wiped away.


New Possibilities

The emergence of the internet, and its spread to a greater and greater share of the global population have meant that there are now more opportunities than ever before to share stories, ideas and experiences.

It is no longer the case that only those with access to a printing press and a distribution network can share their ideas, experiences, and knowledge widely, through websites, blogs, social media, and beyond.

However, the possibility to be heard today is not the same thing as the possibility to be heard in future. The internet is a poor preserver of material. Materials published there, or otherwise in digital form, can easily be lost, and so the knowledge and experience of their creators forgotten.

Ironically, in parallel, in a world so focused on digital access, the same fate also risks befalling physical works, which are less easily found and accessed. And in the meanwhile, the intensification of the consequences of climate change risk seeing whole collections of memory destroyed.

This is where libraries, archives and museums can step in, with a mandate to ensure as broad a preservation of the experience of today for the benefit of tomorrow. This is a key social function, an investment today in ensuring the possibility for future generations to learn, to carry out research, and to enjoy their cultural rights.

In other words, the right to be remembered depends on having libraries, archives, museums and other heritage actors and institutions, tasked with preserving the memory of all cultures, libraries, archives and museums, and giving access to it.

It is clearly not something that can be left to the market. We cannot put a price on the value of memory or of the cultural rights it supports, just as we cannot charge our future selves for the cost of this work today. We need empowered libraries, archives and museums to fil the gap.

Clearly, this is work that needs to be taken forwards in line with ethical principles, in particular as regards Indigenous peoples, with collections built and managed in a way that respects the interests of the groups affected. There is growing awareness of how this can be done, in parallel with wider efforts to ensure that collections practices reflect the communities our institutions serve.


Acting for a Right to Be Remembered

A number of the elements that need to be in place for a Right to Be Remembered are already covered above – heritage institutions with the resources necessary to safeguard the knowledge and experience of the present and past, as well as collections policies and practices that promote inclusion while also respecting the interests of Indigenous groups in particular.

Yet beyond this, there is also the question of how to ensure that copyright laws do not end up representing a barrier to the right to be remembered.

This is a distinct possibility. Copyright already applies to works regardless of whether there is any intention to exploit them commercially. Even for works which are produced with a market in mind, for all but a tiny minority the term of protection extends far beyond their commercial lifespan.

In fulfilling their mission to defend the right to be remembered, libraries, archives and museums do risk running into blockages, being forbidden to take preservation copies of in-copyright works, in the most appropriate format, unless they seek permission (which may be impossible) or pay remuneration (which diverts resources away from the work of preservation itself).

This is the case in the 70% of countries which do not offer libraries, archives and museums a guarantee of being able to preserve works using whatever technology is most appropriate. Only among the 27 countries of the European Union is there (supposed to be) a clear possibility to form cross-border partnerships for preservation, helping ensure most effective use of resources and expertise.

As highlighted above, simply leaving the Right to Be Remembered to the market is unlikely to be an effective strategy. We tend to discount the value of access to knowledge for future generations, and of course even just the potential of earning revenues on a work in the short-term may prove too strong a temptation for rightholders.

Importantly, the Right to Be Remembered cannot be effective if works containing memory are locked away. While, of course, the Right to Be Remembered should not in itself mean the loss of the right to exploit a work commercially, it is meaningless if it is not accompanied by the possibility for people to access this memory. Cultural rights do not only apply to works that are old enough to have fallen into the public domain.

As the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation notes as early as its title, preservation and access must go hand in hand.

In short, if we are to take the Right to Be Remembered seriously, we need to ensure that institutions charged with making this right a reality themselves are guaranteed the possibility under copyright law to do whatever is necessary to preserve knowledge and experience, and to provide access to this knowledge in ways that do not jeopardise commercial exploitation.

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.

April Fool’s! Five things which aren’t true, but should they be?

In many parts of the world, 1 April is a day for playing pranks on others – April Fool’s Day. In some countries, there’s a tradition even of newspapers or other media publishing hoax stories as jokes – to take two examples from the BBC, the story of the spaghetti harvest in 1957, or of flying penguins in 2008.

