Digital Archives

Digital Archives

New technologies, including digitisation in particular, offer new opportunities for recording and storing information on cultural heritage sites, historic monuments and the fabric of historic old cities. Relevant plans, images, property titles and other documents can be digitised both on a large scale and at reasonable cost.

By compiling and combining historical and contemporary information from different sources, over time digital archives can harbour a wealth of knowledge on the physical shape and social fabric of a city or place as it evolves.

In the specific context of war and the widespread devastation of cultural heritage in old cities, digital archives can serve as an important memory of conditions before the conflict.

How can digital archives be used?

Digital documentation and archiving of heritage buildings and monuments can be used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Emergency safeguarding of information that is under threat of loss or destruction in an ongoing conflict (see: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage)
  • As a reference for deliberations on the vision and objectives for reconstruction of the damaged cityscape.
  • As a reference on pre-conflict status and conditions (floor plans, façade elevations, photographs, etc.) that can be linked to damage assessments for historic monuments and buildings as a basis for repair, restoration or reconstruction works
  • For documenting and supporting the assertion of ownership/property rights in heritage buildings if the legitimate owner has been displaced
  • If prompt reconstruction is ruled out by the lack of a stable peace agreement and/or financial resources, digital maintenance-software.org archives can serve as a record of the post-conflict and/or original building condition, and facilitate restoration in due course. A case in point is the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, where reconstruction was delayed for more than 40 years and did not start until German reunification had brought about a conducive political environment.

Users and target audience

The main users of digital archives are likely to be professional practitioners, such as architects, art historians and archaeologists. The information they contain on individual heritage buildings can also be useful for building owners who have been displaced, or for their heirs or legal successors.

Digital archives also address a broader audience, including the general public. They can raise awareness of the loss of cultural heritage during a conflict, maintain and promote a sense of cultural identity among refugees and internally displaced persons, and make a case for protecting, restoring and recovering lost or damaged heritage once hostilities cease.

Technical approaches and instruments

Database development

© Issam Hajjar/SHAP

Initial decisions have to be taken concerning the design, content and structure of the database that will underpin the digital archive. To some extent, these aspects will depend on its principal intended use and target audience, and the envisaged procedures for its operation and maintenance.

In some cases, especially if there are any urban rehabilitation or restoration projects that pre-date the conflict, it may be possible to build on existing databases or archives. A case in point is the university project Aleppo Archive in Exile, which has produced a detailed digital map of the old city of Aleppo as it existed before the armed conflict there.

A key preliminary decision concerns the choice of an appropriate database model, e.g. hierarchical or relational. The database should allow for the systematic storage of all relevant information in a variety of file formats encompassing text, images, video and audio. The main categories for storing, processing, filtering and retrieving data also have to be determined from the outset.

Depending on the intended use and target audience of the digital archive, the database can be developed either as a standalone solution or by adapting an open source database model, such as SQL or PHP, which are particularly suitable for web-based archives.

Collecting information

© Karin Pütt

Collecting information is one of the key activities when establishing a digital archive of urban cultural heritage. Relevant information, such as plans, architectural drawings, documents, photographs and videos, often exists only in an analogue format. Potential sources include academic and research institutions, museums, public archives, and private owners, tenants or collectors.

Given the vast array of sources, a network of specialists and professionals is needed to research and collect as much relevant information as possible. It is crucial to establish contact, while hostilities are still ongoing, with professionals who have worked, or are still working, in antiquities departments, academic institutions, research centres and city archives.

Social media and crowdsourcing can be used to encourage private individuals to make data and information available. Addressing the relevant audiences is a task for experienced social media and public outreach managers.

Digitisation of data

© Monika Skolimowska/Picture alliance/dpa

All the collected information has to be categorised and named according to the database structure, and digitised in appropriate data formats:

  • In a simple solution, the information can be scanned and stored as image files with additional metadata as needed.
  • In a more sophisticated approach, maps, plans and other visual information can be vectorised to facilitate their integration into digital base maps or geographic information systems, and written information can be transformed into text in order make integration easier and allow the implementation of more comprehensive search functions.

Data consistency, integrity and security are among the other key aspects to be considered when developing and managing digital archives, especially during an armed conflict. From a longer-term perspective, compatibility with future formats and technologies is another important issue.

Links to geographical information


The information contained in a digital archive can be linked to geographic information or integrated in a geographical information systems (GIS) that allows the processing of spatial and locational data. A precondition of such integration is the consistent geo-referencing of all objects contained in the database.

A simple solution is to link database objects to Google Maps or a similar open source mapping system.

A more sophisticated option entails integrating the database in a fully-fledged GIS that allows spatial information to be presented, processed and visualised in thematic layers. In this case, vectorised information from the database could be integrated in the GIS base maps.

The Syrian Heritage Archive Project (SHAP)


The war in Syria has already destroyed a large portion of the country`s outstanding heritage, and still poses a serious threat to the cultural legacy that remains. The assets include valuable historical documents, which serve as pillars of Syrian identity. Thus far, however, no comprehensive scientific recording or archiving of these assets has taken place.

International teams worldwide are putting great effort into saving the Syrian heritage by systematically documenting the various data and collections, and building online archives. One of the initiatives contributing to this endeavour is the Syrian Heritage Archive Project – a cooperation between the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art) in Berlin and the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). It is being funded by the German Federal Foreign Office with the support of the Friends of the Museum of Islamic Art.

It is seeking to develop a comprehensive national register of cultural heritage for presentation to Syrian institutions, once hostilities have ceased, as a useful resource in the context of recovery and reconstruction. The project design gives consideration to the perceived interests of potential Syrian users.

In addition to documenting and mapping important buildings and monuments, the project intends to develop a standardised approach, aligned with proven international standards, that can also be applied and used in other contexts.

In November 2013 the project began to digitise the archives of both the Museum of Islamic Art and the German Archaeological Institute, which comprise extensive analogue material, such as photos, documents, plans and maps.

Two German-Syrian teams in Berlin are viewing, digitising and archiving the research data contained in these archives. The data are then entered in a structured and standardised form into iDAI.welt, which is the digital research environment of the DAI. Alongside an internal image database of the Museum of Islamic Art, created with the web-based easydb application, the following components of this environment are being used:

The project’s IT architecture is based on international standards, including CIDOC-CRM and LIDO. It therefore provides interfaces that are compatible with other database solutions and thus facilitates the exchange of data between professionals in the international arena.

To date, around 120,000 data sets have been digitised. Given the variety of available tools, inquiries can be pursued from many different thematic perspectives including, for example, on the conservation status, specific architectural features, ownership, etc..

This wealth of information on the pre-conflict status of important heritage buildings can be linked to the damage mapping and assessment that is currently being carried out as a sub-project of SHAP, thus providing a reference for necessary repair, restoration or reconstruction works.

Read more on the website of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project.

Further reference and resources

Date: 24. August 2018 | Last modified: 22. January 2021

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