UNESCO Memory of the World: what is its value?

June 8, 2013 0 Comments
Charter of King William 1 (London Metropolitan Archives)

Charter of King William 1 (London Metropolitan Archives)

Statutory protection for historic documentary collections in the UK is weak, with the exception of some highly specific categories of archives under the Public Record Acts. Similarly, non-statutory schemes that aim to identify such collections and grant institutional approval to them are rare, in comparison with programmes by national or international bodies to protect by reputation examples of the natural or built heritage, or collections of art or antiquities.

The Memory of the World scheme is therefore highly unusual, not only in UNESCO but also more generally.

The programme has three objectives:

  • to facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage
  • to assist universal access to documentary heritage
  • to increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage

Memory of the World was launched in 1992 and its global register of recognised collections in 1997 (it includes just eight UK items).

Later this international register was joined by national registers, organised by committees in the relevant countries. The UK register was instituted in July 2010, with the aim of recognising documentary items and collections significant in a British context. It is superintended by a UK national committee, established in 2008 and responsible for soliciting and evaluating applications from around the country. Criteria for inclusion include authenticity, ‘national’ significance and other kinds of significance. 29 items or collections have been inscribed into the UK register so far, in 2010 and 2011 (inscriptions for 2012 are due to announced in July 2013). They include:

  • the Peniarth collection of Welsh manuscripts and the early film The life story of Lloyd George, 1918 (National Library of Wales)
  • the Death Warrant of King Charles I, 1649 (Parliamentary Archives)
  • the Jersey Occupation Archive (Jersey Heritage)
  • the Edinburgh and Lothian HIV/AIDS Collection, 1983-2010 (Lothian Health Services Archive)
  • the Children’s Society Archive (Children’s Society)

The question that I want to answer is this: given that Memory of the World status is an uncommon accolade, what is its value as perceived by the guardians of the British documentary collections that have been recognised by UNESCO?

In May 2013 I wrote to 24 archives and other institutions that between them had 29 collections inscribed in the UK register during the two years of the scheme so far, and I asked each of them to assess, briefly and informally, what they thought the worth of the inscription was to their own institution.

21 of the institutions (87.5%) replied. I am very grateful for the invariably informative and helpful responses of their staff. Some of them issued caveats. Zhou Enlai is supposed to have said, when asked about the effect of the French Revolution, ‘it’s too early to tell’, and these respondents pointed out that the outcomes of their UNESCO recognition were likely to be long-term, and so had not yet been realised. Some respondents also wanted to emphasise that it was difficult to quantify the benefits of inscription, or to attribute success unequivocally to UNESCO’s endorsement.

The respondents identified three overlapping types of value to the inscription.

1  Gaining public recognition

First, and most generally, it was welcomed as lending a recognised status to a collection whose importance that had been understood and valued internally, but not acknowledged or fully appreciated by the world outside the archive – the parent institution, the external archive community, the wider public, funders, or others.

The Archivist of the Royal Bank of Scotland expresses this well:

I think the real benefit for us is that it serves as both external corroboration and convenient shorthand for something we’d have been saying anyway – that these records are special, and important to our shared cultural heritage. When people read/hear the words ‘UNESCO Memory of the World’, they get the idea pretty quickly.
(Customer account ledgers of Edward Backwell, 1663-72)

Death warrant of King Charles I (Parliamentary Archives)

Death warrant of King Charles I (Parliamentary Archives)

Similarly the Parliamentary Archives felt that their inscription served to increase awareness of their existence and resources, especially among internal users:

The wider national significance of the historic records held in the Parliamentary Archives is sometimes not realized, both internally and externally, and UNESCO’s Memory of the World register serves as external validation of the national importance of Parliament’s collections. It therefore assists in showing internal stakeholders such as MPs, peers and staff the need for the services offered by the Archives, and helps publicise the holdings of the Archives to new external audiences.
(Death Warrant of King Charles I, 1649; The Bill of Rights, 1689)

Internal advantages were also reported by the Children’s Society:

The Register entry has played an important role in enhancing the importance of the Archive collection within the Children’s Society, helping to raise awareness about it as a resource and better place it within corporate strategic planning processes and gain recognition with the Board.
(The Children’s Society Archive)

Sometimes the Memory of the World award can make the critical difference between obscurity and recognition, as the WRVS case shows:

[Inscription] proved a tipping point, delivering official recognition of the importance of the collection and changing the balance of opinion.
(WVS/WRVS narrative reports, 1939-96)