Of course, with much concern at the moment about the impact of fake news, published with more sinister motivations than just to amuse people, it’s clear that it’s not only on 1 April that it’s necessary to apply critical thinking to what we read, hear or watch.

To mark the day, we’ve gathered a collection of five imaginary headlines which are definitely not true, together with short discussions about why (or why not!) we might wish they were.


World Heritage Convention extended to documentary heritage!

The 1972 World Heritage Convention is a crucial agreement in the history of international cooperation and norm setting around culture and heritage. As well as recognising the importance of heritage itself, it underlined the key connection between human and natural heritage.

On the basis of the Convention, there is an ongoing process of work bringing together governments and civil society, and of course the well known World Heritage Programme and its designated World Heritage Sites.

However, the definition of heritage in the Convention does not cover the sort of documentary heritage held by libraries. Indeed, while there are Conventions for underwater heritage, intangible heritage, and cultural diversity, there is nothing at Convention-level specifically concerning the sorts of works in library collections.

Ensuring that the importance of library collections is properly recognised – and so also of the work that libraries do – is a key area of work for IFLA in its advocacy, as well as in its support of the teams at UNESCO working with documentary heritage.

We cannot realise the full potential of culture and cultural heritage to support wider societal goals if we do not consider all elements of culture properly.


Debates about the role of major digital platforms extend to scholarly communications!

Discussions are intensifying in different parts of the world about whether and what action should be taken in response to concerns about the size and power of major digital platforms.

A key issue has been not just their dominance in particular markets, such as search, but rather what happens when they are active in different markets, and their power in one gives them an unfair advantage in others. For example, Google has faced challenges linked to whether Google Shopping results are prioritised in web search results.

However, it is not only at the level of the traditional internet platforms that there are concerns. Within the scholarly communication field, in addition the dominance of journal publishing by a small number of large companies, there have also been worries about what happens when other research services or infrastructure are bought up by the same companies.

Initiatives such as SCOSS are working to keep them independent, and so resist situations where researchers find themselves locked-in to specific companies’ services.

For the time being, the energy spent on chasing (admittedly much larger, but sometimes less profitable) American internet companies has not yet extended to the scholarly communications field, but a deeper look would certainly be helpful in order to understand the situation – and the risks – better.


New Sustainable Development Goal to be Added for Culture!

IFLA has placed the SDGs at the heart of our advocacy work, not just because they represent a core area of work of the United Nations, but also because they provide so much scope for talking about all the ways in which libraries contribute to progress.

Of course, one of the risks with being important across different policy areas is that no single ministry, agency or team can fully take account of the value libraries bring.

The same goes with culture, including cultural institutions like libraries. As the Culture2030Goal campaign review of culture in SDG implementation underlined, there are plenty of agreements about the cross-cutting importance of culture, but relatively little practical action to realise this in national development plans and reports.

A key reason for this is likely to be the fact that culture was not recognised as a standalone goal (as well as a cross-cutting factor of development). The chances, of course, of amending the 2030 Agenda are very low, and so efforts for now need to focus on ensuring that governments do more to integrate culture into planning.

But looking ahead to what comes after the 2030 Agenda, maybe this headline could be true one day?


Right to a Library Declared by Human Rights Council!

The freedom to seek, impart and receive information – Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is at the heart of IFLA’s values, and of the work of libraries globally.

Indeed, libraries have a role in delivering on many of the rights set out not just in the Universal Declaration, but also in other Conventions, such as that on the Rights of People with Disabilities or on the Rights of the Child.

In parallel, in countries where there is library legislation, this is often based on an obligation on actors (often at the local or regional level) to provide library services, with these described to a greater or lesser level of detail, in effect setting out that people should have a right to a library (see the EBLIDA study for more).

What chance is there of such a provision making it to the international level? This is unclear, both because the right to a variety of library services is already covered by the texts mentioned above, and because trying to set out any specific level of library service to be provided could end up risk becoming a ceiling rather than a floor.

