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Front facing portrait of Dr Banda. He is wearing a dark blue suit and tie, smiling at the camera.
Portrait of Dr. Banda, UNESCO Chief of Documentary Heritage. Fackson Banda, 2019.

The Impact of Jikji: A Conversation with UNESCO Documentary Heritage Unit Chief, Dr. Fackson Banda

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Earlier in the year, scholars met at the Jikji colloquium at the Library of Congress, for a multi-disciplinary collaboration to discuss the history of printing and how to convert their knowledge of expertise to the public. This interview was conducted by Chloe Genter, with Dr Fackson Banda, Chief of the Documentary Heritage Unit, Communication and Information Sector at UNESCO, and discusses the impact of Jikji, and the role of documentary heritage within cultural institutions and beyond.

 

You spoke about the Buljo jikji simche yojeol, the oldest existing book of movable metal print in the world, at a recent colloquium at the Library of Congress. In what ways is UNESCO working towards raising awareness of Jikji’s role in the print history of humanity?

The Jikji is a major byproduct of the invention of printing. It is an example of the type of documentary heritage that can be derived from such a technological invention. But it goes beyond being just a manifestation of such early forms of printing. I think, firstly, it highlights the universality of printing. Printing, both as a technological breakthrough and cultural practice, was dispersed geographically, enabling the world to benefit from its effects on society and culture. This enables us to see the historical evolution of printing from woodblock, cast-metal type, etc. not only as a shared scientific and technological breakthrough but also as an inflection point for human civilization. Indeed, the very emergence of the public sphere – as a forum for people to interact and debate issues of their time – was in part a consequence of printing – whether of pamphlets, prototypical newspapers, or books. In other words, printing contributed towards the emergence of documentary heritage itself as an epistemic source in the formation of knowledge systems, such as religion, astronomy, philosophy, science, etc.

Secondly, and linked to my first observation, given that cast-metal type, as a form of printing, existed alongside other forms of printing, and indeed pre-dated some of these, it is arguable that knowledge of printing is not a vertical hierarchy but a horizontal accumulation of knowledge, skills and practices that are sharpened through sharing and cooperation. The Jikji also helps us, in this way, to challenge historical orthodoxies that may suggest, for example, that the first Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg, introduced the world to movable type. Well, by highlighting the Jikji, we now know that there were, in fact, multiple similar printing traditions across the world, including China, Korea, Egypt, etc. which pre-dated the Gutenberg Bible.

Thus, the Jikji allows us not only to have a more complete and accurate historical accounting but also to demonstrate how inter-connected our world truly is. That is why, for UNESCO, acknowledging the world significance of documentary heritage – such as that of the Jikji – is to fulfil the organization’s constitutional mandate towards developing such “means of communication” between its Member States “for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.”

 

In what ways do you think the current and future generations can understand and appreciate Jikji today, in a world where social media and digital information are so dominant?

Social media and digital information, by their nature, tend to churn out ephemeral content, caught up in how easily such content can be dredged up and disseminated. To a large extent, the content tends to be less deliberative than that emanating from the older forms of printing which gave rise to the Jikji, for example. Although early printing may also have had its share of excitement and resulted in the production of ‘corantos’ – a precursor to the modern newspaper – its byproducts generally took longer to produce and were far more engaged with the deliberative public sphere.

This is the context in which one can appreciate the value of the Jikji, in comparison to the modern digital age. However, this does not mean that newer technologies have not qualitatively contributed to the workings of the modern public sphere; they have. And more importantly, they extend the reach of the older byproducts of printing, such as the Jikji.  Indeed, we should acknowledge that printing resulted in mass-produced printed books, many of which will not be part of our literature review on any given topic.

However, at the core of the technology that led the printing culture, along with the products of that technology, are legitimate questions about preservation and accessibility, largely in response to the need to ensure that the technology and its end-products can still serve as sources of information and knowledge for our modern societies. In my view, efforts at continued preservation and accessibility of these byproducts are particularly important, given the rapid evolution of technology, and the challenge of establishing models and processes for preserving both analogue and digital heritage objects. For example, the Jikji itself is digitized and is more widely available. The need remains, however, to ensure there is more awareness of its existence and the lessons it holds for our and future generations.

