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Archives are fragile. They are easily destroyed by human hand, difficult environmental factors, or natural disasters, and are vulnerable to neglect, whether deliberate or due to severe lack of resources. Local custodians may not have the funding or the political willpower to protect important collections from physical deterioration. Over the past two decades many different organizations and initiatives have been established to address this challenge. However, the fragility of archives remains a live question. Much more work needs to be done to protect archives at risk at both a national and an international level, as well as to concert the work that is currently being carried out by myriad organizations across a variety of regions.
This essay explores initiatives within French-speaking transnational structures and contexts to protect literary archives. The situation in a number of francophone countries is critical. War and its aftermath, along with religious extremism, and political unrest threaten archive materials in francophone regions across Africa and the Middle East, notably the Republic of Congo, Mali, and Syria. In the Caribbean region, the situation in Haiti following the devastation caused by tropical storms and the earthquake in 2010 is particularly concerning. The question of the slender resources available to local institutions is perhaps the most serious threat to literary archives, and the francophone world includes some of the nations ranked lowest in the global development index, such as Haiti and Madagascar. As the Senegalese author and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor wrote in 1989, the “irreparable losses” of literary heritage “have been instrumental in permanently distorting the contribution of our peoples to universal civilization” (Senghor, 1989, 4). This risk remains important, and has become even more urgent with renewed threats from climate change and new forms of warfare.
Drawing together and sharing perspectives is essential to facing the problem of archives in danger, for the preservation of literary heritage is a global issue, but it is also highly localized, even personalized. Literary archives are the private papers of an individual, and may be dispersed across different regions and institutions due to the effects of diaspora and the cosmopolitanism of writers, just as they may be affected by national factors such as research priorities, copyright, funding, infrastructure, and questions of protecting national heritage.
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