At the same time, stronger recognition of the role of libraries as part of the infrastructure for delivering on human rights for all is always welcome, and IFLA’s Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression is active in underlining this role in submissions to the Human Rights Council, building up the bank of examples that can be used in advocacy.


Amazon to Open a Physical Library!

A lot has been made of Amazon beginning to open physical bookshops, alongside supermarkets and other services, given that of course the company has traditionally been seen as harmful to retail. There are 24 dedicated bookstores, and 34 shops selling books and other products across the US already.

The venture into physical stores may likely be down to a recognition that for many things, the physical experience is important, both in terms of making choices, and simply for wellbeing.

Of course, Amazon also has its Prime service, offering subscribers wide access to eBooks for a monthly fee. Could a next logical step be to develop, effectively, a physical subscription library?

There could be arguments in favour, at least for the company. Greater proximity to, and interaction with, readers is valuable, as of course is information about what and how they read. Operating a library could also open up segments of the population which cannot, or can only sometimes, afford to buy books.

Of course the downside, from a library point of view, would be that any such initiative would clearly have a commercial focus, and so lose the emphasis on meeting the needs of readers (rather than maximising profits). There would be little incentive to provide the wide range of other services that libraries offer, and of course there could concerns about how reader data would or could be used.

For all these reasons, libraries should be in a position to hold their ground if they can clearly articulate their value, although as will be underlined in an upcoming interview, concern about the role of Amazon is a reality in other areas.

Open your “Virtual Doors” – Conservation and Access to Cultural Heritage

Open your “virtual doors” to the public!

This is the call to action for the 3rd annual European Day of Conservation and Restoration (11 October), for which the E.C.C.O. (European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisations) invites Conservator-Restorers from all around Europe to give a glimpse into their work via social media.

In this time, when more of our engagement with culture than ever needs to take place from home, the ability not only to access cultural heritage, but also to see the process of its conservation and preservation is important. It raises awareness of the expertise that goes into the protection of, and access to, our cultural heritage.

It is this expertise, held by practitioners in museums, archives, galleries, universities, and of course libraries, that allows us to access, enjoy, learn, and benefit from the world’s cultural heritage – even from home.

Why Documentary Heritage Matters

The value of documentary heritage, stated by UNESCO, is promoting “the sharing of knowledge for greater understanding and dialogue, in order to promote peace and respect for freedom, democracy, human rights and dignity”. Preservation is a key element in realising this potential.

Photographs, manuscripts, books, journals, public records, audio-visual material – the survival of the documentary heritage that is held in the collections of libraries around the world relies on the precise and scientific practice of conservation as much as the paintings and antiquities in the world’s museums do.

As such, Conservator-Restorers have an essential role to play in the implementation of the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation for the Preservation and Access to Documentary Heritage, including in Digital Form.

In the segment Preservation, UNESCO encourages member states not only to carry out practices to ensure the long-term preservation of documentary heritage, but as well to develop awareness-raising and capacity-building measures and policies, such as promoting research and providing training and facilities. 

Conservation and Restoration: A Necessary Precondition for Access

In line with this year’s European Day of Conservation and Restoration theme, experiences with culture and heritage during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic have largely existed in the virtual space.

With the worldwide halting of tourism and restrictions or physical closures of museums, libraries, archives, and galleries, there is hardly an institution that does have an interest in ways to connect virtually their public to their collections.

IFLA has recently shared tips for collection-holding institutions to create digital engagement during this time and beyond. Yet the truth is that the need for online engagement will continue even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past.

Little of this engagement would be possible without the conservation and digitisation of our heritage objects.

The IFLA Guidelines for Setting Up a Digital Unification Project (2019) take collection holders through the steps they must consider when carrying out a project that centres on digitisation. In this practical guide, the very first step of “Managing the project” is Conservation/Preservation.

The guidelines state: “Documents that are not in a fit state to be digitised without damage have to be restored to an appropriate level.”

During the time of COVID-19, when many in the cultural heritage sector are relying on digital collections to connect them with their public, the role of conservators remains a crucial step in ensuring cultural heritage is accessible.

What Can Libraries Do?

