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Supporting documentary heritage preservation in the Arab region

UNESCO Cluster Office for the Gulf States and Yemen and Qatar National Library, the IFLA’s Preservation and Conservation Center for the Arab region, organised a two-day conference in Doha, Qatar at the beginning of December to discuss the state of documentary heritage preservation and conservation in the Arab world and share best practices, challenges and priorities for the region. It was held at the amazing Qatar National Library and attended by seventy people from the region including the National Librarians from Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Mauritania. I gave a keynote address on what IFLA is doing in relation to cultural heritage.


The catalyst for the conference was a survey conducted by UNESCO that sought to identify documentary heritage collections in libraries, archives, museums and private collections. The survey project was undertaken over an 18-month period and it is extremely concerning that it found that a quarter of the collections were at risk. The survey provides very valuable information as a baseline and will be added to in the future.


Many speakers described what was happening in their country and there were a lot of stories about collections in danger from natural and man-made events. There was a common theme of lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure and ongoing threats from conflict and from natural disasters.


Before its destruction, Mosul University’s Central Library was a cultural icon with one million resources. During ISIL, it was bombarded by missiles and badly burnt. Rubble and debris littered every floor. Saif Mohammed Al-Ashkar, Secretary General of Mosul University Libraries, gave a powerful presentation on the destruction that ISIS inflicted on the library and how the library is being rebuilt but he emphasised there is an ongoing need for resources.


Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. He described the many challenges involved in preserving audio visual records, the media used is not robust and can degrade and become unreadable and the hardware required to access the content may no longer be available and repairing old machines such as reel to reel players is becoming more difficult and will soon be impossible. Copyright laws are preventing libraries from making copies for preservation and the copyright period is exceeding the life span of the media. And once they are gone, they are gone.

Peter Herdrich, in his role as Program Director of the Digital Library of the Middle East, described how the project is matting and protecting regional heritage, seeking to gather collections using open source software and a portal so that they are accessible and discoverable. He also described the emergency intervention at the National Museum of Aden, in Yemen in October 2019, one of the 120 archaeological sites destroyed by the Huthis from 2015 to 2018. The Digital Library of the Middle East is providing an on the ground solution that directly support the efforts of UN member states and affiliate organisations.


Arcadia and the Whiting Foundation are US based foundations that provide grants to collecting institutions and in particular grants for emergency situations. Arcadia was founded in 2002 and supports charities and scholarly institutions to preserve cultural heritage, protect the environment and promote open access. The Whiting Foundation was founded in 1972 to fund US writers and scholars and in 2016 launched a new global program for preservation of endangered cultural heritage, emphasising the written word. Both encouraged attending institutions to apply for grants.


One of the highlights of the conference was the agreement of the participants to a “Declaration to Support Preservation of Documentary Heritage in the Arab region,” calling for action on all levels to raise the standards of conservation and care of documentary heritage based on regional and global best practices. The conference was an important networking opportunity and very useful for information exchange and knowledge sharing.


Photo credit: QNL

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