Dr. Nadeera Rupesinghe, the new Director-General of the revamped National Archives of Sri Lanka, is determined to turn it into a user-friendly, world-class institution.
A scholar specializing in Dutch Period Studies and only the second woman Director General of the National Archives, she took time off from her busy schedule to show me around the spacious building.
It was a far cry from the hot, humid structure I frequented a decade ago. Much of it is now air-conditioned and the entrance area was cordoned off for repairs.
There is nothing inside which now looks neglected. In a country where, more often than not, neglect is the legacy of institutions and structures related to culture and heritage, this came as a pleasant surprise indeed.
The National Archives building, whose first wing was opened in 1976, is actually an impressive building, designed by architect Pani Tennekoon, whose reputation is not what it should be, perhaps because he worked for the Government Sector.
It is a very modern and graceful design and makes one think of Le Corbusier and the international style.
The interior is very spacious and accessible.
Dr Rupesinghe, a much-travelled scholar, maintains that Sri Lanka can be proud of its National Archives when compared to similar institutions in many parts of the world.
She notes too, that it is easily accessible to everyone, including foreigners, with a minimum of red tape, in contrast to archives in the Indian subcontinent, where scholars are sometimes required to get Police clearance.
Formerly a lecturer in history of science and technology at the Open University, she turned down a Senior Lecturer Post there and opted to take this position in August 2017.
As we walked along the spacious corridors, which overlook the spacious lobby, she showed me a series of portrait paintings of former Governors of the island, starting from the Dutch period till independence from Britain in 1948, and some of our national leaders since then.
These paintings are enigmatic. They are oils, and very few carry the artist’s signature. Most probably, they date from the latter part of the British Period. The surfaces of these portraits do not show any cracks, which happens to oils as they age. In that case, however, how the artist found out the likenesses of subjects from the Dutch period remains a mystery.
Portrait painting was big business in the Netherlands, when the Dutch ruled the coastal areas of this country. Unless the artist had access to family portraits of that period, the works must be from the imagination.
These may not be the work of a Dutch artist because the style doesn’t correspond to that period.
In fact, the Dutch portraits aren’t really very good because, though the artist has drawn the faces and figures competently, the hands often look amateurish.
I feel that the origin of these ‘Dutch Period’ paintings is just one of the many mysteries of the National Archives waiting to be deciphered.
There is no count of the number of publications stored in here. Instead, one speaks of kilometres – there are twenty-two kilometers of stored documents, and Dr. Nadeera says there is enough storage space for the next fifty years.
That she is a scholar fluent in Dutch has special relevance here because the concept of modern archives goes back to Dutch times and there are over 7,000 Dutch language volumes at the National Archives, and over two-thirds have been microfilmed.
The Dutch kept meticulous records everywhere they went, and trade and diplomacy meant that their different colonies were linked by this archival tradition.
For example, Indonesia, which the Dutch ruled as Batavia, has records relevant to Dutch-period Sri Lanka.
Dr Rupesinghe shows me one of the leather-bound volumes, called Thombu, in which they kept details of all important land transactions.
The curlicued handwriting in ink, though fading with time, is still quite distinct and one can marvel at both the quality of paper, the dedication and patience which went into this routine administrative task.
Two-thirds of the Dutch documents have been microfilmed.
We visit the air-conditioned reading room where scholars poring intently over parchment-like pages. Though the new archives, is a far cry from the old one, it is still acutely short of staff. It has 117 employees whereas the required number is 292.
Dr Rupesinghe assures me that this is due to red tape rather than lack of funding.
Another glaring deficit is the lack of Tamil staff. There are only two Tamil speaking employees, and this is a handicap especially during the surveys conducted by the National Archives throughout the island. About eighty such surveys are carried out annually, during which government ministries and other agencies are visited and their record keeping checked.
The National Archives is the official registrar of all books and newspapers published in Sri Lanka. Every printer in the country is required to send five copies of each printed publication to the National Archives.