As highlighted, our documentary heritage gives us a record of the memory of the world – a look at the past that connects us with one another, to the generations that came before, and, through its conservation, to the generations to come.

Libraries have a critical role to play, both in carrying out this conservation work, and in educating their visitors on what goes on “behind the scenes” to ensure these collections remain accessible.

Public interest in heritage can be increased through allowing a peak behind the curtain.

Libraries can help educate their communities on the work of Conservator-Restorers in their institution through programming both in-person, such as tours of conservation spaces, as well as virtually, though videos, lectures, and other content shared online and through social media.

Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Centres

Over the past year, IFLA’s Preservation and Conservation (PAC) Centres, hosted in libraries around the world, have carried out multiple programmes that connect both the library’s visitors and other professionals with their preservation and conservation work.

PAC Korea, hosted at the National Library of Korea in Seoul, Republic of Korea, hosts an annual Special Stacks Tour during Library Week in mid-April. Registered guests could join tours of the inside area of preservation stacks, which are usually not publicly accessible. They were about the learn about the preservation environment and techniques. By introducing the library’s preservation function to the general public, these special tours promote the importance of materials preservation.

Although PAC North America, hosted at the Library of Congress, USA, could not host the tours and public events that are usually scheduled for Preservation Week this year, the Library held an online series of webinars in its Topics in Preservation series aimed at a professional audience — librarians, archivists and museum staff. Each webinar drew more than 500 attendees from across every U.S. time zone in the U.S. as well as international participants.

Planned Library Engagement in the European Day of Conservation and Restoration

 In the current “stay at home” climate, how is the European Day of Conservation and Restoration being celebrated this year?

 In line with the call to “open your virtual doors to the public”, the E.C.C.O. asked their network to share photos and videos on social media throughout the week to give a glimpse into their workrooms.

We were excited to see E.C.C.O members in libraries sharing examples of the work they are doing to preserve documentary heritage! Have a look at a few examples:


IPCE. Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España shared photos of their project restoring the binding of a 16th-century Quran from the collection of Arab-Andalusian manuscripts of the Library of the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, Madrid.



The National and University Library, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia shared pictures and information detailing their careful restoration of a manuscript from Poljanska valley.



The Chester Beatty museum and library in Dublin shared an online lecture on the condition and treatment of an 18th century Indian manuscript from the library’s collection, including ethical considerations that go into treating original manuscript material.

Watch here [YouTube] 


The Association of Conservators of Antiquities and Works of Art of Higher Education, Greece, shared a glimpse into the Conservation Service of the National Library of Greece and its laboratory hosted at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre.
Watch here [YouTube] 

Thank you to the E.C.C.O. and all the participating institutions for opening your virtual doors and giving us a peak at the work you are doing to preserve and provide access to the world’s documentary cultural heritage!

Get involved! You are welcome to share your library’s conservation and restoration work using the hashtag #EuropeanDayConservationRestoration.

New Challenges and Opportunities: COVID and Memory

On International Museum Day, memory institutions, collection-holders, and visitors alike are called to reflect on the power of cultural materials and the stories they tell. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is calling on its network to rally around this year’s theme: “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”, celebrating the diversity of perspectives that make up all aspects of museums. Please visit their dedicated website to International Museum Day to see more of this year’s celebrations.

For memory institutions (galleries, libraries, archives, museums), there is a longstanding conversation on the power of cultural heritage as a means to promote cultural exchange, mutual understanding and peace. This conservation is more important than ever this year, as COVID-19 has brought radical changes to all sectors of society.

Let’s take the opportunity of International Museums Day to touch on several points of discussion regarding the effects of COVID-19 on the heritage sector, and what they could mean for libraries and the heritage professionals working therein.


Creating Tomorrow’s Heritage

In an earlier blog post, we’ve touched on the importance of primary sources in providing historical context and lessons-learned when facing difficult times. Looking to the past can help people understand how medical, social, and political response at the time mirrors and differs from what they are currently experiencing.

During the American Great Depression of the 1930’s, the government-sanctioned Farm Security Administration hired 10 photographers to go out and document the country during this period of extreme poverty. The goal was to

show people in cities back East what the Great Depression looked like for the rural poor – to give it a human face. The resulting photographs are still today among the most iconic of both this era and of American history as a whole.

