The urgency of preserving our National Archives and history, By Tayo Agunbiade

The urgency of preserving our National Archives and history, By Tayo Agunbiade

National Archives of Nigeria, Ibadan.

…one thing is clear, it is time for our national archives to dump paper-based research and preservation methods and fully embrace technology. Digitisation of Nigeria’s historical records is long overdue. The dingy, poorly-lit and poorly-ventilated reference/search rooms are also in dire need of an overhaul.

The National Archives of Nigeria, which is a Department under the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, houses public records and historical information. Its headquarters is in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja; three zonal offices are located in Ibadan, Kaduna and Enugu; while branch offices can be found in several state capitals, such as Abeokuta and Calabar.

Over a period of two years and as recent as last March, I visited four offices of the organisation in Ibadan, Abeokuta, Kaduna and Enugu. As a historian and writer, I have a responsibility to share my experience, as well as highlight the parlous state of Nigeria’s archives.

The buildings hold the key to Nigeria’s colonial history. A typical office comprises reference/search rooms, record production rooms, the bindery, library, and repository, etc. Tons of catalogues and documents are stored on shelves, in files and boxes. To access a file and its documents, one has to comb through catalogue after catalogue of serial numbers and fill in forms to place orders for materials. The files and their documents hold different pieces of history and the contents range from conference reports, letters, memoranda, comments, telegrams to notices of meetings, proceedings of meetings, public notices, electoral announcements, etc.

A wide variety of the documentation offers thrilling insights into Nigeria’s past. Most of the letters are type-written and meticulously numbered; but there are also hand-written jottings on “Continuation Sheets.” Some of the correspondence typically begin with: “I am directed by the Governor…” and conclude with the author declaring: “I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Obedient Servant”!

Some of the content could be memoranda sent from the seat of government at the Nigerian Secretariat in Lagos to the various provinces. Indeed, from the available records, history on a variety of subjects and topics covering a period of almost one hundred years, can be pieced together.

I found some discussions to be fascinating, more so because they are still on-going in contemporary times. The contents provide deep insights into the mind-set of British colonial civil servants. According to one letter, dated May 1922, there was a debate on the employment of “African Lady Clerks – Question of Appointment in Civil Service.” A circular letter was despatched from the “Honourable, The Chief Secretary to the Government, Lagos” to the Southern Provinces, to gauge opinions.

…the process of research at the National Archives is time-consuming, laborious and tedious. The entire process, from the search room to the production of records is conducted manually. Researchers and workers alike are clearly overwhelmed by the stacks of paper-based records they have to work with and this affects productivity.

In his view, Officer L. Butterworth noted that, “African women get married, as a rule, at an early age; and I consider it a sine qua non that as soon as a woman clerk gets married, she should resign her appointment.” His colleague, D. J. Jardine, wrote:

“His Excellency does not consider that it is necessary to attempt to deal with the general question of the employment of West African women in the Nigerian civil Service in consequence of a solitary application….. there must surely be a good deal of scope for women of some education in the teaching profession in Nigeria.

These snippets provide clues into some relatively unknown aspects of our history and assist us in building a comprehensive picture of the subject at hand.

The National Archives also host shelf after shelf of bound copies of newspapers, some piled ceiling high. They date back to the 1940s and 50s and include the Daily Service, West African Pilot, Nigerian Spokesman, Nigerian Tribune, Southern Nigerian Defender, Nigerian Citizen and the Daily Times. More recent newspapers can be found as well. These include the Morning Post, Daily Sketch, Nigerian Statesman and Nigerian Observer. A collection of local language newspapers such as Gaskiya, Zuma, GbounGboun etc., are also available.

Each in its own way provides a rich historical account of news, opinions and editorials. Some views from the past actually sound familiar. A January 1949 editorial in the Daily Service lamented about what it called the “Ibadan Motor Traffic.”

People from all walks of life patronise the National Archives – scholars, lawyers, students, researchers, journalists and member of ruling houses from across Nigeria. Foreigners also regularly visit from Europe and America. Historical gems abound for scriptwriters and filmmakers.


Combing through piles of dusty boxes and files to retrieve material for clients increases the risk of mishandling already decomposing material. From what one observed, in some of the offices, returning used files and newspapers to their original shelves is also a problem. Hence, it was not unusual see piles of files and torn newspapers on the desks and office floors.

However, the process of research at the National Archives is time-consuming, laborious and tedious. The entire process, from the search room to the production of records is conducted manually. Researchers and workers alike are clearly overwhelmed by the stacks of paper-based records they have to work with and this affects productivity. Not all files can be found and there is no doubt that materials have been lost too. Worse is the fact records are gradually being lost. Yes, paper decomposes! Documents are frail, faded, torn and falling apart at the centre and edges, taking with them valuable information. Some have been nibbled by insects and other pests; others, as a result of the humidity, have disintegrated. Indeed, many of the pages of the early newspapers transform into powder on the slightest touch, no matter how carefully one tries to leaf through, taking with them information that forms part of our history and heritage. Those slightly more intact, bear holes and the information therein is incomplete. Photocopying fragile old-style broadsheets no longer makes any sense, as the pages so readily crumble on the machine. Nigeria’s primary sources of history are fast disappearing.

Combing through piles of dusty boxes and files to retrieve material for clients increases the risk of mishandling already decomposing material. From what one observed, in some of the offices, returning used files and newspapers to their original shelves is also a problem. Hence, it was not unusual see piles of files and torn newspapers on the desks and office floors. This may account for why researchers and scholars lament the loss of material. A British academic/author recalled how over many years, he looked for information on the man-leopard murders: “The file itself exists, but its empty,” he said to me.

The members of staff are not insensitive to the difficulties of the archives and agree that digitisation of records would foster efficiency and preservation. However, they point to the lack of funding from their supervising Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. This, they say, has stymied the research process, as well as the proficient production and conservation of records. Others believe the Archives Department should be reformed by an act of legislation to become an independent agency, so it can focus directly on some of its problems. They cite the National Commission on Museums and Monuments, the body empowered to “Collect, preserve, study and interpret the material evidence of the people of Nigeria and Nigerians in the Diaspora” as a template.

Whether it remains as a department under the Ministry or becomes an independent agency, one thing is clear, it is time for our national archives to dump paper-based research and preservation methods and fully embrace technology. Digitisation of Nigeria’s historical records is long overdue. The dingy, poorly-lit and poorly-ventilated reference/search rooms are also in dire need of an overhaul.

The Archives are a national treasure, as they contain our rich history and open windows to the past. We must do our utmost to preserve and honour them.

Tayo Agunbiade is the author of Emerging From the Margins: Women’s Experiences in Colonial and Contemporary Nigerian History.

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