The National Archives of Sri Lanka

Haris de Silva, in The Island, 18 December 2012**

ARCHIVESThe New Wing of the National Archives, constructed adjacent to its present building, down Philip Gunawardena Mawata, Colombo 7, will be declared open today, the 18th December, 2012, at 1000 hrs, by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.. It will provide some badly needed extra space for some of its activities.

What are state archives? Records created or received by any state institution during the course of conducting its legitimate business, and held by it as evidence of its activities, when transferred to the National Archives, become state archives.  Such records/archives provide legal validity at judicial inquiries and provide primary historical evidence for the country’s history. However, in respect of legal validity, it is a requirement that the records should have had unbroken custody in the office which created/received them. Such records when transferred to the National Archives, in terms of legal requirements, continue to have that unbroken legal custody, as they are considered to be  maintained in the National Archives as if they were in the offices of origin. However, if, by chance, continuous custody of such records had not been maintained in the offices of origin they will not have the required legal validity, although their historical importance will remain.

Our monarchical archives: It is unfortunate that there are no archives of the monarchical period, from the 3rd century BCE to 1815 CE, when, on the latter date, the monarchical period came to an end. The Royal archives would certainly have had their written records, in whatever material they would have been written. For instance, there would have been the authenticated documents or protocols of the thousands of inscriptions, copies of which would have been given to be indited on stone, written on gold or copper plates, and in a later period to be done on palm-leaf to be given as sannas or tudapath to the beneficiaries. But, unfortunately nothing of such archives are available today. Perhaps, they got destroyed during internecine warfare, foreign invasions and the ravages of time and climate. ‘archives’ whether ancient or modern, are unique documents or records, and once lost or destroyed are lost for ever.

The holdings at the National Archives: The National Archives holds the archives of the Dutch administration (1638/1640-1796), that of the British administration (1796-1948) and the transferred records of the present administration, since 1948.

The main responsibilities of the National Archives: The primary responsibility of the National Archives is to access the most important records of the state administration, for future use of the administration, such as to defend the state at national or international inquiries, to provide precedents from its past records for future administrators, to provide documentary evidence to the public as required by them, and to provide the primary sources for historical or other research. One of the most crucial and responsible activities of an archivist is to select what to preserve. The normal criteria in the world today, is to access about 3% to 5% of the total records of the state sector. There are a number of factors that has to be examined by a multi-disciplinary group before a decision is taken to access a particular group of records. It is to be noted that every dog-license or every gun-license in a state office will be useful for some researcher, but no Archives can cater to such needs: and hence, archivists all over the world stand to be criticized for their selection criteria, however serious and methodical they would have been in their selection processes.

However, there are also certain groups of records, for example, Cabinet Papers of the Cabinet Office, which will be accessed without selection, as they would also contain policy matters affecting the whole country. Another category of records are the records of an Inquiry Commission, which according to our Law has to be deposited with the Archives by its Secretary, three months after the submission of the report. Another group where the majority of the records, apart from ephemeral papers, need to be transferred are the records created in the office of a President. It is to be noted that in the USA when a President relinquishes his office, all the records, numbering many thousands, are immediately  transferred to the National Archives, where a large team of archivists and officials will sort them out, either for closure for periods of time to be made accessible for public scrutiny.

As for ministerial, departmental and institutional records they will undergo a selection process depending on the nature of their activities. In this process the recommendations provided by the creators of the records will be valuable, as they would have the basic information and would also know the intrinsic value of certain groups of records in their custody. In this exercise an important aspect is the time factor, when the primary evaluations should take place, and records considered as having permanent value are safely kept aside, until the final decisions are made by the archivists together with expert opinion as to their disposal by transfer or otherwise.

Lapses in the early administration: It is there that our early administration had faltered. Although our officers who took over or just continued from the British period, or rather from the State Council era (1931-1947), were the same officers who handled the administration at the very end of that period, they seem to have had little knowledge on the archival aspect of the records. For example, in countries like the United Kingdom and France, well established rules and regulations, regularly updated to suit the times are enforced by the highest authorities of the administration, as a requirement of national importance for state security and historical research. Hence, over the decades their administrations have become very responsible and sensitive about their responsibilities. They have become aware that a lapse on their part, say on some vital state aspect, could cost them not only their livelihood, but even their independence.

Unfortunately, such rules and regulations as far as archiving is concerned, were not available in 1948, and also well into the independence era. Some regulations regarding review, disposal and transfer, approved by the Ministry of Public Administration, the Treasury, the Auditor General and the National Archives, were Gazetted in the 1980’ by the National Archives, in terms of the National Archives Law of 1973. But it is still not strictly followed by many state sector offices.

‘Primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources: The concept of ‘primary sources’ and ‘secondary sources’ is found still to be vague among some officers, both at the top and at mid-level. Hence, sometimes it is said ‘we have sent the Administration Reports’ and takes it for granted, that they have met the archive requirements.

An administration report is a document prepared in an office to briefly state what that department or ministry or institution had done during a year. It is a document based on the available records and/or personal experience of the officer during that year. It is a useful document for a researcher to have a broad view of the activities of that office or institution. For a researcher or to answer a question in Parliament, or at a judicial inquiry in a court of law, or even at a domestic inquiry in an office, what would be required are the primary records generated on the particular subject. This point has been stressed at conferences of Government Agents, held during my period of office, as well as at all 5-day or one day seminars held at the Academy of Administrative Studies as well as at the ongoing series of lectures at the National Archives. Surprisingly, even historians, as evidenced by some recent publications in both Sinhala and English seem not to have grasped this vital point.

At the Public Records Office, now in Kew, Surrey, England, where all the records pertaining to the administration of their colonies are held, thousands of researchers visit the PRO to examine the  ‘primary records’ pertaining to the subject that is being researched. That is the most acceptable way to write a credible history. However, to compile a history where no written sources are available is a different matter.

Informing the public sector: The present administration of the National Archives, continues to hold five-day seminars and one day lectures to inform the mid-level and top level administrators of the public sector on the requirements of the Archives Law. They certainly seem to have had some effect, as they have been held for the last three or four decades. A new program started by the present administration to select the best kept record-rooms in the public sector, conducted on a district basis, is an ideal program, because it is from the record-rooms that records ultimately accrue to the National Archives. But I have no idea whether that program also deal with the most important aspects of evaluating records, review, setting apart of records initially considered as having permanent value, transmission of such information to the Archives, and procedures to be followed in the  disposal and transfer to the Archives, too, come under review at such examinations. Ultimately, efficient administration in that regard will also contribute to the most crucial aspect in maintaining the quality of archives at the National Archives.

No Archives in the world can have all the records created in the public sector –the exception being the archives of the President of the United States of America. Thus, in the ordinary course of events a large quantity of state records will not receive the status of being a part of the National Heritage. But proper procedures would have documented what records would have been otherwise disposed.

The new medium: Today, the archivists tasks have become more complicated with the entry of digital or electronic records. Their modus of review, accessing, holding, making them available for research, maintaining confidentiality, procurement of hardware and software to access generations old electronic records, the cost factor involved, etc. etc. are challenges that have to be faced by the modern archivists. Some western countries and countries like Malaysia are said to be quite advanced in handling this new media: Sri Lanka too is aware of all the complications, but it needs more technically knowledgeable and dedicated officers to carry out an effective program covering the entire public sector. It will be the responsibility of the government to work closely with the Archives, and provide the required staff, the finances and the top support, for them too to emerge as a commendable archives, at least in this South-West Asian sector of the Archive world.

** HARIS DE SILVA is a retired Director National Archives and a Honorary Member International Council on Archives (Paris)

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