Migrant Mother Photograph

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange

To me, this story is one that perfectly encapsulates the power of documentation. Not only in the act of supporting the artists and photographers to create material, but in the way this material is used and shared – in this case raising support for relief programmes and legislation.

To pass along the opportunity for future generations to connect to our current experience, there is a need to document the response to COVID-19 now, in as many voices and perspectives as possible.

Libraries are helping record their communities’ responses to COVID-19 and their experiences living with the measures their governments are taking to stop the spread. Libraries in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Spain and beyond are providing opportunities for their communities to directly share stores, photos, and other primary sources recording their experience.

A child's drawing depicting COVID-19

The Municipal Libraries of Huesca asked children to respond to COVID through art.

For born-digital material relating to COVID-19, the International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC) has launched a call to record web archiving efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreak. You can contribute on behalf of your institution here: Mapping COVID-19 web archive collections.

This work promises not only to help researchers to develop insights to inform future policies, but also societies as a whole to come to terms with what has happened.

Prioritising Digitisation and Access

With the closure of most cultural institutions worldwide, culture is existing on digital platforms more than ever before. In ICCROM’s recent lecture series, Protecting People and the Heritage in Times of COVID, this phenomenon was discussed in terms of ways digital engagement can bring about a paradigm shift in society’s access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage.

An example that was shared by Shubha Chaudhuri of the American Institute of Indian Studies was that of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) knowledge-bearers, who may be losing their ability to sell goods and performances with the closure of marketplaces and collapse of global tourism.

Libraries and museums can play a role in preserving the core value of ICH as social practice – not just as goods to sell – by providing access to diverse cultural expressions through providing a space for them, preserving materials, and promoting digital access.

Moreover, this period of raised awareness of and participation in culture on digital platforms can be an opportunity to promote the importance of digitisation and access to documentary heritage. More than ever before, there is a sense of urgency to implement the policy of digitisation recommended by UNESCO in the 2015 Recommendation for the Preservation and Access to Documentary Heritage, including in Digital Form.

By tapping into this, libraries can promote digitalisation of collections, secure storage and access to a wide audience who may be more receptive than they were pre-COVID.


Multi-hazards: facing new threats

Unfortunately, the disruption caused by COVID-19 compounds pre-existing threats in many of the most vulnerable places in the world. International bodies including UNESCO and Interpol have reported an increase in looting at sites and of illicit trafficking of cultural goods on the international art market.

During ICCROM’s lecture, Abdelhamid Saleh of the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, which is actively working with museums in Yemen, reports that Yemeni museums are struggling with the interface of disaster, armed conflict and COVID-19. We have heard similar feedback from partners working in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the MENA region.

Capacity building in multi-hazard approaches to disaster risk reduction and recovery are necessary. This should include immediate intervention in favour of digitisation and secure storage. In the example from Yemen, museum workers are being trained on security and digital storage, with positive enhancements such as digitised collections beginning to be stored in multiple locations.

Considering that important pieces of documentary heritage are often held in private family collections in the MENA region and elsewhere, addressing these multiple threats are even more dire. There is a need to reach beyond the institution to secure all expressions of cultural heritage.

More than anything, there is a need for international cooperation. Regional practitioners with local knowledge and connections must be backed by a multilateral international effort in order to face these multiple hazards. IFLA is seeking out participation in such partnerships, to ensure libraries and documentary heritage are adequately considered in future interventions.


In this blog, I’ve identified three areas where the COVID-19 pandemic has affected thinking about how libraries fulfill their mission as memory institutions – archiving the present, digitization and digital access, and developing comprehensive approaches to dealing with risk.

None are new, but in each case, the current situation has helped underline the importance of libraries’ work, and the urgency of action.

But the list is not exhaustive. We would like to hear from you.

What changes to your preservation and conservation practice do you predict for the future?

What new opportunities and challenges will the heritage profession and memory institutions face in the post-COVID world?

