National Archives—preserving the past, reflecting the present, and planning for the future

A nation that does not know its past will not be able to fully understand its present nor visualize its future. This theme is one of several which emerge from the extensive research into the national archives of 198 countries between September 2017 and December 2018, conducted by 46 students and alumni of San José State University’s School of Information under the direction of Dr. Patricia C. Franks and Dr. Anthony Bernier.

Titled the International Directory of National Archives (, the project has as its goal the assembly of a global directory of national archives within almost 200 nations. The benefits of this research project are many, including revelations about the differences and commonalities in the mission and vision, size and scope of operations, external environments in which national archives may exist, laws which govern them, and resources allocated to them. The one constant, however, is the archivists’ attitude toward their work: the desire to acquire and preserve documents that reflect the past while visualizing a future—one that will increasingly incorporate digital technology to provide access to historical artifacts and in many but not all instances, current government records.

Begun in 2016, the research for the IDNA has been a collaborative effort that largely took advantage of the social power of the internet. The preliminary research was conducted by retrieving publicly available information from official websites and social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Research was also conducted using various databases, including those available through San Jose State University’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, and by contacting staff of the archives via email and posts on social media sites.

As of the end of 2017, at least 76 of the 198 archives (or equivalent institutions currently operating) had collaborated in the writing of an entry for their own institution.  Entries which have been written on the other 122 institutions will also be included in the Directory—albeit without institutional input. The information gathered for each entry includes contact information (e.g., address, phone, email, and director’s name); an introduction; a brief history of the archives; information about the archives today (e.g., mission and vision statement, functional responsibilities, service to government departments, physical and digital infrastructures); and current focus (e.g., information about public access, days and hours of operation, document order, delivery and duplication, and a spotlight on an object, building, or event of significance).

Of course, this information will quickly become outdated—some even before this book is released. However, the value in this work lies in its role as a “record” of the state of national archives at this point in time. It is our hope that if there is a second edition, the landscape will have changed for the better with not only more institutions verifying their entries but more countries supporting a national archive. This Directory can be used as a benchmark with which to evaluate progress (or inertia).

Equally important is the potential analytical value of the data gathered. The participants in the project can already see some trends emerging, including the shift from physical to digital preservation as well as access and the increase in the social reach of the archives into new communities of users. Digitization of analog records is one part of the process, but archives are also responsible for born-digital information.

Excerpts of four entries from the IDNA—still in publication by Rowman and Littlefield with a release date of mid-2018—illustrate different points on the archival continuum. Some institutions manage physical records exclusively, while others increasingly become valuable partners in digital information governance.


Digitization and Digital Access

  • Cameroon National Archives (est. 1952): The National Archives staff has not yet digitized any of their collections, although they are taking steps towards starting this process, beginning with an inventory of their materials and the acquisition of necessary technical equipment. Currently researchers do not have direct access to archival documents but may make a request to the Director. Personnel on duty will then locate and duplicate the documents (through scanning or digital photography) and provide them to the researcher on a USB device.
  • The National Archives of South Sudan (est. 2005): The collection covers over 100 years of history of southern Sudan at a regional and district level. The current focus is on protecting and digitizing archival material with an eye to the future when a new National Archives building will be in place. Approximately 60,000 pages of the collection have been digitized, but there is no a formal repository to make them publicly available.
  • Israel State Archives (est. 1949): In 2012 and 2013 the Cabinet passed two resolutions reformulating the goals of the archives to reflect the end of the use of paper by government agencies and to mandate the use of digital channels to create access to the documentation. As of September 2017, more than 66 million pages have been scanned from an estimated 500 million; almost 16 million are already accessible online. On average, an additional half million pages are scanned each week, and 100,000 new pages go online. The gap between scanned and online reflects the declassification backlog.
  • National Archives of Australia (est. 1983): The Australian Government takes a whole-of-government approach to digital information governance. As part of Digital Continuity 2020, the National Archives collaborates with agencies and key partners to develop advice, products and tools that support information governance, digital information management, and interoperable information systems and processes. The National Archives provides access to its collection by making information available to the public in digital format, developing improved digital access, providing services at all locations to enhance online services.


Although the approaches to digital access are different at various national archives across the globe, the goal seems to be largely the same: to act as the memory of a nation by collecting, preserving, and providing access to governmental records.

As for an “online” International Directory of National Archives, plans are not yet in place. However, once the print publication is released, time and energy can be refocused toward making this a reality.

Patricia C. Franks, PhD, CA, CRM, IGP

One thought on “National Archives—preserving the past, reflecting the present, and planning for the future

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: