Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan

Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan is Chair of the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Committee. She wrote the following article for the UKNC Network Link newsletter to celebrate the latest archival, documentary and audio-visual collections to join the UK Memory of the World Register.


The ability to recall the past accurately is a constant requirement. We all draw on the work of those before us to develop new ideas and inspire creativity, to inform policy, scientific research, business decisions and creative processes. We look back to the acts of others to inform our decisions and evidence past actions.

Organisations, communities and individuals all use records from the past to understand and demonstrate where they come from, enabling community cohesion and a sense of identity.

As a literate society we all leave an audit trail of documents as we go about our lives.  Photographs, research papers, till receipts, contracts – the list is endless and in some cases, mundane. Yet these are the contemporary voices of people as they go about their lives. Their authenticity is their strength and without them we could not recall and evidence the past. Archives are the by-products of human activity retained for their long-term historical value.

UNESCO, through its Memory of the World Programme, states that our rich, archival heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all, and should be permanently accessible to all.  The Programme aims to facilitate the preservation of, access to and awareness of the world’s archival inheritance.  The Registers (global and national) seek to promote awareness of archives by ‘inscribing’ collections judged by experts to be of particular outstanding significance.

The UK Register holds iconic documents such as Magna Carta and Domesday and writings from the likes of Churchill, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. There are also the less familiar like the Lothian Health Service Archive documenting the first attempts to treat HIV/Aids, the Roman Curses disclosing the worries of everyday people in Roman Britain as they prayed to Sulis Minerva for help, and Tony Benn’s experiment to print British stamps without the Queen’s head.

The Register reminds us that we are all creators of our own archive and guardians of the records created by those that went before us.  We have a duty to future generations to ensure our archival records are secure and coherent.  This is particularly true in the digital age where the voluminous quantities of records that we generate are more susceptible to destruction than a twelfth century parchment document.