Guest post: Preservation of cultural materials

Today’s post comes from Richard Weinstein, a member of the ILN community and was triggered by images of the destruction of cultural artifacts including libraries in some of the war torn parts of the world – particularly Syria.

Unfortunately, civil wars are a regular part of life in the world and innocent bystanders leaving their homelands are also a regular occurrence.  We have a responsibility to the people, and of course that should be our first priority.  But as librarians, I feel we also have a responsibility to the cultural artifacts, both things and papers. 
Sadly, much of a country’s cultural artifacts are often destroyed or stolen as a result of the fighting.  These artifacts represent the country’s history.  These items include artwork, pottery, and documents, such as letters from important people in the nation’s history and governmental documents.  Each helps the nation paint a picture of its past tying that past to its present and also to its future.  When cultural items and documents are stolen and/or destroyed, the culture itself is similarly destroyed.  Cultural items also transcend borders and teach each of us about one another.
Palmyra (Tadmur) and Aleppo (Halab), both vitally important cities historically and today, have suffered irreparable damage due to the fighting.  What of the stuff and papers from those cities and elsewhere in Syria?  Are we able to try and save these?
One of the first things we’re taught in library school is that we are guardians of the past.  Librarians began as historians, storing documents from the government and making them available to others.  Of course we’ve come a long way since then, but that is one of our core responsibilities. 
Something like the cooperative effort between Japan’s National Diet Library and the University of Maryland could be a solution.  They worked together to make digital copies of important works so that the documents might be stored for posterity.  Maybe something could be worked out with key cultural documents for other countries as well, with other libraries and countries involved.  Yes, technology is ever changing but preserving these important items calls for some action, some movement to save world heritage. If partnerships are developed, perhaps key works from countries in warzones can be saved from destruction.
We have to do something.  Inaction and silence are not an option.
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