Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
“The first step in liquidating a people … is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history.”Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1982, 159
The Diasporic Literary Archives projects and networks have provided an inspiring setting for scholars of diverse fields to explore the situation of literary archives that, for a variety of reasons, are dispersed around the world. The discussions and meetings of the network have led to initiatives and activities for the safeguarding and promotion of such archival collections. These initiatives range from educational programmes relating to digitization projects to the enhancing of physical preservation conditions and better descriptions of selected diasporic literary archives. All these results reflect how timely and relevant the creation of the network was.
Archives at Risk
The discussions around diasporic literary archives have also made it clear that some collections form part of a wider international issue for which the used terms have come to be either “archives at risk” or “documentary heritage at risk.” Access to a number of important cultural collections (literary, artistic, religious, or socio-cultural) is uncertain and their very survival is not guaranteed. The risks are multiple and are related to both natural and human-made threats and disasters. They include, but are not limited to, inappropriate conservation conditions, such as exposure to humidity, heat, insects, and water-infiltrations; lack of essential preservation measures; negligence; lack of organization and appraisal; fires; and natural disasters; as well as theft and deliberate destruction.
Archives and libraries have been destroyed on purpose throughout history, to eliminate knowledge that was perceived as dangerous for certain groups or persons in power or trying to seize power, or even in order to erase memory. As Emma Rothschild has convincingly demonstrated in her essay “The Archives of Universal History,” archives can embody and symbolize the universal. That is why Napoleon brought archives from different parts of Europe to Paris: universal power can be justified by the presence of universal archives. Preserving, stealing, or destroying archives represent different ways of fighting a global power game.
In recent years, we seem to be bearing witness to a surge in human-made threats against documentary heritage. The destruction of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2013 is a particularly striking and appalling example.
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