This internal recognition brought real benefits to the archive:

For the first time we have been able to put in place policy documents for the care of our collection, increase staff hours and make a significant investment in staff training …

Edinburgh and Lothian HIVAIDS Collections

The Lothian Health Services Archive emphasises the sense of pride and forward momentum that followed inscription:

There have been many positive outcomes to the inclusion of the Edinburgh and Lothian HIV/AIDS Collections to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. These outcomes are difficult to quantify or measure in a meaningful way, but inscription to the Register has certainly helped raise our profile, and has demonstrated the value of the collections as a whole by highlighting the designation of a key part of the archive. Registration has also provided focus for exhibition programmes, tours, talks, promotional material etc. Registration is a real source of pride, which is reflected in both the material itself and the services we offer around that material.

And finally, the Norfolk Record Office also uses the word ‘pride’:

We are immensely proud of our UNESCO UK Memory of the World inscription, which was cited by many people who sent messages to the recently retired County Archivist, Dr John Alban, as one of the outstanding achievements of his tenure.
(The Medieval Records of St Giles’s Hospital, Norwich)

2  Securing publicity and promotion

More specifically, inscription offered the chance to publicise and promote the collection, and by extension the whole archive, through the direct use of the UNESCO name and the programme name, Memory of the World.

The archives of Lloyds Bank took full advantage of their inscription:

We used the nomination and our attendance at the award ceremony to generate publicity and news stories about our archives (including on our corporate external website and our internal intranet). We produced flyers about the nomination to hand out to visitors at our Museum on the Mound (where several of the more iconic items from the Bank of Scotland collection are on display to the public), and used the MOTW logo (with permission from Unesco MOTW) on our exterior Museum signage. We also purchased one of the MOTW plaques to display in our archive building in Edinburgh.
(Bank of Scotland Archives, 1695-2001)

For Liverpool Archives inscription came at a crucial time:

This has been beneficial in terms of favourable and extensive publicity at the time of the inscription and on occasions thereafter.
We have just re-opened to the public after a major redevelopment of our building and we have put the letter on display along with other relevant archives about the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in one of our new showcases along with the UNESCO UK Memory of the World plaque and information. This will have been seen by around 30,000 visitors in the past week.
(Letter from George Stephenson, 1827)

Small archives, like the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, are particularly appreciative:

For the YAS an attraction of applying for enrolment on the UK MoW register is that as a small organisation we find it difficult to publicise our holdings and we wanted to find a way to tell more people about the importance of our collections.
(Wakefield Court Rolls)

3  Attracting resources

Finally, the UNESCO inscription can be used in efforts to attract resources, especially financial grants, to maintain, extend or exploit the collections. Funding bodies invariably have to make difficult decisions based on their assessment of the value of collections, and a UNESCO validation, as a powerful proxy guarantor of significance, could influence their judgement to the benefit of the institution.

Only one of the respondents, BT Archives, could point to the Memory of the World status contributing directly to funding applications or success:

[The inscription] supported our successful bid to JISC in partnership with Coventry University and The National Archives for £745K in a million pound project to digitise and publish online a core element of the collections – including the UNESCO recognised BT research archive collection up to 1981 … [It also supported] subsequent research funding bids to the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for PhD and postdoctoral research projects on telecommunications themes in 2011 – 2012, in partnership with other institutions such as the Science Museum; Museum of History of Science, Oxford; Leeds University; Manchester University etc.
(BT Research Centre Collection, 1878-1995)

Hampshire Record Office reported:

I cannot say that so far this award has directly resulted in funding. However, it may have been a contributory factor to our success in a National Cataloguing Grants Programme bid to upgrade the catalogue of the Winchester Bishopric archive – the collection to which the Pipe Rolls belong. This project is about to start.
(Winchester Pipe Rolls)

And another respondent had used the inscription in a soon-to-be successful funding application.

Others, like the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, said they fully intended to use their inclusion in Memory of the World in future funding bids:

We also hope in the future to be able to use the MoW status to find funding to conserve the rolls. We had a successful campaign in the 1990s to undertake the conservation of the early rolls, but there is still lots to be done.
(Wakefield Court Rolls)

These, then, are the three main types of benefit that holding institutions perceive in their Memory of the World status.