"In an age of rapid digitisation, the National Archives maintains the old-fashioned tradition of keeping hard copies because, as Dr Rupesinghe points out, digitisation is an expensive process because digital storage systems and formats become obsolete very quickly, and the constant upgrading is a big financial strain "
In the past, one of these copies was acquired by the British Library. But this practice has now been stopped, and that copy is now sent to the University of Ruhuna instead.
This leads to the vital subject of record management.
Dr Rupesinghe says:
“We are responsible for taking care of a public document even before it is created, in order to ensure the integrity of that document and to ensure that in the final disposal action selected documents are transferred to the National Archives. It is in that context that we receive documents after twenty-five years or in some cases less from government institutions. But it is important to care for documents from the moment of creation, and not just when some documents that manage to survive or are salvaged are transferred to the archives and then they become archives.
“The term ‘archives’ refers to both the institution that holds the documents and the documents themselves. If they come to us as an afterthought, we often face an uphill task of meeting their conservation needs. In an ideal world, we should work towards being no difference between ‘records’ and ‘archives.’
“An artificial division has been created that does not facilitate proper custodianship of Government records. This aspect of record management has become especially important in Sri Lanka with the Right to Information Act. No. 12 of 2016, which has the potential to revolutionalise governance in this country. Freedom of information or right to information legislation, however, is ineffective if proper record management practices are not in place in all government institutions, if the information is not easily retrievable, or if it is lost.”
In this context, the National Archives holds training programmes for Government officials on the importance of record management.
Providing access to public records in a key responsibility of the National Archives.
It is common for archives to collaborate by exchanging copies of their collections. The National Archives is bound by law to either acquire originals or copies of archival collections of interest. Dr Rupesinghe has received sales offers by the British Pathe film company and the British Library, the former offering old documentary films from Sri Lanka from 1916 onwards, while the latter offered digitized copies of British East India Company documents, for sale by the company which carried out the digitisation.
“But these rights of use are sold at very high prices,” said Dr Rupesinghe.
“That represents one model of meeting the high demand for digitization in the archival world – of getting private companies to carry out the digitization and then awarding them the rights of resale.
“Another method, which we are trying to establish with the Hague Archives, is to mutually exchange digital collections relevant to the two institutions and to make such collections available worldwide to researchers on a non-profit basis.
"Another glaring deficit is the lack of Tamil staff. There are only two Tamil speaking employees, and this is a handicap especially during the surveys conducted by the National Archives throughout the island"
“The latter model facilitates more widespread research and encourages the exchange of knowledge and capacity building between archival institutions, an essential way forward of survival in the still emerging field of archival science and in meeting the increasing demands for archival and records management in a country.”
In an age of rapid digitisation, the National Archives maintains the old-fashioned tradition of keeping hard copies because, as Dr Rupesinghe points out, digitisation is an expensive process because digital storage systems and formats become obsolete very quickly, and the constant upgrading is a big financial strain.
That is why the National Archives prefers to maintain its microfilm process.
Visiting the studio and laboratory where the microfilming is done and the film is processed was like stepping back in time.
The black and white images are captured in the negative film, which comes in 100 ft cans, and the photography is done with two special cameras. The processing is done with a developing machine.
The section where books and newspapers are bound and pressed has equipment dating back to the early and mid-20th century.
Several government institutions such as the Government Press had similar machinery, but everything has been discarded and destroyed as updating and modernisation took place over the past two decades.
Dr Rupesinghe, on the contrary, believes some of this antique equipment should be preserved as museum pieces.
It is the contrast between the old and the new which makes the National Archives such a fascinating place today. The National Film, TV and Sound Archives was opened as part of the complex in 2014. While the TV and sound archives still doesn’t contain much, the film section as 274 Sri Lankan feature films handed over by the National Film Corporation as well documentaries. The feature films are mostly in colour and date from the 1980s. The older films are mostly in the hands of a few so-called ‘conservationists’ who have neither the knowledge nor the facilities to conserve them scientifically.
They should visit the temperature and humidity-controlled storage rooms of the archives, and hand over their collections for the benefit of the public domain.
The spacious lobby has been closed for renovation. When this is done, Dr Rupesinghe envisages a user-friendly space hosting public events, ensuring that the National Archives will not remain a cloistered, somewhat intimidating institution.