The Memory of the World (MOTW) Program identifies and protects significant documentary heritage. Part of the Australian MOTW program seeks significant Australian documentary heritage that can no longer be located. The Australian Lost and Missing project, based at Charles Sturt University, is the first in the world to attempt a register of lost and missing documentary heritage. This paper describes the activities of the project
during 2003-04, building on the article by Harvey in the Australian Library Journal in May 2003. It notes the evolution of methodological approaches to identify material that no longer exists.
An absence of records can, in itself, be seen as evidence (Sassoon 2000: 113)
'MUCH CULTURAL MATERIAL HAS ALWAYS BEEN LOST TO FOLLOWING GENERATIONS, through accident or intent', Marilyn Deegan and Simon Tanner (2002: np) note.
Sometimes we know what has been lost, as in the case of the destruction of the statues of Buddha by the Taliban in 2001, sometimes we don't, as in the Viking raids on Anglo-Saxon monasteries or the plundering of churches by Cromwellian forces.
Historically this has always been the case, so why is it worth examining further? What conditions are different? They continue:
But we are facing a new situation where, without urgent action, a digital black hole could open up in late 20th- and early 21st-century written culture--truly a digital dark age from which information may never reappear.
For some countries the loss of heritage materials is well documented. For example, the losses in Iraq in recent years are of great concern and have been notified to the international library and information management community Although it is difficult to estimate the extent of destruction in Iraqi libraries and archives, it is acknowledged to be significant. This has been noted in surveys done for UNESCO in 2003 (Arnoult 2003), the Library of Congress in conjunction with the United States State Department (Deeb, Albin and Haley 2003; Russell 2004), and the USAID-SUNY StoW Brook University Program in Archaeology and Environmental Health (Filstrup 2004). The theme of the destruction of heritage materials is amplified in detail and extended backwards in time in Lost Libraries (Raven 2004).
More recently, information professionals have paid considerable attention to the consequences of loss of distal information. Increasing awareness of the threats of technological obsolescence of these materials is hastening the efforts to address the challenges posed. This awareness can be readily observed in the commitment of government funding in the United States and Britain to digital preservation. An example of this is the distribution by the United Kingdom's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in October 2004 of grants totaling more than 1 million [pounds sterling] to nine higher educational institutions for digital preservation and asset management ('Education gets lm' [pounds sterling] 2004); on a much larger scale is the appropriation by the United States' Congress in 2000 of $100 million for the Library of Congress 'to develop a national program to develop standards and a nationwide collaborative collection and long-term preservation strategy for digital materials' (National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program 2000). It is difficult to locate specific examples of loss of digital information--typically there is an unwillingness to discuss and document failures--but examples that have come to light in interviews with Australian preservation specialists in 2004 have included early web sites in Tasmania, and databases of records developed by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. There are undoubtedly more.
But while the loss of heritage materials in other countries is in some cases well documented, it has not so far been addressed in Australia. This paper describes the activities to date of the Lost and Missing Australian Documentary Heritage project, noting in particular the results of a survey of almost 600 archival institutions carried out in the first part of 2004. Conclusions are drawn from the results of this survey and future directions for the project are noted.
Australia's Lost and Missing Documentary Heritage Project
The UNESCO Memory of the World (MOTW) Program and its local version Australian Memory of the World have been described elsewhere (Harvey 2003; Harvey and Howell 2004). UNESCO'S Program, established in 1992, aims to preserve documentary heritage that has world significance, and ensure enduring access to it. As Harvey and Howell (2004: 3) note,
[it] proceeds on the assumption that there is documentary heritage of such intellectual value that it is deemed to transcend the boundaries of time and culture, …