The imperative of protecting documentary heritage from disasters highlighted in Bhutan

Archives and libraries play a major role in preserving a country’s history. Unfortunately, documentary heritage can be extremely vulnerable to time, and to natural and man-made disasters.

On 29–30 November 2018, UNESCO and the Royal Government of Bhutan – with the support of the Japanese Funds in Trust (JFIT) – jointly hosted a regional capacity development workshop in Thimphu on the ‘Preservation of Documentary Heritage for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management’. The two-day workshop brought together around 30 preservation and conservation experts from the South Asia and Asia Pacific region, and sought to examine documentary preservation in the context of strategies for disaster management and disaster risk reduction. The initiative was the first of its kind in the subregion.

Speaking on the occasion, Eric Falt, the Director of the UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office pointed out that the South Asia and the Asia Pacific region continued to be the most disaster-prone region in the world. Citing a UNESCAP study, Falt noted that in 2015, almost 50 per cent of the world’s natural disasters had occurred in South Asia and the Asia Pacific. Falt also observed that the occurrence of natural disasters had direct implications for the preservation of documentary heritage, and went on to provide several examples of severe damage to archives and libraries in the region as a result of disasters, including in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and most recently in the Indian state of Kerala. He mentioned as well that the rise of extremism and radical groups in parts of South Asia and the Asia Pacific had led to conflicts and man-made disasters that could threaten the very existence of documentary heritage.

The workshop in Bhutan was both policy-oriented, involving the development of policy recommendations to build a more enabling environment for making documentary preservation integral to disaster management plans; and action-oriented, as it encouraged participants to develop concrete and realistic plans to build partnerships, mobilize resources and implement preservation plans.

During his inaugural address, H.E. Lyonpo Sherub Gyeltshen, Bhutan’s Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs acknowledged the importance of the Memory of the World  programme, and emphasized that one of Bhutan’s key expectations from the workshop in Thimphu was that it would help raise awareness about the methods and the importance of the preservation of documentary heritage.

Also delivering an inaugural address, H.E. Lyonpo Jaibir Rai, Bhutan’s Minister of Education and the Secretary General of the Bhutanese National Commission for UNESCO, expressed his gratitude to UNESCO for its past and ongoing cooperation with the Bhutan in the field of education, and thanked the organization for co-organizing the regional workshop on documentary preservation, which he said was both very timely and important.

The workshop in Thimphu culminated in a ‘Roadmap for Preserving Documentary Heritage in the Context of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management’. The roadmap describes recommendations and proposed actions jointly agreed upon by all participants. These pertain to three areas in particular:

  1. Digital preservation and archiving;
  2. The development of a disaster risk management plan;
  3. Recommendations for the capacity development of professionals in order to protect documentary heritage from disasters.

Additionally, participants agreed to recommend preservation experts from their respective countries or the South Asia and Asia Pacific subregion so that a joint list for a pool of experts could be compiled. These experts could then be contacted for conducting training workshops or offering advisory services.

The workshop was aligned with the principles and approach of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme that seeks to promote the preservation of documentary heritage, and encourages member states to identify, preserve and bring before a global audience works of outstanding historical and cultural significance. Inscribing documentary heritage on the Memory of the World Register, however, is just one part of the programme’s larger focus on preservation, access and awareness-building.