Eng Sengsavang is Reference Archivist for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France

Last autumn, I moved to Paris to take on the role of Reference Archivist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). My morning commute begins on a network of streets named after some of France and Europe’s prominent 18th-century naturalists. Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire takes me past the Jardin des Plantes, site of the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN). The MNHN houses, among other displays, the Gallery of Evolution, an immense space exhibiting varieties of taxidermied animals. On the ground floor, an African elephant heads a procession forming the centerpiece of the ‘grand gallery,’ so-designated in French.

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Credit: Sputniktilt. Gallery of Evolution, National Museum of Natural History, France, 2014.

I imagine a ‘grand gallery’ of information technology, and the discipline that may well be remembered as having played a central role in documenting its evolution: digital preservation. Unlike the 18th-century naturalists, who set out less to study the evolution of species of the natural world than to name and classify them in fixed taxonomies, digital preservatists are concerned with the permutations of ‘species’ of information technology (i.e. new media and formats) – but only insofar as they relate to ensuring the “continued accessibility of digital materials” across time (UNESCO Communication and Information sector).

Almost all archives house a menagerie of information technologies spanning several centuries, in some cases even millennia, of evolution. Founded after World War II with the institution itself, UNESCO Archives is no exception, holding records in various forms, both analogue and digital. Since the archives has neither the playback equipment nor the space to maintain the equipment for its audiovisual records, access to holdings such as 16mm filmic works or recordings of UNESCO radio broadcasts is, at the moment, not possible. However, a current two-year digitization project has enabled the UNESCO Archives to digitize a significant collection of paper and audiovisual records, in some cases making the content accessible for the first time in decades. The process of conversion to digital, if planned well, also brings analogue records into the fold of digital preservation and the possibilities of long-term accessibility afforded by it.

Protecting documentary heritage has been a primary concern for UNESCO from its beginnings. One of the visible examples of this is the Memory of the World (MoW) program, established in 1992 to protect the “world’s documentary heritage.” In 2013, the UNESCO PERSIST program was created, focusing on digital preservation. Perhaps less well known is UNESCO’s history of archival advocacy. In 1931, UNESCO’s predecessor organization, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IICI), convened a committee of archival experts to address questions such as the accessibility of archives, the conservation of manuscripts, and the creation of an international body on archives. The IICI’s Permanent Consultative Committee on Archives eventually published the first International Guide on Archives. In 1948, UNESCO helped to establish the International Council on Archives.

My work with researchers at the UNESCO Archives leads me often to wonder what the future might look like with versus without digital preservation. When pointing a researcher to a particular record, I silently thank the individuals and programs that have sustained the record’s existence up to the present day. To benefit from the preservation efforts of the past from a distance of 20, 50, 100 years in the future is to feel, often, like the recipient of a miracle: the miracle of an object’s persistence against the fickleness of time. Of course, I should know better. Miracles in the archives don’t happen by accident.  Documentary heritage programs such as those delivered by UNESCO are one instance in a complex set of conditions that contribute to the survival of archives. In a digital world, the necessary conditions for preservation are even more complex. Above all, preservation is an act of intention, requiring international, cross-sectorial coordination and collaboration, organizational support, planning, individual dedication, among other factors.

 Like so many animals displayed in the grand hall of the MNHN today threatened with extinction, digital preservation offers a way of extending the life of records that may otherwise disappear. The question remains: how will digital records change the way that archives are accessed in the future? Without preservation efforts today, future archives will exist as unstructured jumbles of inaccessible, illegible, and simply lost digital records. But if digital preservation continues to find advocacy and funding within organizations and governments, and if the ‘digital divide’ between those who have the means to access digital technologies and those who do not can be bridged, then archives may become more accessible than they are today.

An ideal vision of our documentary future has, for instance, users accessing online records converted into open-access formats from the comfort of their homes, or using emulation software in an archive that enables access to all manner of digital records, findable and understandable both in their content and in the ways the content is represented. There may be serious contingencies in this vision, but it is one to focus on, in the hopes that our collective work will manifest both to future users and archivists - who should know better - as miracles of a kind.

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