 

What do you think is the most challenging element for educational and collecting institutions in preserving documentary heritage, and how can they address this?

The oft-cited financial incapacity, along with inadequate institutional and national policies to guide investment in the protection of documentary heritage. This is particularly so for memory institutions in poorer countries, including Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). And these tend to be more exposed to natural and man-made disasters, which militate against the preservation of documentary heritage. UNESCO piloted a survey covering 30 countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Europe to assess risk preparedness in memory institutions, with results indicating that of the 63 memory institutions surveyed, 40 did not have a written management plan in the event of any emergency or disaster. This explains why capacity-building is key, along with enacting the kinds of policies that can have a predictable framework for making resources available for such memory institutions. As part of this, digitization is an important aspect to ensure digital copies of documentary heritage are available for wider use and re-use.

A key remedial issue here is capacity building, including for emergency preparedness, which UNESCO is involved in. There is also ongoing advocacy for UNESCO Member States to continue implementing the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form – a standard-setting instrument that assists Member States to identify, preserve and access documentary heritage within the context of an enabling policy environment as well as national and international cooperation.

 

Recognizing UNESCO initiatives such as the “Software Source Code as Heritage” and “Platform to Enhance the Sustainability of the Information Society Transglobally”, what are some innovative ways UNESCO is building upon these initiatives to further reach the goal for accessibility for all?

UNESCO’s PERSIST and Software Source Code as Heritage initiatives are aimed at drawing greater attention to the need for the preservation of digital heritage. Digital heritage, especially of the born-digital type, is in greater danger of loss than analogue documentary heritage. To this end, UNESCO has been, through its Memory of the World Programme:

Cooperating with software research institutions to strengthen their support for the Software Heritage initiative, as a way of enhancing awareness of the importance of preserving and providing access to source code as heritage for sustainable development. For example, UNESCO co-hosted with Inria (a French computing and research institute) a symposium on software source code as documentary heritage and an enabler for digital skills education. Taking place on 7 February 2023 at UNESCO Headquarters, the event also focused on perspectives on long-term preservation of software source code as digital heritage. 132 people had registered to participate, 17 of whom as speakers.

Supporting the setting up of a platform of “Software Stories” aimed at introducing a new way to showcase software as digital heritage for sustainable development. To do this, UNESCO supported Software Heritage to collaborate with the sciencestories.io team and the University of Pisa to select pieces of software source code to be showcased to a wide range of software enthusiasts without any technical background. The long-term goal is to collect, preserve and share source code as a precious asset of humankind, with an interface designed to highlight materials about a software title in a visual manner, similar to a digital software museum. The presentation took place as part of an event called the Software Heritage Acquisition Process (SWHAP) Days, held on 19 and 20 October 2022 under the theme: Software Preserving our Landmark Legacy Software: Collect, Archive, Display.

Supporting digital preservation of documentary heritage, especially in Africa (Ivory Coast, Mali, Sudan, for example). Such support has ensured greater awareness of the existence of world-significant documents, and thus enabling greater access to them by students, scholars, and other stakeholders.

 

How does UNESCO see the relationship between its documentary heritage work, and the preservation and conservation field, evolving or growing currently and in the future?

UNESCO is taking advantage of advances in digital technologies to broaden its partnerships to include institutions that are on the cutting edge of digital preservation. The lessons of Covid-19, as well as the other ongoing crises, include ensuring that analogue documentary heritage is preserved in digital formats that transcend such analogue documentary heritage, and can be more easily and widely shared across borders. That is a guarantee for safeguarding documentary heritage across time and space. An area of work that is little explored but is certainly happening across the preservation and conservation field, is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be exploited for enhanced digital preservation and – dare I say – accessibility of documentary heritage. This is very promising, particularly with respect to the potential for AI to be proactively used to decode ancient languages in which some of the documentary heritage may be written. This will enable even greater utilization of documentary heritage, such as ancient manuscripts recorded in languages that may have died out or face the threat of extinction.

 

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