The Wedgwood Museum archive

One further possible advantage should be mentioned. Abroad, documentary heritage collections do not enjoy the same security as most UK collections. One thinks of the remarkable manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali, threatened by the recent Islamist invasion (these were not, incidentally, included in the international register before the crisis). But even in the UK collections can be neglected or even destroyed, as in the case of the student record archives of Ruskin College, Oxford in 2012. There is one collection that has received a UK Memory of the World inscription in 2011 that faces an uncertain future: the archives of the Wedgwood Museum. The Museum’s Trust was placed in administration in 2010, following financial difficulties over the company’s pension fund shortfall. In the words of the Archivist:

From that point onwards it has been essential for the museum to highlight wherever possible the importance of the collections. The UNESCO Memory of the World register gave us an opportunity to do that with the museum’s archive collections. In terms of advocacy it continues to be of immense help. For example, whenever I lead a guided tour or archive handling session with members of the public I specifically tell them about our inclusion on the Register and some other items that are also on the Register in order for them to grasp the importance of the collections – especially as this is awarded by a body such as UNESCO. Inclusion on the register also means that whenever any risk to our collections has in the past reported by the media, the UNESCO listing of the archive has also been reported – again underlining the immense importance of the collections and contributing to the shared desire that they should be saved in perpetuity for the nation and future generations from the Potteries.
(Wedgwood Museum Archive)

Documentary Heritage of the Womens Suffrage Movement in Britain 1865 1928

It’s also worth recalling that the future of a 2011 recipient of a Memory of the World inscription, the Women’s Library, was thrown into doubt by the decision of London Metropolitan University in 2012 to discard it, until the London School of Economics intervened to give it a new home.

Even in the UK, then, the Memory of the World programme cannot avoid issues of the continued existence of documentary collections.

To sum up, what conclusions can be drawn from the UK Memory of the World programme so far, based on the experience of those whose collections have been recognised?

1  Memory of the World is valuable to collection owners and curators

Lloyd George Title Frame

The programme certainly confers advantages that give it real value in the eyes of the owners and curators of collections.

According to the National Library of Wales

A UNESCO inscription establishes the importance of the item or collection and in turn the institution or body that holds and preserves the ‘inscripted’ materials well beyond the confines of the holding body and its locality.
(Peniarth Manuscript Collection; The Life Story of David Lloyd George)

Manchester University Library’s verdict is:

We therefore firmly endorse the continued value of UNESCO’s Memory of the World UK Register, as the ‘gold standard’ for the UK’s documentary heritage and as an excellent means of promoting it.
(Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book)

Norfolk Record Office also stresses the significance of the UNESCO name and expresses gratitude for the UK administrators of the Memory of the World scheme:

The UNESCO name has a real cachet: perhaps particularly here in Norwich, which is now England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, and I know some of the people working on the City of Literature bid were impressed at our inscription … We appreciate that a good deal of voluntary work must go into administering the scheme in the UK, and I would like the people concerned to know what a valuable role I feel they are playing in UK archives.
(The Medieval Records of St Giles’s Hospital, Norwich)

The status Memory of the World brings helps collections in their relationships with many groups, not least their parent organisations. It is helpful in promoting the use and visibility of collections. And, potentially at least, it may be able to strengthen funding cases to external bodies. It is especially valuable in the absence of other systematic validators of collection significance.

2  Memory of the World is especially valuable to smaller institutions

A theme that recurs in the responses is the special importance of a Memory of the World badge to smaller archives, who generally lack the visibility enjoyed by larger ones and the resources needed to promote their collections and attract finance to develop them.

I think it helps smaller institutions or those outside the mainstream academic / research sector more – for example corporate archives, always under threat as non-commercial arms of commercial entities.
(Bodleian Libraries, Oxford: Cura Pastoralis of Gregory; The Gough Map)

3  Memory of the World is catholic in its selection of collections

A striking aspect of the UK register is its catholicity. All kinds of institution have received recognition: public, private and third sector, from all parts of the UK (except for Northern Ireland). Collections vary in date from the early middle ages to the contemporary, in medium from parchment manuscripts to photographs and films, in language (Latin, Welsh and English) and in form from administrative and legal documents to personal archives. And ‘significance’ is interpreted liberally, with reference to a broad range of criteria.

This hospitability is to be welcomed: it reflects a generous approach to what constitutes a documentary collection, and should enable Memory of the World to admit new collections of all kinds – including archives in digital and hybrid formats (of which there are no examples so far).


This is the text of a talk given at a UK National Commission for UNESCO colloquium, ‘Supporting UNESCO effectiveness and reform’, held at Aberystwyth on 6 June 2013. The author is grateful to all the archivists and others who volunteered information in response to the survey of holders of inscribed collections.

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