Keeping Cultural Memory Alive: What is at Stake?

What does it take to keep recorded memory alive for use by future generations? What are the threats to our cultural record, and what is at stake if it’s lost? In the first episode of Material Memory, we explore these issues with Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources. We discuss ways to address threats to cultural memory, such as climate change and the vulnerability of digital information, and how to create egalitarian access to shared knowledge.

References Noted in Podcast

[1] Slow Fires: On the Preservation of the Human Record. Filmmaker Terry Sanders highlights the problem of acid paper and the deterioration of late 19th and 20th century print materials.

[2] “American Archives and Climate Change: Risks and Adaptation.” T. Mazurczyk, N. Piekielek, E. Tansey, B. Goldman. Climate Risk Management, v. 20, 2018. pp. 111-125.

[3] “Pangia: A Global Interoperable Affiliation of Digital Libraries.” Charles Henry. CLIR Issues 128 (March/April 2019).

[4] Preserving Digital Information. Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information. Donald Waters and John Garrett. 1996.


Kathlin Smith: Welcome to Material Memory. I’m Kathlin Smith, Director of Communications at CLIR, and your host for this episode.

For thousands of years, humans have recorded their ideas, transactions, observations, beliefs, and aspirations in many forms—from the earliest clay tablets to today’s digital media. Our past informs our future, and we rely largely on libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies—what we call cultural memory institutions—to connect us with humanity’s collective experience and knowledge.

What does it take to keep our recorded memory alive for use by future generations? What are the threats to our cultural record, and what is at stake if it’s lost? Material Memory will explore these themes. In this first episode, I’m discussing these questions with Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Charles Henry, thank you for talking with me today. History tells many tragic stories of cultural memory loss, from the destruction of the early Library of Alexandria to last year’s devastating fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Many losses, though, occur more slowly and silently, the result of neglect, lack of awareness, or unwillingness to act. What are some of the threats that CLIR has been concerned with, and how is its work in this area evolving, including recent efforts to partner globally?

Charles Henry: We have been around for slightly over 60 years and you go back several decades and the preservation and access to cultural heritage we were focused on at the time had largely, it was a consequence of time—that we were looking at deterioration of the cultural heritage. One prominent project we were involved with was “Slow Fires,” [1] and that was in response to the acidic paper that was slowly but inexorably destroying millions and millions of books around the country. The fluorescence of digital technology and digital culture has been, I think, particularly intriguing to CLIR. In the good old days—just back several decades—where it was mostly focused on material culture, you had objects that you could hold and objects that you could see were deteriorating, and what kinds of interventions were necessary. In the digital world, information is, I would say, more profligate. It’s more fragile. It’s more iterative. And those old kind of complacent and comforting boundaries of being able to hold something and to see something are gone. And so I think our present interests in the preservation and making sense of digital culture, of preserving born digital content, is apropos of our history. But it’s especially challenging. And you noted, Kathlin, that we’re going out more and more into the world. And I think in part that’s because of the intensity and complexity of the new kinds of threats that we’re dealing with. We are working closely with about nine nations in the Middle East and North Africa as a response to war, to conflict, and the kinds of destruction and looting and loss of culture—loss of life—that these kinds of conflicts can inflict. We’re also working on cultural loss through displacement. The world’s largest refugee population since World War II now confronts us with a considerable loss of personal cultural stories and the kinds of intangible cultural legacy that many of these people who have been displaced represent, and that can be the theater and the language itself, their own stories, their personal stories, their folklore: all of that is at risk.

And I think, looking ahead, the most challenging threat to culture is climate disruption. Some other organizations did an analysis of the United States—just the US—and it was an imposition of a couple of maps. One map was the areas where climate change would be most disrupted. And another map was superimposed on that one, which was archives—the number of mostly academic and historical archives in the United States. And the juxtaposition of those two maps showed that 98 percent of the archives in the United States would be negatively influenced and impacted by climate change—98 percent [2]! And I imagine this statistic holds around the world. So we’re looking at an unprecedented threat and the potential unprecedented loss of what we have built as human beings, as human societies, over millennia.

Kathlin Smith: The potential losses are staggering. What are some ways that CLIR is working with other cultural memory institutions to address these threats?

Charles Henry: I think you can look at it—you can scale it—and at the lower, the smaller scale of focus, we have the Recordings at Risk program, which is looking at audiovisual material that is physically deteriorating, and we want to identify some of the most important representatives of that cultural heritage and how we can restore it and preserve it. We have our Digitization of Hidden Collections, which are materials that are threatened by being unknown, which is another kind of threat: the loss of knowledge and loss of access to some remarkable archives that we’ve worked with over the years, and photographs, human rights archives, and documentation. That would have been lost through ignorance and just oblivion if we had not gotten involved with that. Larger-scale projects include the Digital Library of the Middle East and also Pangia [3], which is a global effort to create a digital environment in which threatened cultural heritage can be preserved and maintained, as well as an extensive and unprecedented repository of knowledge that can be accessed and used, hopefully, to begin to address some of the disruptions of climate change and to help to design a more sustainable planet.

Kathlin Smith: One of the things that we talk about with a loss of culture is the loss of identity. For example, during the Bosnian war, when the Library of Sarajevo was burned to the ground, it was an intentional effort to undermine the memory of the Bosnians and the minorities in the region and to erase an identity. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of cultural preservation in terms of identity and memory?

Charles Henry: Yeah, those are profound concepts, and when you look at the Bosnian war and what happened in Sarajevo, it does underscore the power of culture, and the aspects of culture that I think are key here: one is it brings people together. It’s a shared vision of a society and one’s place in it. Culture is performable and it teaches constantly. It also explicitly defines values and principles and things that are loved and considered exceptional to a particular group, whether it’s a community or a society, and this kind of unifying power—this kind of explication of who we are and our place in the world—is exhilarating on the one hand and threatening on the other if there is a competing vision. And so I think that you can probably go back throughout history and see many conflicts as not necessarily economic or territorial, but as also cultural. And I think CLIR’s role is certainly to preserve what we can in an agnostic, neutral way and to accept this vast and wonderful variety of interpreting ourselves in the world in a way that promotes dignity and equality.

Kathlin Smith: And one underlying hope for some of the projects that you’ve been working on is to create more egalitarian access to this shared knowledge—to make it possible for a displaced person to access their cultural heritage, and to retain or reclaim some of the identity that might be lost in conflict or because of climate change. Can you talk a little bit about some of some examples from work that you’ve been engaged with?

Charles Henry: One example comes to mind, going back to the Middle East and the Digital Library of the Middle East. That project is meant to preserve culture and obviously to make it accessible. It’s all open source and free. And there are many, many people in the region who can only access that kind of information through their phones, and they include people displaced in some of the refugee camps. But also, a lot of students and a lot of classrooms don’t have high-tech monitors and what we call Internet connections, but most everyone has a cell phone or smartphone of some sort. So the Digital Library the Middle East—all of its assets, all of its digital surrogates, its representations and the metadata and the information pertaining to these objects—is scaled to be accessible through a laptop or a tablet or a smartphone. And one of the reasons for that is that we are working with companies to create school curricula out of the information that the Digital Library the Middle East houses—its repository—and to take aspects of that and turn it into courseware. And so that courseware, that coursework, and that information then becomes available to students over their phones. So we’re hoping that collectively building the Digital Library the Middle East with our with our regional partners, you not only have increased access to this wealth of information, some of which is threatened or has been lost, but it then becomes a link to the next generation. So it’s a bridge—it’s not just a kind of static repository but it’s a bridge. It represents a conversation—a generational conversation—that younger people who would be ordinarily deprived of access to this knowledge can in fact use it, and hopefully it becomes incorporated into their sense of self.

Kathlin Smith: We’ve talked a little bit about the idea of cultural rights in conjunction with access to one’s history and one’s cultural memory. How do cultural rights relate to, say, human rights or basic fundamental rights?

Charles Henry: In most of the studies—and cultural rights is a term that is becoming more and more prominent; I think it’s becoming more as a kind of in the public view over the last decade or so—it’s usually considered an extension of human rights, and specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the U.N. published right after World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—all of the articles in it—focuses on an individual. It’s an individual’s right to live freely and not to be coerced. It’s an individual’s right to access knowledge. It’s an individual’s right to have an education.

Charles Henry: What cultural rights does is extend that into a group. So it takes many of those principles and puts it into the context of a society or a community. In doing that, cultural rights posits that a community or a society has in certain ways inalienable rights to exercise its culture and to participate in its culture and to do so in a way that’s non-discriminatory and in an unthreatened way. So cultural rights has become more prominent, in part because of what we were talking about earlier in the way that culture can be used as a threat, and as something to be eliminated and something to be replaced by an alternative story or alternative narrative, or alternative identity. So cultural rights—particularly with ethnic minorities and indigenous people who are often at most risk through war and now, looking into the future, climate change—cultural rights has deeper and deeper resonance to that, and I would say that CLIR is working within the context of cultural rights in the sense that we want to preserve the cultures that are lost, or threatened to be lost, in order to try to obtain longer-term preservation and sustainability of that culture as a right, and as an extremely relevant integral part of human understanding.

Kathlin Smith: I’d like to go back to something you mentioned earlier, and that is the threat of the loss of digital information. We know that digital information is vulnerable not only because it’s kept on fragile media, but also because it’s literally ones and zeros that can’t be interpreted without the right hardware and software, which changes quickly in today’s world. And, increasingly, what we create today is in digital formats. So, as CLIR works to make knowledge more accessible by supporting digitization and digital infrastructure, we also know that digital information is especially vulnerable. This is a thorny problem, isn’t it?

Charles Henry: I’d agree. I think that you can go back to 1996. There was a task force on archiving digital information [4], which was new at the time—almost brand new. But everyone in the archival profession and the library profession realized that this was going to be quite a challenge, and there were a number of recommendations that were made in 1996. We are still wrestling with that. There has been no national systemic effort to make accessible and preserve this information. And we are many decades in and many terabytes under just a tsunami of digital information, much of which is critical to our survival.

I can say three very quick examples come to mind at the scope of this potential loss. And it’s not just the humanities. Look at the sciences. Most of the prestigious articles that have been published in Science over the last 20 to 25 years have been done through companies that are privately held, and those articles are put in repositories on their servers. And if those companies go out of business tomorrow, there is absolutely no guarantee that that wealth of scientific information is going to be accessible or preserved. It could go away. It could go dark almost in an instant. I’m also reminded of the 1960 census problems in the United States. The census is taken every 10 years. The 1960 census was done using a particular kind of punch card. So all the information that was gathered from the census was reinterpreted into punch cards and then used and analyzed. In the mid 80s, there was a reason to go back and review this data—parts of this data—and the U.S. Government Census Bureau discovered that there was not a single machine in the United States that could read those punch cards, that that technology had become obsolete, and our government agents I believe had to go to Tokyo—there was a technology museum—and found the machine that could read that information. That’s census information that was out of reach and completely inaccessible. Fortunately, there was recourse to a machine in another country. But that gives you the sense of the fragility of all this. The last example is that there’s a meeting this week in fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities that is co-hosted by the Mellon Foundation and the IMLS, and the focus of the meeting is the preservation of essential humanities projects and there is no formula at this point. There is no standard and there is no protocol, across hundreds of incredibly important humanities projects that had been paid for and developed over the last decade or so, that would guarantee their perpetuity in time. And so anywhere you look you see a loss of what we call and we have termed essential.

Kathlin Smith: And addressing the problem will require an unprecedented level of collaboration, new ways of collaboration, that have not proven to be very easy for us in the past.

Charles Henry: No, and when you look at—particularly focusing on higher education—the lack of incentives to really collaborate are profound. And part of that has to do with the competition of institutions: the institutions compete for faculty, they compete for students, they compete for funding; individual researchers are awarded and promoted because of their research, which is often not collaborative. There is a proprietary sense of ownership of data that’s created in laboratories and even in some of the humanities projects. So in certain ways we have the incentives not to collaborate. And I think that’s a major hurdle for us.

Kathlin Smith: And interestingly, when CLIR was formed more than 60 years ago, one of the rationales for its forming was the fact that in the post-war era, with the growth of research libraries, institutions were spending money in ways that duplicated each other, resources were not being wisely allocated for what were really shared problems. So it’s interesting to think that 60 years later, that problem continues to keep CLIR in business, but unfortunately we haven’t made as much progress to solving it as we would like to.

Charles Henry: Well we keep trying, and I think the insurgence of digital technology has really been more than disruptive. It has tangled us into many interesting virtual knots. And I never thought I’d say this, but I do look back fondly on the era of microfilm. It looked so much easier then.

Kathlin Smith: Well yeah. I don’t think there would be too many scholars who were sorry to say goodbye to microfilm, but you have a point about its permanence and that it can suffer benign neglect for the most part without disappearing, unlike digital information.

Kathlin Smith: Charles, it has been a pleasure to talk with you today; thank you.

Charles Henry: Thank you.

Kathlin Smith: Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll join us for our first full season of Material Memory, Celebrating the Year of Indigenous Languages, at

CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. Learn more about us at

If you want to find out more about preservation efforts happening in your area, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society to learn about their work and ways you can contribute to it. 

Behind The Mic

Kathlin Smith

Show Host

Kathlin Smith is director of communications at CLIR and coproducer of Material Memory

Charles Henry


Charles Henry is president of the Council on Library and Information Resources

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