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Friday June 27, 2008

More than bits of old paper

To National Archives of Malaysia (NAM) director-general Sidek Jamil, placing documents in an archive is like buying an insurance policy.

“Do you want to pay the monthly insurance fees and benefit from the policy when you meet with an accident one day?

“Or would you rather not pay anything now and regret later when you are lying on the sickbed?” he asked.

Before and after: A NAM employee showing how a document is restored.

The same goes with archiving. One would only feel the anxiety when an important document is missing and, to prevent that, keeping the documents in order is necessary.

Contrary to stereotypes, said Sidek, the documents kept at NAM are not junk.

“They are evidence which can protect the rights and interests of a nation and individuals,” Sidek said. Citing two stories as examples, Sidek explained the importance of the documents.

Welcome: NAM is open to the public.

“I had a colleague who was going through immigration records and chanced upon his father's name. He had never seen his father as the latter died when my colleague was young.

“He then made a copy of the photo attached to the document and showed it to his mother, who confirmed that it was his father,” he said.

Another example involved a deceased policeman and his pension.

Concentrating hard: The titles are hand-tooled onto the leather spines of books that have been rebound.

“His widow failed to obtain his pension, but she had with her a medal, which he had won during a shooting competition.

“We searched in the reports and found out that he was the champion of the said shooting competition.

“With the record, the widow finally proved that her late husband was a civil servant and she was entitled to receive his pension,” Sidek said.

“When the dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the sovereignty of Pulau Batu Puteh was thrust into the limelight, some questioned why NAM did not have the essential document – a letter from the British Governor to the Johor Temenggong, seeking permission to build the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pulau Batu Puteh.

“NAM was established on Dec 1, 1957, while the letter was written more than 100 years ago.

All set: An employee preparing the leather needed to rebind some of the books at the archive.

“Also, we cannot forget that our country went through the World War II, where many documents were destroyed by the British to prevent the Japanese from grasping the know-how to rule the land,” Sidek said.

For the record: Researchers also have access to microfilm at the archive. Delicate task: An employee preparing a document for preservation. Concentrating hard: The titles are hand-tooled onto the leather spines of books that have been rebound. All set: An employee preparing the leather needed to rebind some of the books at the archive.

He touched on the history of Malaya when Singapore – one of the three Straits Settlements – was the centre of British administration.

“The British Governor lived in Singapore and the letter is probably still there,” he said.

While many may frown upon the fact that we do not have the letter, Sidek preferred to see it as a blessing in disguise.

“Maybe this will teach Malaysians to keep documents properly,” he said.

To encourage archiving, Sidek plans to get Malaysians to start keeping track of their family histories and embark on a family archive.

“Some of the things we can do are conduct interviews with our family members, keep everyone's photos, record video and voice clips, and pass them on to future generations.”

Hopefully, this will nurture a habit among Malaysians to keep and preserve documents and they will bring this habit to the workplace,” he said.

Another strategy is to go through schools and encourage them to start an archive on the schools' history.

“I remember when I was young; there were no tables and chairs in the classrooms. All of us had to sit on the floor to attend classes.

“If such photos are kept, children nowadays can appreciate the comfortable environment they enjoy now,” Sidek said.

Among the most valuable documents in NAM are the Declaration of Independence and the correspondence of the late Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah (1882-1943), which has been recognised as world heritage by Unesco.

Nonetheless, Sidek is in the opinion that all documents are valuable in their own ways.

“Some are related to the country's boundaries while some hold information of the citizens' migration. The values of the documents depend on the needs, be it evidence, legal, social or administrative,” he said.

Naturally, NAM have only those which were passed to them by related departments and those bought from overseas.

“Unfortunately, not everyone understand it. People always tell us, 'you should have this and that', but we are not magicians,” he said.

According to the National Archives Act, public archives are made available to the public 25 years from the date of conclusion of the record.

The documents passed over to NAM increased multifold when subsidiaries were set up under the government.

Preserving the documents in the archive is serious business at NAM.

First of all, its buildings must be treated so that it is protected from termites.

“Our documents are stored in boxes so that they will be free of dust,” Sidek said.

“The environmental controls – temperature and humidity – are important. Usually, we keep the documents below 22°C and humidity between 40 and 50%.

“For films and CDs, the temperature would be even lower with the humidity about 40%,” he said.

Photographs, on the other hand, are kept in envelopes.

To further prolong the lives of the documents, NAM is equipped with a conservation lab in charge of document restoration.

“We throw away the acid contained in the paper. This process, called the deacidification, helps the paper last longer.

“We also strengthen the paper by adding tissue to it,” Sidek said.

Most of the restoration processes are reversible so that the documents can return to their original state.

“If we discover new conservation methods in the future, we can take away the extra layers added and preserve the documents using the new ways,” he explained.

M'sia plays host to archive congress

The 16th International Congress on Archives will be held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre from July 21 to 27.

“This is the second time this congress is being held outside Europe. The first time was in China,” Sidek said.

The theme of this congress is Archives, Governance and Development: Mapping Future Society.

Members of the public are welcome to take part in this congress.

Participant fee is RM2,000 per individual and RM1,000 for accompanying person.

For details, visit http://www.ccasia-inc.com/ica_home.htm.

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