Records in National Archives to be digitized, microfilmed

Walter Rodney Archives

By the end of this year the National Archives of Guyana, housed in the building named the Walter Rodney Archives, will have commenced digitizing their records, while also placing some on microfilm, acting archivist Nadia Carter said.

In an interview with the Sunday Stabroek at her Homestretch Avenue office Carter said that the project is being undertaken in phases and the public will not be able to access the information digitally until some time next year. It is being funded by a grant of US$25,000 from Unesco and this will go a far way in preserving records.

“It is a very costly project, we have to do it in phases; first purchase equipment then you train staff and then you wait and digitize it and then you have to make that information available to the public, which would be another step in the project,” Carter told this newspaper.

A similar project was embarked on in 2003 and the equipment was also given as a grant to the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport, but the cost of maintaining it was very high and Carter said this is the reason they have partners, and are working on the new project in phases so that it could be more sustainable.

She explained that the Unesco grant was given because they are “lucky” to have two sets of records on the Unesco world heritage list − Indian immigration and  a small collection of Dutch documents, which was included following a small project with the National Archives of the Netherlands.

“So as a part of that Unesco says it [is] favourable to support our work in terms of digitization and preserving documents,” she said.

According to the acting archivist eighty per cent of the documentation kept at their location is made up of colonial records from the Dutch and British, with most it ending around 1958, although they have a large newspaper collection which is ongoing. Other documents include the Official Gazette.

Carter explained that for records to be of archival value they should be older than 30 years, and  that from independence to now there is a process whereby records coming from a government agency have to appraised before they are sent to the archive.

“Appraised as in sorted; see what has historical value based on the office and the function… it is an extensive process,” Carter said, but when asked who does the appraisal she responded that there is not an active programme as such, but that is how the records should get to the archives.

Walter Rodney Archives
She said “other than the newspapers” they do not have any “extensive” information from independence, but there is a small collection which was donated by persons over the years which is all related to government.

When quizzed about the storage of the newspapers Carter said since 2008 they have moved to a better building with improved facilities, but historically they would have been housed in various buildings. At present to store the documents and newspapers they use basic preservation techniques such as brown paper and acid free boxes and try to keep the humidity down and dust out.

About the acid free boxes Carter said, they are “low tech but pretty effective and standard for archives.”

Carter explained that owing to costs the microfilm project in 2003 went defunct, and since then  the technology had moved on. However, there are some newspapers on microfilm, although she admitted it was not an extensive collection, but these can be viewed by the public.

“Newspapers are very important to historians because they give social commentary, while you have official documents, in the newspapers you would see the social commentary, the arguments who was for it, who was against it,” she said.

According to a brochure issued by the National Archives, they have the Daily Chronicle from 1819 to current (while it carried the same name it was not the same newspaper for the whole of that period) along with the Evening Post 1958-1973, the Daily Argosy 1880-1889, Royal Gazette 1816-1889, The Creole 1856-1882, The Colonist 1851-1883 and the Guyana Graphic 1946-1970.

Asked about whether the public is allowed to use the very old newspapers, Carter replied  newspapers of the earlier days had “better staying power than the current stuff because they were made from better paper… but we would have our staff check to see if they are very fragile and if it is accessible to the public.”

She said they have a catalogue of the holdings and they would point persons to that and “very fragile things we wouldn’t necessarily give to schoolchildren” as some things they would be able to access at the National Library and the University of Guyana library.

Carter described the archive as a repository for government records, while the office itself falls under the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. As part of the National Archives Act of 1982 it is stipulated that there has to be a National Archive advisory committee. They also subscribe to some international functions, such as facilitating the public undertaking research, access to information, and the management of government records − all of which are stated in the act.

She said the archive is important as the things that happen in terms of official government decisions and policies being made are “in our memory and we know the debates, we know the justifications but fifty years from now that would have disappeared from the current memory, but it would still be important…so that is why archives are important. They are there to preserve the memory as to why decisions were made, how they were made, the justifications…”

She pointed out that there were many persons who struggled for independence but they since would have died and now it is the records that actually tell what went on. “And archives also serve as a reminder so persons would not have to reinvent the wheel, so before you plan new projects you could always check back and see what was done how successful, how not successful and then build on that,” Carter said.

She said the present building is “somewhat purpose built with a few modifications” and that recently they had two trained staff members in library and information sciences, that has helped them to bring into play the “standardized archival practices and creation of a structured work programme and several archival policies including appraisal, accessioning, conservation, and management of electronic records.”

While this newspaper noticed air conditioners working in some parts of the building, those serving the area where the records are stored did not appear to be functioning. The agency is manned by ten staff members and she said they have a proposal to undertake the collection of current government records and they are actively working on the procedure and building a relationship to set that in place.

“We are working to leave it to the level of continuity so even if the staff is gone all the processes would still be there so that someone coming after would just be able to build up to standardized format, standardized policies…” Carter said.

They are also working with the National Archives of Netherlands to improve conservation and training in how to repair documents.
She said they also do training with government agencies in an effort to teach them to appreciate the value of government records, and they have been building relationships with them.

And when attempting to access information at the archive Carter said one must have a date because they do not organize records according to subject.

“We would have all the records from the colonial secretary’s office, governor’s office; however they came, that is how you have it. The Indian immigration records come from GRO, so you have a set of records that came from the general registrar office; we have transports and some other records that came from Deeds Registry Georgetown as well as Deeds Registry Berbice. So for us it is important to keep [them] as they came,” Carter said.

Unlike libraries, Carter said they do not get many visitors as those who use their services are professional researchers and may spend months looking at many documents. The archive still does work for schoolchildren, and their most popular searches are genealogical, as many people are looking for Indian immigrant ancestors. Many also look for earlier records of transports as well as newspapers.

Persons are encouraged to wash their hands before starting their work and to avoid using hand cream. They should not lick their fingers when turning pages and should avoid leaning on or touching the document, using a paper marker to mark a page. Also they have to use cotton gloves when handling photographs and hold them at the edges. Other rules include no eating, drinking and smoking in the building.

Apart from the newspapers the archive has 700 meters of textual material, and 10,000 printed items. Of the total holdings approximately 5% date from the 18th century, 55% from the 19th century and 40% from the 20th century. The Dutch collection is the oldest dating back to 1735.

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