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Content at Risk: Heritage and Culture Lost in Natural Calamities

Content at Risk: Heritage and Culture Lost in Natural Calamities

“When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages – a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.”

– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Smell of the past, the history that shapes mankind – our culture and existence. Libraries, over centuries, have been a storehouse of all these and more. As Doris Lessing rightly said, a public library is the most democratic thing in the world.

However, these storehouses of knowledge is not free from risk. Natural calamities, be it earthquakes, fires and power outages, floods, heavy rains, or hurricanes and tsunamis have destroyed libraries over the centuries, resulting in the loss of valuable content.

Looking back, we have witnessed libraries being subjected to fire outrages sporadically over the centuries – be it destruction of Library of Nalanda in India, the accidental burning of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the Library of Alexandria, or the recent outrage at the Delhi Museum of Natural History. The loss from such natural disasters is immeasurable – because there are no absolute numbers of how it affects the readers.

How we can secure this valuable content – you may ask! The only viable solution is digitization. Digitization has many advantages. Not only does it speed up search methods and broaden access for academics and scholars, but it also makes it possible for content to be accessed anytime, anywhere. Sharing it online also gives it global access and helps in research.

Institutions like public and private museums, libraries, and historical society archives can benefit immensely from digitization. It lets them make their collection public and preserves their collections in a modern reusable format.

Digital asset managers are working overtime to digitize the content and manuscripts to save it from the wrath of nature. Not only are they digitizing the content, but new features are also being developed that allow researchers to view networks of relationships across collections, enabling researchers to track an individual name across multiple collections. As Ben Vershbow, Director of NYPL Labs foresees, such networks tying millions of documents together will allow curators and researchers to identify new relationships.

With digitization, the volume of archival collections available electronically have increased manifold. As libraries collaborate with each other to create comprehensive digital repositories, digitization reduces the risk of theft and wear and tear of the original copy. Therefore, in spite of the high cost involved, the preservation opportunities is worth the manpower and expenses involved.

Libraries like Vatican, New York Public Library, and some libraries in Japan have already started digitizing content to safe keep the archives. So in near future, if you are a researcher of history, it’s not difficult to access rare manuscripts and important resources from the comfort of your home. All you need is an online membership, which may be in another country or continent.