Endangered Archives

The Threat to Archives

“Documentary heritage reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. It is the mirror of the world and its memory. But this memory is fragile. Every day, irreplaceable parts of this memory disappear for ever.”

UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

The appreciation and exploitation of archives has never been greater. But there is an awareness that archival material around the globe is in danger. At the 2004 Congress of the International Council on Archives (ICA), some 2,000 delegates from 116 countries joined together to discuss how better to preserve the world’s documentary heritage. UNESCO has recognised the scale and urgency of the danger by establishing ‘The Memory of the World’ Programme to stimulate action to safeguard our documentary heritage.

Archives are endangered both by the actions of mankind and the forces of nature. War may wreak catastrophic effects but other man-made threats which can be more damaging. For instance, there are the problems of fragility and obsolescence associated with the physical formats to which we have entrusted our documentary heritage – such as audiotapes, glass negatives, and acidic paper.

Archives not kept under any proper legal system are susceptible to neglect or destruction. Political ideology may impact directly on archives, eradicating archives relating to minorities and their rights. As the ICA Congress noted: “Archives are fundamental to ensuring the survival of truth, memory and justice.”

The lack of professional training, coupled with the lack of resources, can pose a threat. It is often the unintentional which is most damaging – the sheer neglect of documentary heritage for want of awareness of its significance.

If heritage collections are frequently at risk even when housed in recognised archives, how much more endangered are private collections? They may belong to private societies no longer able to maintain their facilities; or represent the life’s work of one collector after whose death no further family interest is shown; or be the papers of an outstanding literary, cultural or historical figure which suffer neglect after his or her demise. Helping to bring unknown and unexploited private collections into the international research domain is one of the aims of the Endangered Archives Programme.

But in recent years there have also been some wonderful examples of what can be achieved by prompt and positive action. For instance, at Timbuktu in Mali a number of initiatives have combined to recover a large part of the documentary heritage of that great seat of Islamic learning. Or one thinks of the Himalayan monastery of Tabo near the border of India and China where, under a joint project of the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, some 38,000 damaged leaves from Buddhist manuscripts are being identified, catalogued and photographed, restoring to mankind a Western Tibetan Buddhist tradition that was otherwise lost.

Finally, there is what is perhaps the most insidious and growing danger to archives - the increasing trend towards cultural homogenisation. As more and more of the world embraces the industrial and technological revolution, and as the pace of globalisation accelerates, the remaining evidence of pre-industrial societies, their history and culture, is fast being discarded. It is this last threat which makes the creation of the Endangered Archives Programme so timely.