We continue to take part in a global conversation with partners in libraries and partner NGOs to help our community face these challenges and take these opportunities to continue preserving and telling our stories.


The Power of the Narrative: African World Heritage Day

[Today] there is a growing understanding that human diversity is both the reality that makes dialogue necessary, and the very basis for that dialogue… We recognize that we are the products of many cultures, traditions and memories; that mutual respect allows us to study and learn from other cultures; and that we gain strength by combining the foreign with the familiar.

Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1997-2006)


The goal of preserving world heritage – that is, heritage deemed to be of “outstanding universal value” – is to ensure a legacy from the past is passed on to future generations. This legacy belongs to all humankind, it is quite literally the heritage of the world.

Through international cooperation for world heritage preservation, we are able to access and explore the most outstanding natural, cultural, and mixed sites offered by each country around the world. It is a doorway to learning about peoples’ values, histories, cross-border exchanges, and riches of natural and cultural diversity.

It is through learning about and celebrating this diversity that mutual respect grows.

African World Heritage Day

African World Heritage Day on 5 May is an opportunity for people around the world, and particularly Africans and those of African descent, to celebrate Africa’s vibrant and unique cultural and natural heritage.

Unfortunately, while African heritage is underrepresented on the World Heritage List (only 12% of all sites), it features disproportionally highly on the List of World Heritage in Danger (39% of all sites in danger).  Civil unrest and instability, uncontrolled development, lack of investment in its safeguarding, and threats of climate change are all factors in the endangerment of world heritage in this region.

As the Ngorongoro Declaration (2016) affirms, safeguarding African World Heritage is a central driver for sustainable development, and so there is an urgent need to build capacity for heritage conservation and management in the region.

This will take international cooperation, overwriting the long-standing effects of colonial inequalities in heritage conservation, and ensuring that a narrative of diversity, dignity, and solidarity is established.

More than World Heritage

Yet maintaining a dialogue on cultural diversity takes more than the preservation of heritage sites. Looking to the historical record and personal accounts can bring these sites to life, by describing their value to the people and societies who created and lived in these places, often in their own words.

There is much power to be found in stories, archives, and records. They help us recognise that we are the “products of many cultures, traditions and memories” – they give context to the heritage of the world. UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme promotes the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage, which are key resources for telling these stories.

In Africa, tapping into the power of these resources can be a central part in rewriting the narrative of the region’s cultural heritage, raising awareness of its rich traditions, building pride in one’s cultural identity, and educating on the value of cultural diversity.

Through this, heritage can spark a dialogue of mutual respect, which hopefully will play a role in counteracting the threats of extremism, helping to heal inequalities, and contributing to sustainable development.

Manuscripts of the Sahel

Let’s explore an example of the power of the narrative in this context.

In early 2020, IFLA was represented at an international consultation on documentary heritage in the Sahel, organised by UNESCO and held in the Malian capital, Bamako.

The meeting aimed to contribute to strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of ancient manuscripts from the Sahel region, in order to “improve universal access to knowledge on the written history of Africa”. Read more about this event here.

Containing a range of topics from mathematics to science, philosophy, grammar and theology, the manuscripts comprise a narrative that might not be widely known – depicting this region as a hub for knowledge exchange and intercultural discussion, and providing a rich African history of the written word.

Over the past years, manuscripts in the Sahel region have been notoriously targeted for destruction by those trying to silence this narrative. This destruction was mirrored in the context of built heritage with the targeted destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012.

However, preserving and utilising the Sahelian ancient manuscripts to promote public access to the information and knowledge contained within can strengthen national cohesion, tolerance and dialogue. Experts maintain that the “protection, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts can serve as a basis for building just, inclusive and peaceful societies in the Sahel”.

IFLA continues to support this project, and those who are working for the preservation of documentary heritage.


Ensuring the continuity of this shared narrative has the power to make a positive difference in a region that still faces many challenges.

Strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of such examples of heritage can not only strengthen respect for built heritage, it can bring forgotten pieces of history back to life – sparking dialogue, countering preconceived notions, and promoting respect.

On this African World Heritage Day, let’s celebrate the power of the narrative.