Preserving our cultural heritage

Dr Maja Krtalić, a Senior Lecturer in Information Studies, is working to ensure our cultural heritage isn’t lost.

Dr Maja Krtalić

While studying librarianship and information science in the late 1990s, Dr Krtalić became fascinated by the transition of information institutions (such as libraries, archives, and museums) from the physical to the digital world. While volunteering on projects organising monastery libraries in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dr Krtalić began to wonder how our cultural heritage might be preserved in the digital world.

“We found books in these libraries from the 17th and 18th centuries that survived centuries of neglect, wars, and natural disasters—or that were simply forgotten. In those books, we found traces left by people who made them, owned them, read them,” says Dr Krtalić. “I wondered what will be left from the complexity of the digital world we live in and the information we create and share.”

Dr Krtalić continued to explore these ideas, completing a PhD on the preservation management of written heritage at the University of Zadar, Croatia in 2010, and is now focused on personal information management and personal heritage—the heritage hidden in people’s personal collections and their significance for collective memory.

“Our actions are often determined by our collective and individual identity. This identity is shaped by the memory and knowledge of past experiences and events. Preservation of cultural heritage is about that, capturing the content and context of the past and present,” says Dr Krtalić. “With digital technology developments, the potential for the preservation of culture and heritage has increased drastically but so have the threats to its longevity.”

One of the largest threats, says Dr Krtalić, is the attitude that things will last forever and always be available—which isn’t the case.

“Digital content is prone to obsolescence and decay far more than paper or textile, and it is far less forgiving to human errors,” says Dr Krtalić.

Another challenge to the preservation of cultural heritage is the vast quantity of data that is produced today.

“If you think about what a single person produces in a day and multiply it by the world’s population, the inevitable question is: What should be kept for the future out of all that?” says Dr Krtalić. “Research in cultural heritage explores not just how to maintain our inheritance and pass it on to future generations, but the research also explores why libraries, archives and museums are irreplaceable as concepts regardless of whether they come in the form of grand centuries-old buildings or as a living person containing intangible heritage of their community.”

Dr Krtalić’s most recent research paper, Cultural information needs of long-settled immigrants, their descendants and family members: use of collective and personal information sources about the home country explores how immigrants seek and use information about their country of origin.

“This paper builds on research on the information behaviour of immigrants. In other words, how people migrating from one country to another search for information, access information sources and use information,” says Dr Krtalić. “My research focused on a less explored population of long-settled immigrants and their families. I was curious about whether people need information about their home country after so many years living elsewhere and how they use it.”

Dr Krtalić found that long-settled immigrants do need information about their home country, language and heritage but that need depends on life events, such as naming a child, or personal interest. Technology has made it easier to find this information, but friends and family remain the most trusted sources of information.

“There were two very interesting findings in the research,” says Dr Krtalić. “First, information challenges for long-settled immigrants and their families do not lie in access to information as much as in its interpretation. When we are not immersed in a culture or country, it becomes hard to understand the context and interpret information accurately. For example, why something is in the news, not just what the news says,

“Second, personal collections are important information sources for immigrants and their families. Photographs, books, objects and documents in personal collections contain information about the family history and customs and can serve as identity anchors. They are our personal database.”

In her research, Dr Krtalić also found there was an increased interest in maintaining personal culture and history, especially in young people.

“Two factors contribute to that,” says Dr Krtalić. “Increasingly positive attitudes to multiculturalism in New Zealand society, and technology that offers interesting tools to assist family historians in their search.

“One remaining challenge is how to capture and present family stories. That’s what people want advice on, how to use information from their personal collections about their family history and culture and tell their stories in a creative format.”

Currently, Dr Krtalić is working on two projects. The first is a project called Hidden Heritage which is focused on exploring the heritage potential within personal collections of people who did something important for New Zealand.

“We look at how significant individuals or family members who inherit their collections organise and preserve personal collections. Organisation and preservation include, for example, deciding how to act, how to share these collections, and how to deal with the affective and legal aspects of this process. The extent to which emotions affect how we manage information is fascinating.”

The second is focused on tattoos as information objects.

“My colleague, Jennifer Campbell Meier, and I are exploring the information behaviour of people who have tattoos on their bodies or are about to get one. Information behaviour means searching for information about the tattoo process, deciding on the tattoo image, communicating with a tattoo artist, caring for your tattoos, and sharing and telling stories about your tattoos with others. Different social and cultural contexts give additional complexity to the information behaviour of people wanting a tattoo.”

Overall, Dr Krtalić hopes that her research will help people and organisations manage and preserve data and information.

“I also hope to bring public attention to the fact that we need libraries, archives and museums today more than ever. You will often come across the misconception that Google is enough. But heritage institutions are so much more than searchable storage of information. They are social places, safe places, discovery places, identity places, memory places, and society's voices.

“What I hope most, I guess, is that my research will add something to the way we lead conversations about information and heritage today and in the future.”

Learning and Teaching Director
School of Information Management